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CRIPA Investigation Finds “Woefully Inadequate” Conditions in Erie County, NY Jails; Lawsuits Filed

An investigation conducted by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice uncovered significant civil rights violations at two New York detention facilities – the Erie County Holding Center (ECHC) and the Erie County Correctional Facility (ECCF), which house both pre-trial detainees and sentenced prisoners.

The investigation was initiated on November 13, 2007 pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997, following numerous complaints from state agencies and prisoners who had experienced the violations first-hand. Although the initial focus of the probe concerned issues related to medical care, mental health care and protection from harm, federal officials soon widened the investigation to include environmental and sanitary conditions at the two jails.

The inherent difficulty of such a complex investigation was compounded by the uncooperative attitude of Erie County officials, who denied investigators access to the detention facilities, staff and prisoners. CRIPA investigators noted that “the County’s denial of our request for access to Erie County inmates, even during regular visiting hours, is unreasonable and devoid of any legal or penological support. Prisoners have a First Amendment right to speak with government representatives about the conditions of their confinement and the County has no legitimate penological basis to deny the inmates ac-cess to United States government representatives.”

In December 2008, with the assistance of the U.S. Marshals and various New York state prisons, investigators were able to communicate with current and recently-transferred ECHC prisoners. Following those interviews, Erie County officials conducted videotaped interviews with some of the same prisoners in an attempt to discover what they had told federal investigators. The investigators noted that “such interviews could be construed as retaliation, which is unlawful under CRIPA.”

Protection from harm is a basic right for both sentenced prisoners and pre-trial detainees, safeguarded by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, respectively. Even so, the CRIPA investigation into conditions at ECHC and ECCF found numerous violations of prisoners’ right to personal safety. Not only were Erie County prisoners subjected to excessive or unnecessary use of force by guards, there was also a high number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults.

Many of those assaults were allegedly instigated by jail guards who used “pet” prisoners to punish other prisoners. In some cases guards revealed that detainees had been arrested for sex offenses, which placed them at risk of being at-tacked. Investigators also learned about what was euphemistically known as “elevator rides,” which involved deputies tak-ing a handcuffed prisoner to an isolated elevator not equipped with security cameras, and then violently assaulting him.

Other serious deficiencies were found by CRIPA investigators in the areas of medical and mental health care, policies and procedures, use of force reporting, suicide prevention, prisoner supervision, classification, sexual misconduct, grievance procedures, and sanitation and environmental conditions, among others. In short, just about every aspect related to the safe, secure and efficient management of ECHC and ECCF was discovered to be lacking. CRIPA investigators recommended a lengthy list of remedial measures to bring Erie County’s jails into compliance with minimal constitutional standards.

Investigators found that many, if not most, of the problems at ECHC and ECCF could be solved by the development, implementation and enforcement of appropriate policies and procedures. Sufficient staffing and proper training of security and medical staff also would have a positive impact on current jail operations. As to the problems with sanitation and environmental conditions, prompt and proper maintenance, including regular inspections and documentation of repairs, would resolve those issues. The spread of infectious diseases could be curtailed by adopting a more organized and controlled procedure for washing and delivering prisoners’ laundry and bedding.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King notified Erie County Executive Chris Collins of the deplorable conditions and civil rights violations found by CRIPA investigators, and the recommendations for remedying those problems, in a 50-page letter dated July 15, 2009. The letter served not only as an offer of assistance and concern, but also as a last resort prior to a lawsuit being filed to protect the constitutional rights of prisoners in Erie County detention facilities.

King described many disturbing examples of civil rights violations at ECHC and ECCF, including a number of cases where prisoners were abused by guards – such as an August 2007 incident in which deputies hit a pregnant prisoner in the face and kneed her in the side of her abdomen. The guards reportedly said they thought she was fat, not pregnant. The prisoner lost her two front teeth. In another incident, an ECCF detainee died due to a stoke in March 2007 after guards slammed his head against a wall and then denied his requests for medical attention. King stated that investigators had found a “pattern of serious harm to inmates, including death.”

Despite the litany of problems identified by CRIPA investigators, Erie County apparently didn’t get the message that King was trying to convey, and continued its practice of stonewalling and non-cooperation. County Attorney Cheryl A. Green, who had refused to let investigators into ECHC and ECCF without county supervision, issued a 37-page reply that refuted many of the findings cited in King’s letter.

“The law is clear that prisoners cannot expect, and the county is not expected to provide the amenities, conveniences and services of a good hotel,” Green wrote, evidently not understanding that the provision of basic necessities and prevention of civil rights violations is far removed from supplying prisoners with a comfy hotel stay.

Unsatisfied with this response, the U.S. Dept. of Justice filed suit against Erie County officials on September 30, 2009. The lawsuit includes claims related to most of the deficiencies found by CRIPA investigators concerning excessive use of force by guards, poor medical care, insufficient suicide prevention procedures, failure to protect prisoners from harm and an inadequate classification system, among others. See: United States v. Erie County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. NY), Case No. 09-cv-00849.

County Executive Chris Collins and Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard called the lawsuit frivolous. Howard went even further, saying “These liberal bureaucrats have relied on dishonest means and unfounded allegations made by prisoners to advance their political agenda.” Howard, a Republican, blamed Democrats who wanted to embarrass him; he was running for re-election and the CRIPA suit was filed just five weeks before voting day.

However, the Department of Justice isn’t the only government agency suing Erie County over deficiencies in its detention centers. On September 22, 2009, the New York Commission of Correction filed suit against Sheriff Howard to require him to comply with state rules governing operations at ECHC and to “operate [the facility] in a safe, stable and humane man-ner, as required by law.” Previously, the Commission had called medical care at ECHC “negligent and incompetent.” See: New York State Commission of Correction v. Howard, New York Supreme Court, County of Erie, Case No. 2009-011216.

Although the Commission had issued variances to accommodate regulatory lapses by Erie County, the county re-fused to fix the problems. “Despite our repeated efforts to assist, Erie County has persistently violated regulations and neglected or refused to take necessary remedial action,” said Commission Chairman Thomas A. Beilein.

Further, a nonpartisan group, the League of Women Voters of Buffalo/Niagara, which had studied conditions at Erie County’s detention facilities, agreed there were major deficiencies that made legal action “unfortunate but necessary.” For the past five years the League has analyzed studies of Erie County jails and interviewed dozens of female prisoners after they were released. The League found significant problems in the areas of neglect and abuse, deficient prisoner release plans and sentencing alternatives, and medical and mental health treatment.

In 2008, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care criticized Erie County’s practice of placing suicidal prisoners in unsafe cells that provided opportunities for self-harm, such as attachment points for hanging themselves. CRIPA investigators noted that since 2003, at least 23 prisoners at ECHC have attempted or committed suicide.

In spite of the problems identified by the U.S. Department of Justice, the New York Commission of Correction and in-dependent agencies, Erie County apparently wants to take its chances in court rather than remedy inadequate and dangerous conditions at ECHC and ECCF. PLN will report the outcome of the federal and state lawsuits.

Sources: Letter from AAAG Loretta King to County Executive Chris Collins, dated July 15, 2009; Buffalo News;

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