The microwave boiled over: What led to inmate revolt at NY prison
Sources said they saw the powder keg taking shape after a microwave was removed from the unit
By Matthew Spina
The Buffalo News, N.Y.
ALDEN, N.Y. — The catalyst for Monday evening's inmate revolt at the Erie County Correctional Facility was a microwave oven.
Inmates in the prison's Delta Unit relied on it to warm the foods they could buy from vending machines. But it was taken away a couple of weeks ago because one of the inmates had broken off a piece of the device to make a shank, sources inside the prison, including an official for the union representing corrections officers, told The Buffalo News.
The shank had been recovered, however, and other inmates filed grievances seeking the microwave's return. But on Monday evening, the appliance was still off-limits.
"It just went on for too long, and the situation became more volatile," said Marc Priore, president of the CSEA's corrections unit, which represents officers at the Correctional Facility in Alden. "Thank God none of my members got hurt."
He said his union membership has lost faith in the Correctional Facility's leadership.
Sheriff Timothy B. Howard's team said that around 5:30 p.m. Monday, about 38 of the unit's 42 inmates defied an order to lock in to their cells. A "quick entry team" of officers formed to retake the unit, but the inmates had barricaded themselves inside.
The prison's commanders decided to wait the inmates out. They continued to announce over the loudspeaker the order to lock-in, the Sheriff's Office said. Around 9:45 p.m., the revolting inmates headed to their cells, the county officials said. No one was injured.
"The inmates demanded the return of a microwave oven after the administrators removed the nonrequired appliance about a week and a half ago," said Howard's undersheriff, John W. Greenan, who was among the high-ranking officials who responded to the prison Monday night.
He acknowledged the microwave was removed because of its potential to provide materials for homemade weapons. Defending the decision to withhold the microwave, Greenan said the prison kitchen continued offering inmates three meals a day, and the vending machines also offered items that did not require heating.
Other sources within the county's Jail Management Division said they saw the powder keg taking shape.
One, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said the prison meals lack quantity and quality, so inmates supplement their intake with vending machine foods. Many of those foods need a microwave, he said.
"We understood why they did it to begin with," the CSEA's Priore said of the administration's decision to remove the microwave. But the unit had been thoroughly searched, and every Delta Unit inmate was made to pay the price for the one who had made a shank, he said.
All this comes even though jail populations in Erie and across the state are down because of New York's landmark bail reform law. With 311 inmates on Monday, the Correctional Facility was running at 40% of its capacity. The Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo was at 61% of capacity with 392 inmates.
Local jails now are populated by defendants whose crimes were so serious they either could not make bail and must await the outcome of their cases, and inmates serving sentences.
Then there's Covid-19. Last year and earlier this year, the Correctional Facility reported incidents where windows were broken, individual inmates refused to return to their cells and cells were flooded to protest lockdowns installed in some units as precautions from the virus.
One afternoon in January, for example, officers saw water rushing from an inmate's cell and down the stairway that led to it. "You all made me do this ...," the inmate yelled, "keeping me locked in," according to the county's report to the state agency.
The Sheriff's Office said preliminary notification of Monday's event was sent off to the State Commission of Correction, the agency that regulates New York's local jails and wants to know about inmate disturbances, among other things.
The inmates who rebelled, some of whom kept their faces hidden with shirts and towels, face administrative action, the Sheriff's Office said. And it said it will conduct its own investigation of the matter.
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