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Accusations from behind bars

Susan M. Lindgren wasn't expecting luxury accommodations when she was arrested and taken to the Erie County Holding Center on a domestic charge in July.

But she also didn't expect to be denied her medication, or find out some inmates couldn't get toilet paper.

Ellen M. Rodo also was shocked by the way she was treated at the jail. There wasn't enough water pressure, she said, to clean her colostomy bag.

And 16-year-old Michelle D'Amico refused to sit on the floor or even lean against the walls of a holding cell where she was initially detained. The room, she said, was filthy and had a putrid smell.

"They treated us like animals in that holding pen," said another prisoner, Madelyn V. Cheatham. "There were about 16 of us in this tiny room, and I had to sleep on the floor, and it stunk of urine. It was hell."

These stories and others inmates recounted to The Buffalo News paint a picture of an Erie County Holding Center where basic humanity has been lost to overcrowded conditions, overworked guards in an understaffed facility, and lack of basic supplies due to budget cuts.

Jail officials deny inhumane treatment, and say while the holding center's supply budget has been cut, it does have adequate supplies of toilet paper and related items, and that medical concerns are dealt with promptly.

But the officials also acknowledge the county budget crisis has taken a toll on the holding center, where jail staff -- guards as well as maintenance crews and other workers -- has been cut.

"We can't get a plumber here to put a check valve on the dishwasher, and sometimes we have 230-degree scalding water backing up into toilets in some cells," Holding Center Superintendent Chief Michael A. Benson.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, meanwhile, suggests a simple alternative to people complaining about the facility:

"If you don't like the conditions here, live your life in such a way so you don't have to come here," he said. "The bottom line is jail is not a nice place."

The holding center, on Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo, is primarily for detaining people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or arraignment -- not people already convicted of crimes. Most of the concerns expressed recently involved the way detainees are treated when first arrested, while awaiting arraignment, and returning to court before being released or assigned to a cell.

Several defense attorneys whose clients had been at the holding center recently confirmed they also have heard complaints about the facility and said they worry that the holding center is sliding back to conditions in the 1990s.

"There's a shortage of deputies and some are working 16-hour shifts, and when you constantly work 60 to 80 hours a week, it may affect your ability to be nice," said Attorney Thomas J. Eoannou.

"I've heard complaints about no toilet paper, and linens and sheets not being changed, but my big concern is inmates getting their medicine," he added. "Mark my words, there will be lawsuits if these people aren't cared for.

"I've heard from both women and men inmates that they only pleaded guilty with the promise of time served and immediate release rather than continue pretrial detention under such abominable conditions," said Glenn E. Murray, one of the lawyers who sued the holding center in 1996.

> Conditions 'inhumane'

In 1996, an inmate jailed for writing bad checks was outraged by the holding center's conditions. Based on a lawsuit the man filed, U.S. Magistrate Leslie G. Foschio determined the Buffalo facility violated the constitutional rights of inmates by forcing them to sleep on the floor in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions. Foschio ordered improvements.

Attorneys added the current situation is particularly troubling because the holding center is primarily for people waiting to go to court -- people arrested and awaiting arraignment or trial -- not those convicted of crimes.

"The purpose of the jail is to detain, not punish," said Nan L. Haynes, another attorney who was involved in the 1996 lawsuit. "These conditions described arguably rise to a level of cruel and inhumane punishment for people not even convicted of a crime."

Sheriff Howard acknowledges that the holding area where inmates are kept following their arrests -- while awaiting arraignment -- reaches over capacity at times. A second holding area is being created to address the problem, he said.

He also acknowledged a staff shortage that results in guards working long hours.

Yet the staff was able to save an inmate trying to hang himself Friday night. A guard found the suspected burglar hanging in a cell, got him down and called a medical team that revived the inmate before he was sent to Buffalo General Hospital, where he was in critical condition.

About 575 inmates are confined at the Holding Center, which is staffed by 299 guards and 50 civilian employees. Staffing is down from the end of 2004, when there were 36 more full-time guards and 21 more civilian employees, as well as 17 additional part-time guards, according to the Sheriff's Department. The overall personnel budget was cut about $3.2 million, said Chief Brian Doyle.

Funding for supplies, medicine and food was also cut, and Benson said the jail is finding ways to operate at lower costs, but there are times he has sought donations of supplies or paid for soap out of his own pocket.

Still, Benson said the holding center has always had adequate supplies of toilet paper and feminine hygiene items. And he defended the medical care at the jail. Every incoming inmate is evaluated, and anyone requiring immediate medical assistance -- if the in-house nursing staff is unavailable -- is taken to Erie County Medical Center, he said.

"The nursing staff in this facility provides excellent medical care to the population and on many occasions this is the best medical care that some inmates ever get," Benson said. "We also spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on prescription medication."

> Inmates destroy facilities

Benson also defended his deputies and put much of the onus for problems at the holding center on inmates, whom he said sometimes destroy jail property and cause havoc.

Deputies guarding these holding cells say that the detainees, for example, often take rolls of toilet paper or their meals and shove them into the toilets to make them unusable.

But funding cuts, Benson acknowledges, make the situation worse. Toilets in two of the intake holding rooms have been broken for extended periods because the county laid off plumbers at his facility, he said, adding that the commodes were broken by inmates.

Nevertheless, Lindgren, Rodo, D'Amico, Cheatham, and other inmates interviewed by The Buffalo News say their experience made them question the humanity of their jailers and the criminal justice system.

Lindgren, 48, works in the Seneca Nation of Indians' downtown Buffalo office, providing food and other assistance to impoverished Senecas. She was arrested July 23 at her home on the Cattaraugus Reservation on a domestic charge involving her son's girlfriend. The case was eventually adjourned in contemplation of dismissal. It was Lindgren's first trip to the holding center.

Lindgren described her approximately 25 hours at the holding center as one of the worst days of her life.

She spoke of an inmate who begged jail guards for a sanitary napkin.

"On Sunday morning, a day later, they finally threw in a box of Kotex pads like you would throw dog biscuits at a dog," Lindgren said.

She also told of inmates forced to use slices of bread as toilet paper, and says she gave one woman two slices of bread from her lunch for that purpose.

"When we knocked on the window and asked for toilet paper, the guards would either yell at us, laugh or ignore us like we weren't even there," said Cheatham, 34, who was charged with trespass. She was convicted and sentenced to 45 days behind bars.

Lindgren also spoke of a lack of medical care at the jail. A diabetic, she says she had asked to bring her medicine and a machine to test her blood sugar level when a deputy came to arrest her. The deputy, she said, told her medical care is available at the holding center.

But when she arrived, Lindgren said, she was unable to receive medication. Arrangements were made for Lindgren to see a doctor the following day after her court appearance, but the judge in her case had released her, Benson said.

Rodo, another woman arrested July 23 and placed in the same holding cell as Lindgren and Cheatham, also complained of a lack of medical care. A Hamburg resident, she was arrested in Buffalo on a disorderly conduct charge that was adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.

"There was very, very little water pressure, and I couldn't rinse out my [colostomy] bag," said Rodo, 46. "I need to rinse the bag out about three times a day. When I told them the water pressure was low, they said 'Oh well.' "

She also said she was denied access to medication to prevent blood clots and anxiety.

"I was getting severe anxiety attacks, and I couldn't sleep," she said.

> Floors are filthy

Rodo and the other women, including teenager Michelle D'Amico, also complained of filth and stench in the holding center. Trash overflowed from garbage cans and rooms reeked of urine, they said. Some women said they were forced to sit and sleep on the floor. Others complained of unruliness.

"The room stunk," D'Amico said of the intake room at the jail. Even worse, she said, was another room where inmates are taken before being brought to Buffalo City Court.

"There's feces on the floor in that room," she said.

A junior at Cleveland Hill High School, D'Amico, 16, was arrested July 23, accused of attacking her father in their Cheektowaga home. She pleaded to a reduced charge of harassment and was sentenced to time served.

"The holding center is just a place where people are held until they get justice in court," Lindgren said. "So why is the level of inhumanity and mistreatment so bad there? Why are they treating people like they're guilty already?

"Even good people can find themselves in trouble" and wind up in a jail, she said.

"I'm sorry that they had a bad experience here," Benson responded, and added: "but the men and women who work here I know do an outstanding job in dealing with a variety of inmates and keeping the area as clean as possible. . There is no inhumanity here."


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