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The Holding Center could also hold you

So you think it could not happen to you.

You are not a criminal. You do not deal in drugs. You do not look for trouble.

You have a steady job and a nice house and a family. You pay your taxes, you cut your lawn, and you are kind to animals. You give to the United Way and help out at your kid's school. There is no way a cop will ever slap handcuffs on you. There is no chance you will get thrown into the Erie County Holding Center.

Think again. Don Kinsman is living proof of how wrong that assumption can be.

Like many of us, Kinsman did not think he would ever spend time in the notorious downtown lockup. He is 52, a taxpaying, hardworking husband, father, homeowner and contractor. Mr. Solid Citizen.

Two summers ago, Kinsman spent a long night in the Holding Center. It was not where, at the beginning of the evening, he imagined he would end up.

"You don't think that it could happen to you," Kinsman said, sitting Wednesday in a downtown coffee shop.

A judge's order opened the Holding Center this week to U.S. Department of Justice investigators. They looked for evidence of why the place has become Suicide Central. They want to dig into inmate treatment on a future visit, if they can get past a roadblock of county officials. County Executive Chris Collins, County Attorney Cheryl Green and Sheriff Timothy Howard are trying to stop the DOJ from talking with prisoners, unless a conversation-killing county chaperone tags along.

Kinsman understands why the county wants to lock the DOJ out of the lockup.

"I'm a city guy, I'm not easily scared," said Kinsman, a midsize, plain-spoken guy with a trim beard and eyeglasses. "But I felt threatened. If something happened, I was not sure that the guards would have my back."

Some people think that everyone who ends up in the place deserves what they get. I have problems with that point of view, relating to little things such as common decency and constitutional rights. But I will cut to the core of the "they deserve it" attitude: Room and board in the Holding Center is a greater possibility than a lot of people think.

What happened to Kinsman reveals the thin line between freedom and an orange jumpsuit. He lives in Allentown. He and his wife went out for dinner on a summer Saturday night -- walking, because he did not want to drive after drinking. They were nearly home when, he said, a transit police car careened around the corner, nearly hitting them as they stepped off the curb. Kinsman -- angry and a little buzzed -- reflexively shot the cops the bird.

Uh-oh.

"My response was not appropriate," he admitted, "but I think it was understandable."

Not to the NFTA cops, it wasn't. Despite Kinsman's apology, they slapped on the cuffs and took him to the lockup. His 12-hour nightmare had begun. "The place is a hellhole, worse than I imagined," he said. "They put you into this big cell; it was freezing cold; there was no place to sit. Everybody is lying on the floor. There was one toilet, in the open."

Kinsman recalls lying on the cold floor, rolling over and seeing a familiar face. It was Sylvester, the neighborhood homeless guy whose late-night rants regularly prompt Kinsman to call the cops. Kinsman and Sylvester -- once neighborhood antagonists, now cellmates.

Sure, hard-core types need to be behind bars. But some people in the Holding Center are innocent, or make a single mistake, or are prisoners of an addiction or otherwise redeemable. Regardless, if even half of what we hear is true, they deserve better than what they get.

As Don Kinsman found out, "they" might one day be you.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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