New York State Commission of Correction

Contact: Janine Kava, Press Office
New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services
(518) 457-8828

For immediate release: May 19, 2010


Note: Thomas A. Beilein, chairman of the New York State Commission of Correction, will be available to discuss the report today at 12:30 p.m.

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State Accuses Erie County Sheriff, Staff of “Gross Negligence and Incompetence”
Report says officials’ violation of security rules allowed inmate to escape

The New York State Commission of Correction today accused  Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and the management of the Erie County Holding Center of “gross negligence and incompetence” in connection with the October 2009 escape of a violent inmate who was a known security risk. It found that the escape of Brian Collins was a “direct consequence of the failure of the Erie County Sheriff and his senior managers to implement and follow fundamental correctional and custody practices … and by a failure by Sheriff’s Office managers to require staff’s compliance with vital security regulations and fundamental physical security and supervision practices.”

Commission Chairman Thomas A. Beilein said: “The Commission’s investigation and report shows that the Sheriff and county, though an inability or unwillingness to abide by the most basic security precautions, provided a three-time convicted felon with the means and opportunity to escape, posing an obvious threat to the public safety.”

Chairman Beilein said the escape of inmate Collins, who was missing for several hours before he surrendered on the roof of the facility, was “entirely preventable,” noting that the report concludes the escape was the “culmination of chronic administrative, managerial and supervisory failures of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office that have been repeatedly brought to the attention of the Sheriff by the staff of the Commission during routine evaluations of the facility.”

According to the Commission’s investigation, the escape occurred as follows:

  • Inmate Collins, who was supposed to be under especially stringent security precautions and constant supervision because of his prior disciplinary history and known security threat (one of the charges for which he was incarcerated was second-degree escape), obtained a piece of metal with which he was able to prevent his cell door from locking.
  • Since Collins’ cell did not lock – and since officers who were supposed to supervise him were not supervising him –  the inmate was able to leave his cell.  He then stole a facility-issued two-way radio that a deputy had unattended and unsecured in a des in the housing unit
  • Collins used a desk telephone at an unstaffed post to call the Central Control Room and request that personnel there unlock the door to the outside recreation area, which they did without verifying the identity of the requester.
  • Since the door to the housing unit was propped open, in violation of state regulations, Collins was able to leave the area in which his cell was located and get to the outside recreation area where he had persuaded an employee to unlock the door.
  • Collins used a chair that was left in a recreation area to hoist himself atop a basketball backboard and, from there, climbed through a gap in the roof beams to gain access to the roof. However, Collins could go no further – fortunately, there were no nearby roofs to which he could jump or gutters or fire escapes which he could climb down -- and eventually negotiated his surrender.

“It remained abundantly clear to the executives, managers and staff of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office that Collins was an inordinately high escape risk, a danger to the facility and its staff and to the public,” according to the report. “Collins had been discovered to persistently attempt to make and/or acquire escape and/or weapons paraphernalia and had been observed and reported to have engaged in surveying or ‘casing’ the security architecture of the facility. To have provided such an obviously high-risk prisoner with both the means and opportunity to escape constitutes gross negligence and incompetence on the part of the executive leadership and management of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and demonstrates its ultimate failure as a governmental public protection organization.”

Chairman Beilein noted that every error that led to Collins’ escape – from his obtaining contraband that he used to render the lock on his cell inoperable to his ultimate flight to the roof – resulted from a either “utter indifference to standard security protocols or a flat-out refusal to abide by state regulations even after they had been repeatedly pointed out to county officials.” He said the Commission has ordered Erie County to begin complying with the law, and is also recommending extensive training for the staff.

The full report is available on the Commission’s website at

The New York State Commission of Correction is an independent regulatory and oversight agency that oversees the operations and management of state and local correctional facilities. Its three members are appointed by the Governor to statutory terms with the advice and consent of the New York State Senate. The current members of the Commission are: Chairman Beilein, who also serves as chief executive officer; Daniel L. Stewart, who chairs the Citizens Policy and Complaint Review Council; and Dr. Phyllis Harrison-Ross, M.D., who chairs the Medical Review Board.