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Deputies work diligently to prevent prisoner suicides

The Buffalo News has overlooked two important issues in its coverage of the Department of Justice's litigation regarding the Erie County Holding Center as it relates to the prisoner suicides. As the president and principal executive officer of the union that represents deputies and others at the Erie County Holding Center and at the Erie County Correctional Facility, I want to set the record straight.

First, deputies are trained in suicide prevention, and they do their professional best in that regard. They have prevented many suicides and saved many prisoner lives. On those occasions when, despite the deputies' best efforts, a prisoner does succeed in killing himself, it takes a profound emotional toll on the deputies present. It is hard for any human being to confront such a thing; don't think for one minute that suicides do not deeply trouble deputies who confront them. They do.

Deputies are not blind to prisoner needs, as some have portrayed them. Quite the contrary, they are caring human beings with families, as well as members of the community who, in serving the public, do the best they can in a difficult and stressful setting to care for incarcerated individuals while protecting the public's safety.

Now, what else could be done to help prevent prisoner suicide? One might first look at one of the root causes, such as the state's closing of mental health facilities. A number of individuals do not belong in prison at all, but in mental health facilities, where such individuals used to be sent before the state closings.

These individuals need psychiatric help, not incarceration. While deputies are trained in suicide prevention, they are not psychiatrists. Providing individuals with services they need, rather than sending them to jail, would go a long way toward reducing the rate of suicide in jail or otherwise.

Secondly, our union has always felt that the Department of Justice should be welcome to tour the Erie County Holding Center and to see for itself how well deputies perform their work with regard to suicide prevention and other matters. We have nothing to hide. Now that U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny is permitting the jail inspection, with the county attorney present during employee interviews, we believe a fair balance is close to being struck.

We understand Department of Justice fears deputies will be intimidated by the county attorney's presence. However, we believe that having a union representative present during these interviews will alleviate the department's concerns, and our members will answer questions honestly and completely.

In fact, at a recent investigation, the New York State Department of Corrections interviewed several deputies in the presence of both the county's attorney and our own union attorney. The deputies answered every question fully and honestly, and not one deputy reported being intimidated.

Ronald G. Lucas is president and principal executive officer of Teamsters Local 264.

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