This blog will be used to keep citizens informed of the current prison issues we are fighting and will be kept updated by the members of the Erie County Prisoners Rights Coalition. 
On Aug. 5, 2009, we stood on the corner of Delaware Avenue and Church Street, in front of the Erie County Holding Center, in protest for the first time. Calling ourselves the Buffalo Prison Abuse Project, about a dozen of us carried signs protesting the jail management’s desire to keep Department of Justice investigators out of the Holding Center.

We stood on that corner, determined to be a voice for the voiceless, chanting: “Prisoners are people, too; it could be me or you!” and “No excuse for prisoner abuse!” Men’s voices from inside thanked us and chanted with us. A brief meeting followed that first standout and we agreed to do it again—and again and again—every Wednesday thereafter, between 5 and 6 p. m. In January, we changed our name to better reflect our mission: Erie County Prisoners’ Rights Coalition.

Through sun, wind, rain and snow — and too many suicides — our core group of about 10 people ballooned to a high of 20 and dwindled to a low of 2. No matter the numbers, we have stood steadfast, determined to keep issues of alleged jailhouse abuse on the front burner. These ugly allegations of abuse are not new. They have been a fact of life for decades.

Current and former detainees say, “I would tell what I know, but who would believe me?” Current and former staff say, “I would tell what I know, but I might lose my job.” Former and current deputies say, “I would tell what I know, but there’s a thin, blue line that I had better not cross.” Fear is a horrifying and crippling thing that has an unquestionable stranglehold on all of them.

Every day I wonder if there will ever be a huge public outcry about the people whose lives have been lost or damaged in our downtown county jail. I wonder, too, if there will ever be a public outcry about taxpayer dollars being spent on lawsuits that could have been avoided if humane and professional service had been rendered.

I have been told that my wondering is naive and pointless. There are people who actually benefit from the ugliness on the inside, so the status quo must be maintained. Every day I wonder if someone will confirm or refute my belief that every suicide was not, in fact, a suicide. Every day I wonder, in my naivete, when someone in power will come forward and say, “Power be damned; I will tell the truth.”

For more than a year, I have been waiting for our ranks on that corner to grow. We stand there every week, believing that we are no different from the detainees on the inside. We understand that any one of us could be on the outside today and confined inside the Erie County Holding Center tomorrow.

This happens more than we want to believe, but it’s a reality that we cannot deny. We cannot separate ourselves from our sisters and brothers on the inside, whom some view as criminals and nothing more. It’s scary for them to think that we are more alike than we are different.

Here we are, 14 months later, still standing and believing that there is some good in everyone, and together we can change things for the better if we would simply acknowledge that everyone is not blessed with privilege and opportunity. There really is no liberty and justice for all.

The status quo is working for some, but the end result is too many haves and way too many have-nots.

So here I am—here we are — still standing.

Recent law suits filed by the U. S. Justice Department and the state attorney general have made it clear that the Erie County Holding Center needs greater oversight and transparency in its treatment of prisoners. Advocates, community members and even deputies from the Holding Center, itself, have expressed disappointment at the response to allegations of prisoner mistreatment. The stonewalling of current investigations has undermined the community’s trust in the ability of public officials to act in the best interest of prisoners.

In order to restore confidence, we need a means by which the community can see into our prisons, judge the practices we have engaged in there and call for the right kind of change as necessary. A community advisory board would ensure that workers, inmates and our community at large can all say that our justice system truly promotes justice.

Erie County Legislator Christina Bove has introduced a local law establishing such a board. A closer examination, however, reveals that the board proposed by Bove gives no direct representation to members of the community. Instead, all members would be appointed by county officials with no clear inclusion of prisoner advocates, medical practitioners or those who work in the prison.

The Erie County Prisoner’s Rights Coalition has put forward an alternate proposal for a board composed of community leaders who would work with the county to oversee our prisons with some limited investigatory powers. It’s this kind of real oversight that is now necessary. Prisoner advocates, faith-based leaders and local media personalities have all called the county’s handling of the situation a blemish on our community. It’s time for the people of Erie County to take the lead in changing its course.

Any community advisory board must be able to freely represent the public good and not be just another opportunity for county officials to trade favors and hand out political appointments in the name of public service.

Bove has argued that community involvement would only stall the implementation of an advisory board, despite the fact that her local law would not take effect until January. Although the situation at the Holding Center is obviously time sensitive, we cannot afford to lose the opportunity to open the process for real community involvement for fear that another bureaucratic layer without teeth or independence would only allow for the circumstances at the Holding Center to persist.

As this debate moves forward, it’s critical to the future of Erie County’s prison system that the voices of our community are heard.

A public hearing on the local law has been scheduled for 5 p. m. May 18 in Old County Hall, 95 Franklin St., fourth floor, legislative chambers.

The Rev. Eugene Pierce was deputy superintendent of the Alden Correctional Facility from 1984 to 1997.