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Fatal injury to Holding Center inmate requires a thorough state investigation

It is indeed a good thing that the State Commission of Correction is going to investigate the death of India T. Cummings, who died three weeks after entering the Erie County Holding Center.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and his subordinates are not releasing many details, but Cummings’ lawyer and family are determined to get to the bottom of a tragic situation. This, unfortunately, is not the first death of a Holding Center inmate, making the search for answers all the more urgent.

Cummings was arrested a few weeks ago following a string of events that her family attributed to, in part, synthetic marijuana known as K2. It can trigger hallucinations, agitation and violent behavior. The News reported her landlord saying that on Feb. 1, Cummings wanted “desperately” to return to her hometown of Rochester. When she couldn’t find a ride, according to Lackawanna police, she punched a motorist and dragged him out of his car. She led officers on a chase, ending once her car struck three vehicles and a school bus.

Two days after she was jailed on $15,000 bail, she went to the Holding Center infirmary for reasons not specified in a Sheriff’s Office report. She argued with the medical staff and was denied treatment, and she also punched a jail deputy returning her to her cell. The female deputy suffered a concussion.

The following day, Feb. 4, she was examined at Erie County Medical Center for “a possible broken bone,” according to another report. She struggled with deputies placing her into the patrol car for the drive back to the Holding Center. Her mother and family members who tried to visit her at the Holding Center were told she wasn’t accepting visitors.

On Feb. 17 the family received the devastating news that she was on life support in the hospital. A sheriff’s official told them Cummings had banged her head against a wall and gone into cardiac arrest. The Sheriff’s Office had little to say publicly, noting only that Cummings had suffered a “medical event.”

Among the questions to be answered is whether Cummings had been placed in a unit for mentally ill or emotionally disturbed inmates. If not, why not? And if she was, why did she end up dead?

Holding Center personnel properly notified the Commission of Correction that the inmate was admitted to a hospital. Holding Center officials then got a court order releasing Cummings from the Holding Center, meaning that, officially at least, her death was not an in-custody death. Later, jail personnel told the state agency that Cummings had died, although they weren’t required to do so because she was no longer an inmate.

In 2009, after a series of inmate deaths, the U.S. Justice Department sued the Erie County sheriff and other top county officials, accusing them of failing to protect inmates. Erie County settled the case and agreed to a host of improvements to the jail’s health care and mental health care, and agreed to have outside monitors inspect progress.

The county’s obligation to keep citizens safe extends to inmates, even disruptive ones. Citizens have a right to know whether that obligation is being met. The state investigation will tell whether further action is needed.