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Lawsuit filed in death of Holding Center inmate

The family of an inmate who died 20 days after entering the Erie County Holding Center last year has filed a widely anticipated lawsuit against Erie County, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and the City of Lackawanna, where police arrested her in February 2016.

Lawyers for Tawana R. Wyatt, mother of the late India Cummings, name 11 defendants in alleging that jail officials and medical professionals failed to properly care for Cummings, who was 27 years old when rushed from her cell to Buffalo General Medical Center for an unspecified "medical event" on Feb. 17, 2016. She was pronounced dead four days later, after being transferred to Erie County Medical Center.

The pathologist who conducted the autopsy for the county Medical Examiner's Office could not specify a cause for her death but suggested a number of factors. Included was the muscle and tissue damage, related to a broken arm, that brought on a potentially fatal condition known as rhabdomyolysis.

But the pathologist, Dr. Scott F. LaPoint, also could not say if Cummings suffered the broken arm in a car accident that preceded her arrest, or in struggles with jailers or arresting officers. As a result, he could not rule the matter a homicide – a death at the hands of others.

Throughout the controversy caused by Cummings' death, Erie County officials have declined to comment because of the backdrop of legal action.

Mysteries surround sudden death of Erie County Holding Center inmate

In the complaint, filed in State Supreme Court, lawyers for Cummings' mother say the defendants deprived Cummings of medical treatment, inflicted physical injuries, deprived her of food and fluids and failed to protect her. One of the lawyers, Matthew Albert of Buffalo, has said Cummings was severely dehydrated and her organs were failing when she arrived at Buffalo General.

The State Commission of Correction also is investigating Cummings' death, but the agency can take months or years to produce a report.

Cummings was engaged in self-injuring behavior in the run-up to her death. Lackawanna police said they arrested her Feb. 1 after she carjacked and then crashed a vehicle in an attempt to return to her hometown of Rochester. Cummings’ landlord, her neighbors and her godmother linked her behavior to her use of synthetic marijuana, officials said.

Two days after Cummings was jailed on $15,000 bail, she was taken to the Holding Center infirmary for reasons not specified in a Sheriff’s Office report. While there, she argued with the medical staff and punched a jail deputy returning her to her cell, according to the report. The female deputy keeled over with a concussion as several deputies were called to subdue the inmate.

The next day, Feb. 4, 2016, Cummings was examined at ECMC for “a possible broken bone,” according to another report. But records indicate she struggled with deputies placing her into the patrol car for the drive back to the Holding Center. Both episodes led to more charges against her.

Inmates confined near Cummings gave Albert, the family attorney, depositions saying she wasn’t eating and would bang her head against the bars of her cell.

On Feb. 17, a sheriff’s investigator called Cummings’ mother to tell her that her daughter was on life support in Buffalo General. The mother was told that Cummings had been banging her head and went into cardiac arrest. Cummings’ vital signs flatlined the following Sunday.

Cause of death of Holding Center inmate still a mystery

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