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After inmate deaths, new Onondaga County jail oversight committee will launch this fall

Tom Magnarelli
Barrie Gewanter, executive director of the Onondaga County and Syracuse Commission on Human Rights and the independent jail oversight committtee.

The Onondaga County Legislature approved the creation of a jail oversight committee in January. The legislature appointed Barrie Gewanter to be the commission’s new executive director. Gewanter has been working as the director of the central New York chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union since 2003.

In 2012, the New York State Commission of Corrections found that Onondaga County sheriff’s deputies were at fault in the death of Raul Pinet Jr. while he was being held in custody. Pinet was being restrained by deputies for violently resisting. The commission called the death a homicide caused by asphyxia.

I think there would have been a much greater possibility that Raul would have survived that interaction.

No criminal charges were taken against the sheriff’s deputies and a lawsuit, filed by Pinet’s widow, was thrown out by a federal judge.  

As an activist, Barrie Gewanter fought for the creation of an independent jail oversight committee to review serious incidents like Pinet’s death. Gewanter said the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team did not follow the proper procedures for restraining a resisting inmate.    

“Those procedures were put into place specifically to prevent a positional asphyxia death and had they been followed, I think there would have been a much greater possibility that Raul would have survived that interaction,” Gewanter said.     

Gewanter said the jail oversight committee will help create learning opportunities to protect both the inmates and the officers.

“And that’s really going to be my approach in the jail, to try to look at what went right, what went wrong, are the policies adequate?" Gewanter asked. "Were they followed? If they’re not adequate, how do they need to be enhanced? Is there additional training that needs to happen? And then to make recommendations.”

It wasn't just Pinet's death that inspired the jail oversight committee. 21-year-old Chuniece Patterson died of a ruptured ectopic pregnancy in 2009 while she was in custody.

“If there is any legacy, to the tragedy of those two young people’s death, it is that in the future, there will be an independent review of serious incidents, a real objective look, both from the inside and the outside, as to whether or not there needs to be changes to policy procedures and training,” Gewanter said.

With the Human Rights Commission, Gewanter said she wants to expand diversity training beyond county employees to include the nonprofit and private sectors. Nine members of the jail oversight committee will be nominated this fall.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.