Erie County's chief legal officer has denied allegations that the U.S. Department of Justice made in a blistering, 50-page report on the county's jails and accused federal investigators of becoming a prisoners' advocacy group.
County Attorney Cheryl A. Green, who has refused to allow federal investigators into the Erie County Holding Center and Erie County Correctional Facility without county supervision, said the county provides constitutional standards in its jails.
"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 in a 37-page reply to the federal government.
Green, with the backing of County Executive Chris Collins, ended any cooperation in the federal investigation on June 16, 2008, including inspection of the jails.
She charged in her letter that, after the cooperation ended, the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division concocted a ruse with the U.S. Marshal's service to move prisoners out of the facilities so they could be interviewed.
"As an attorney," Green said in an interview, "you cannot engage in this type of deceitful fraudulent behavior to gather information that is not accessible to you in the first instance."
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on Green's report.
Green said that she and her staff, along with jail officials, had combed through thousands of files looking for the examples that federal investigators cited of anonymous inmates not receiving proper medical or mental health care.
"Given the fact that the county admits over 24,000 inmates per year into its facilities," Green wrote, "searching for these alleged incidents is like searching for a needle in a haystack."
She cited three examples reported by federal investigators that she said never happened.
*The report of a pregnant female inmate being knocked against a wall while being booked and losing two teeth was false, Green said.
"It was a fabrication," she said. There were no medical records to back up the report, she said.
*The report of a prisoner undergoing a cavity search, who was struck after he complained that a glove used by an officer had stains from a prior search, was false, she said.
Green said a court order is needed for a cavity search, and that they are conducted by physicians at the Erie County Medical Center.
*The report of an inmate who died of a stroke after officers forced his head against a wall and personnel ignored his request for medical attention was also false, she said.
The man, who had an extensive medical history, was seen numerous times by medical personnel, she said, and the medical examiner found that he died from pre-existing conditions.
Green also said that, despite the federal agency's report of a high suicide risk at the county's jails, the rate of suicide is below the averages in both state and federal prisons. She said Erie County's mental health care exceeds constitutional standards.
Green said that since 2004, Erie County taxpayers have spent $368 million to house prisoners in the Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility.
She said the rate of state and federal funding for the holding facilities has shrunk from $15 million 2006 to an expected $3 million in 2009.
"However, Erie County is committed to providing, does provide, and will continue to provide, constitutionally adequate conditions of confinement to prisoners incarcerated at the facilities," she said.
"It is the position of the county that the (Civil Rights) Division has improperly utilized fictional events and incomplete information as 'facts' to reach an improper, outcome determinative conclusion."
Green said she hopes that the Department of Justice will not sue the county, but would work with her and jail officials.
"I'm not spoiling for a fight," she said. "What I'm highlighting is the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice's position that the county is deficient lacks merit."