Erie County Reaches Accord with Justice Department In Inmate Suicide Case

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Authorities with the Department of Justice have reached an agreement with Erie County over improvements to be made at the Buffalo, New York Holding Center, where several inmates have committed suicide over the past several years.

The deal stems from a court case, United States v. Erie County, which alleges that the county has failed to protect inmate rights. The agreement must first be approved by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, who is overseeing the case, before it will have the force of a court order.

Five inmates in Erie County have killed themselves since 2008, and a sixth remains hospitalized after a recent suicide attempt. A report issued by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care in 2008 found that the cells in the Holding Center offered “multiple ways to facilitate committing suicide, including using the steel beds, wall plates that are lifted from the wall, handicapped bars, bars on windows, etc.”

As a result of the agreement, cells will undergo several modifications, including retrofitting of bunk bed platforms; installation of plexiglass in front of window bars; and replacing air vents with grates. The air vents were identified as facilitating suicide attempts as far back as 2004.

The county will also ensure training of corrections staff and more thorough suicide screening and prevention programs, and will hire a contractor to monitor compliance with the settlement. The modifications have already begun, and they are expected to be complete by June 1, 2011.

Called the “Stipulated Settlement Agreement and Order,” the pact does not completely settle the legal case, but does address the charges that the county has failed to protect its inmates from self-harm. The Justice Department is also alleging that the Erie County criminal justice system allows staff members to use excessive force and to ignore or incite fights; provides poor medical and mental health care; and tolerates unsanitary conditions.

Inmates have a higher likelihood than the general population to attempt suicide. Three of the men who recently took their own lives in Erie County were suffering withdrawal from narcotics, which has led to the implementation of a dormitory-style detoxification unit. Under the settlement, addiction and detoxification training would also be given to staff, and nurses would carefully monitor the condition of any inmate coming down off dangerous drugs.

One of the terms of the agreement was that the county not be obliged to admit constitutional violations, due to officials’ concern that if they were to admit such violations, Erie County would open itself up to a rash of inmate lawsuits.

 

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