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State sues county over jail conditions

The State Commission of Correction charged in a lawsuit Tuesday that the Erie County Holding Center consistently violates state standards and that jail managers have failed to correct the problems, despite their claims.

The lawsuit, filed by the state attorney general's office on the commission's behalf, asks the State Supreme Court to order Sheriff Timothy B. Howard to operate the jail in a "safe, stable and humane manner."

Howard called the lawsuit "a blatant political attack" with the election for Erie County sheriff only weeks away.

The commission says it wants Howard to meet the requirements to:

* Give inmates items of personal hygiene, such as soap and toothbrushes, as well as bedding and drinking cups after they are held for a certain number of hours.

* Limit the hours that recently arrested defendants spend in crowded prearraignment holding pens, where they share a bench, toilet and sink.

* Give inmates opportunities for outdoor exercise -- at least 90 minutes five days a week or one hour seven days a week.

* Protect inmate rights in the areas of special discipline, grievances and visitation.

"This lawsuit is a blatant political attack in an election year to cast negative aspersions on the good work done by the men and women of the Sheriff's Office," said Howard, the Republican incumbent.

State inspectors focused on those areas during unannounced visits to the Holding Center in recent months, and they reported their findings to Howard and his Jail Management Division.

Thomas A. Beilein, a Democrat and the former Niagara County sheriff who heads the Commission of Correction, called the lawsuit "unfortunate but necessary."

"We have repeatedly advised the county of its myriad delinquencies -- which range from failing to provide inmates with reasonable access to a toilet and a bar of soap to troubling denials of due process in disciplinary matters," he said, adding that the commission has offered to help fix conditions that "needlessly expose the county to civil rights actions."

The commission's lawsuit opens a second legal front for Erie County as it defends its jails against actions from other governments, not to mention the numerous lawsuits pending from current and former inmates.

In July, the U.S. Department of Justice told County Executive Chris Collins that the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden fail to safeguard the civil rights of inmates. County Attorney Cheryl A. Green labeled as fiction many aspects of the Justice Department report but indicated she is willing to discuss a consent decree that would detail improvements.

Howard says Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson and the State Commission on Correction want the taxpayers of Erie County to pay $250 million for a new jail.

"I've got news for Gov. David Paterson: This will not happen on my watch," Howard said.

"The citizens of this county can be assured that inmates are guaranteed all of their constitutional rights and are treated fairly and humanely while we protect the taxpayers and citizens of Erie County."

The sheriff has long contended that the Holding Center should not be held to the standards of a jail when it comes to the prearraigned defendants held in a series of rooms called "the bull pen." Since 2003, the Holding Center has served as the prearraignment lockup for the Buffalo Police Department.

Police Department "lock-ups" are held to a lesser standard with inmate care. But since the Holding Center also holds arraigned defendants, it is a jail under state law and must meet jail standards.

In the lawsuit, the state alleges that some of the fixes Erie County personnel have claimed to have made in recent months have not been done. For example:

Inmates are to be held in prearraignment holding pens for no more than four hours, and in prearraignment isolation rooms no more than 12 hours before they must be assigned housing where they would then receive bedding, access to showers and their own toilet.

Sheriff's administrator Brian Doyle told the commission in March that the rule would be followed. But through the summer the inspectors found defendants spending 16, 18 or 20 hours in prearraignment pens and, in one case, 29 hours in an isolation room.

The sheriff's staff, according to the lawsuit, asserted all inmates remanded to the custody of the sheriff are given personal health care items. But filed with the lawsuit were affidavits from state inspectors stating that they witnessed inmates denied personal hygiene items and an inmate handbook.

First Deputy Superintendent Robert Koch told the inspectors in a June letter that "all supervisors are aware that all inmates, including those in keep lock [inmates almost constantly confined in cells] are permitted to engage in outdoor exercise." However, the inspectors found a log indicating keep-lock inmates were given less than an hour of outdoor exercise a day, and a memorandum indicating that a particular inmate was denied her outdoor exercise.

The Holding Center staff said it also would follow the rule that within 24 hours it must give inmates segregated for disciplinary reasons a written statement about why the action was taken and let them respond. The Commission of Correction said it found instances when the rule was not followed, though in a few the review occurred soon after the 24 hours had lapsed.

However, in one case the inspectors found an inmate who had been segregated for three days without a review.

News Staff Reporter T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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