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Dozens speak out against a new Erie County jail

An image of a small postcard-like document that reads in red and white text "NO NEW JAIL IN ERIE COUNTY". In the background is a darkened image of inside a jail cell.

If discussions had been quiet and low-key regarding a new jail for Erie County, the volume is now rising following a community forum at the Merriweather Library.

"We filled up the room and more," said forum moderator Gio Hernandez of Free the People Western New York inside the Dr. Eva M. Doyle Auditorium.

"There's 150 seats in this auditorium. We had the whole back room filled with people standing up."

A panel that included Erie County Legislators Howard Johnson, Jeanne Vinal, and Chair April Baskin was put together to help lead the discussion. The audience, though, soon found its own voice.

One participant raised a question of the financial viability of a new jail.

"It's being financed by future Black bodies who will go in there! How much money is projected to finance this jail from the bodies of incarcerated people?"

During his State of the County Address in April, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz raised the prospect of spending for a feasibility study for a new jail. Still, more than one attendee said they hadn't heard about it until recent days.

"We put a cry out to the community because the reality is that not enough of us knew about this new jail idea until a week ago, two weeks ago. Max," Hernandez said.

"So, when the people heard that the community was outraged and so they came out to voice their concerns."

Cost estimates for land acquisition and construction of a new jail have been as high as $250 million. Jerome Wright of #Haltsolitary believes the money can be better spent on other community needs despite his firsthand knowledge of the conditions at the Erie County Holding Center.

"I was in there with the rats and roaches. I was in there with the cold and in the summertime, with the walls sweating," Wright said. While admitting conditions would certainly improve in a new facility, his comment that an "old culture in a new building" would yield the same results drew a huge response from the audience.

A list was handed out containing the names of those who died inside the Holding Center from 2005-2022. Another audience member who identified himself as an attorney said he had three clients who attempted suicide in the facility.

"It's not the building," he said, suggesting staff members are a part of the problem.

The session ended with no consensus, but clearly, the topic of a new jail has touched a nerve inside the community.

"It is a start," one audience member said while exiting the library. "What do we do between the start and the end point, the journey is what I'm worried about."

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Jay joined Buffalo Toronto Public Media in 2008 and has been local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" ever since. In June, 2022, he was named one of the co-hosts of WBFO's "Buffalo, What's Next."

A graduate of St. Mary's of the Lake School, St. Francis High School and Buffalo State College, Jay has worked most of his professional career in Buffalo. Outside of public media, he continues in longstanding roles as the public address announcer for the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League and as play-by-play voice of Canisius College basketball.