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Feds get long-sought access to jail
As county monitors, Justice Dept. begins up-close investigation at Holding Center

The U.S. Justice Department's examination of suicide screening at the Erie County Holding Center continues into a second day today, with County Attorney Cheryl A. Green monitoring the agency's work.

Justice Department teams, authorized by a federal judge, entered the jail Monday for the first time in the nearly three-year investigation of conditions at the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Correctional Facility in Alden.

The tours were to resume from midnight to 2 a.m. today, continue from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and end in a final phase that begins at 4 p.m. and ends at 7.
The times were selected so Justice Department lawyers and consultants could view Holding Center operations during each of the three work shifts while avoiding the shift changes at 11 p.m., 7 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Under an order by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, Justice Department lawyers then can take depositions from county employees for an additional two weeks -- their questions limited to suicide prevention and mental health care. At some point, the agency is expected to push for specific improvements to prevent suicides at the busy jail, which receives more than 20,000 defendants a year.

Soon after County Executive Chris Collins took office in 2008, his new county attorney began doubting that the county should cooperate with the federal probe.

By stiff-arming the federal government, Green forced the Justice Department to sue, and on Sept. 30 its Civil Rights Division alleged in court papers that Erie County fails to protect inmate rights by condoning beatings; offering poor physical and mental health care; allowing dirty facilities; and doing too little to prevent suicides.

The lawsuit named as defendants Collins, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and their top officials with jail responsibilities.

After a spate of suicides and suicide attempts in the Holding Center began in mid-December, Skretny allowed, over Green's objections, the first Justice Department inspections -- limited to suicide-prevention practices and the mental health care offered in the jail.

When Skretny also allowed Justice Department consultants to informally interview inmates and county employees, Green took the case to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. But Skretny refused to put his order on hold, and the inspections began Monday as scheduled.

Green, driving her own Ford Explorer, led the first Justice Department team inside the downtown jail just before 9 a.m. Monday. A Dodge Caravan followed. The occupants emptied out as the Holding Center's garage door closed to block them from public view.

"Erie County has nothing to hide and fully follows the suicide screening and prevention program as outlined by the New York State Commission of Correction," said Grant Loomis, a Collins spokesman.

Green has argued that since the State Commission of Correction sets the suicide-screening protocol for local jails, the Justice Department should back off.

However, to illustrate Erie County's problems, the Justice Department has offered a statement from James E. Lawrence, the commission's operations director, who said Erie County has been cited by the state "several times," most recently in 2008, for failing to document constant supervision of a potentially suicidal prisoner.

Meanwhile, Erie County has paid a Washington, D.C., law firm $140,000 at last count for help in beating back the Justice Department's advance. The law firm charges $425 an hour.

Loomis also said that both Erie County and the Department of Justice are "abiding by the ground rules established in federal court, and the county will continue to work cooperatively with DOJ representatives for the remainder of their visit."

Still, the start of Monday's 8 a.m. tour was delayed when the first dispute flared even before Justice Department inspectors could set foot inside the jail.

Late last week, it appeared as though Green and the Justice Department had agreed that the agency would arrive with 11 personnel -- including three consultants -- and that they would be allowed inside the jail in teams of three or four.

However, Green early Monday challenged the number of people the agency wanted inspecting the Holding Center.

So from her office in the nearby Rath County Office Building, she and the Justice Department lawyers called U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy, who has been appointed to settle disputes over the ground rules.

"I was contacted by attorneys from both sides on a conference call, which we put on the court record," McCarthy later told The Buffalo News. "The county was concerned about the number of people who would be entering the facility.

"I told both sides I was not going to place any limit on the number of people the [federal] government could take in there."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com and dherbeck@buffnews.com

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