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Justice Dept. gets 3 extra weeks for questioning

Justice Department lawyers pushing for better suicide prevention at the Erie County Holding Center have been granted permission to question county employees through April.

U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny had given the lawyers two weeks, or until Tuesday, to depose the county's staff after the lawyers and their consultants inspected the Holding Center on March 22 and 23.

However, the Justice Department has been selecting employees to depose through its review of county documents, and the county handed over a huge volume of records -- about 140,000 pages, County Attorney Cheryl A. Green said recently.

A court document indicates that both sides saw fit to extend depositions 24 days beyond Skretny's deadline. U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy, assigned to handle ground rules for the inspection, allowed the extra time.

While Justice Department lawyers may question county employees only during formal depositions, when Green can sit in on the questioning, Skretny let the lawyers and their suicide-prevention consultants question inmates in private on March 22 and 23.

The Justice Department is expected to eventually ask a judge to order improvements in the jail's suicide-prevention measures and mental health care. A Justice Department consultant, Lindsay M. Hayes of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, said in a court document that the Holding Center suicide rate is almost five times the national average for jails.

While Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and Green dispute the calculation, Skretny allowed a prompt Justice Department inspection of the facility in March after three suicides occurred in the jail over 90 days.

The Justice Department lawsuit against Erie County, however, goes beyond suicide prevention. Department lawyers allege that Erie County fails to protect inmate rights by condoning beatings, condoning poor health care and mental health care, and allowing unsafe conditions at both the busy jail downtown and county Correctional Facility in Alden.

The department completed a blistering 50-page report on the facilities even though Green and County Executive Chris Collins barred an inspection in 2008 and 2009.

It now looks as though a judge will soon allow pretrial discovery for the more sweeping issues raised in the lawsuit. McCarthy has set a court date of 2:30 p.m. April 23 to discuss a plan for discovery.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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