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Nothing to hide? Then stop hiding

If I am running the U.S. Justice Department, my next step is obvious: deputize Keanu Reeves.

The actor, in town last weekend to scout locations for an upcoming movie, toured the Erie County Holding Center. He boldly went where no Department of Justice investigator has gone.

The county has barred the door to the DOJ, whose recent 50-page report of abuse claims at the jail is not on County Executive Chris Collins' recommended reading list. Apparently the only way a federal cop will get into the county lockup is if he wears a Keanu Reeves costume for Halloween.

Reeves got his guided tour soon after County Attorney Cheryl Green gave the back of her hand to the DOJ. The county attorney with the take-no-prisoners attitude, in a 37-page counterpunch, denied that prisoners are abused. Green noted that there is no rule that says the Holding Center has to be as comfy as, say, a Comfort Inn.

That will undoubtedly come as news to all of the business travelers who, in apparent confusion, keep trying to book overnights at the Holding Center. If only the jail offered a Frequent Guest discount.

Just kidding.

There is a simple question for Green, Collins and Sheriff Timothy Howard, the gatekeepers at the Holding Center and the correctional facility in Alden: If there is nothing to hide, then why not let DOJ investigators in?

If the folks with heart problems actually get their medication; if prisoners truly never get "tuned up" by guards; if food, water and blankets are not scarce; if reports of mistreatment are a figment of overheated imaginations; if, indeed, the place is not a mini-Gitmo, then fling open the doors and treat federal investigators as if they are clones of Keanu Reeves.

Hollywood gets an all-access pass, while Washington gets a closed door? Please.

Granted, guarding prisoners is a tough job, and mandatory overtime adds to the strain. Yes, the DOJ has been known to overstate a case or two. But if there is nothing to hide, then stop hiding.

The closed-door policy again became an issue Thursday in the race for sheriff.

"The DOJ should be allowed into the facilities," said Cheektowaga police Capt. John Glascott, who is running against Howard. "The county should . . . look at solutions rather than trying to hide problems."

To which Howard responded, "We feel we are meeting all of the constitutional mandates of inmates."

The county contends that the DOJ will make it do more -- and spend more -- than it needs to meet minimum standards. "To let them come in and dictate what the results should be rather than what the law requires," Green said, "will result in a very large expense to county taxpayers."

The county's closed-door policy is not hard to figure: There is little public demand to upgrade the jail, and therefore no political reason for Collins to pump more money into the place. By stonewalling and forcing the DOJ to sue, the county may end up doing less than if it willingly opens the door.

There is one problem with all of this. The intergovernmental stare-down reduces to pawns the inmates of the Holding Center -- most of whom have not been convicted of any crime.

Victimized by the power struggle are folks who -- judging from a history of problems at the jails, a federal report and a pile of anecdotal evidence -- are sometimes treated less well than a barnyard animal.

That is nothing to be proud of and especially chilling, given that any of us is just a few overdue parking tickets, or a back-and-forth with a nasty traffic cop, or a traffic stop after imbibing too freely at a wedding reception, away from ending up on the other side of that wall.

Unless your name is Keanu Reeves, it may not be a pleasant visit.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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