Erie County's jail management team has signed a landmark pact to improve suicide screening at the Holding Center, ensure annual training for the corrections staff and alter the bunks, bars and air vents that have made it possible for inmates to try to hang themselves.
Further, the county agrees to pay a contractor to monitor its compliance with the settlement, struck in recent days with the U.S. Justice Department.
Crucial to county officials: Nowhere in the document do they admit violating the constitutional rights of inmates nor that the U.S. Constitution requires the specific improvements.
The accord was announced late Thursday by County Executive Chris Collins, who also signed the pact, though Collins initially resisted the Justice Department's involvement with the county Holding Center in Buffalo and the county Correctional Facility in Alden. Collins said the agreement will be presented today to U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, who is overseeing United States v. Erie County, the multipronged Justice Department lawsuit alleging Erie County fails to protect inmate rights. It will be up to Skretny to accept the agreement and give it the force of a court order.
"I do believe with this settlement, this is now the template that can be utilized as we move forward. That's a positive," Collins told The Buffalo News. "You can fight because you believe in what you believe in as long as you don't take things personally. I view this as taking the tension out of the situation."
Collins said Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C., also have signed the agreement, but a spokesman there declined to comment.
The "Stipulated Settlement Agreement and Order" does not settle the entire lawsuit, only its current front-burner concern -- that Erie County fails to protect its inmates from self-harm.
The Justice Department also alleges that the staff members in Sheriff Timothy B. Howard's jails use excessive force, ignore or incite fights between inmates, provide poor health care and mental health care and allow unsanitary conditions, though cleanups began weeks ago.
Five Erie County inmates have killed themselves since the county initially barred Justice Department inspectors early in 2008, and a sixth inmate remained hospitalized Thursday after hanging himself Sunday.
In the order, the county agrees to make three key changes to cells in the Holding Center's 1985 addition, where the cells are in fact small rooms. Collins said his team already has hired a contractor to make these changes:
*Plexiglass will be placed in front of the bars that front the windows on those cells. Inmates have used those bars to anchor nooses made of shoelaces or bedding. The inmates then simply leaned forward, letting their body weight choke off their air passages.
Inmate Daniel Nye, 26, of Cheektowaga, used his cell's bars when he took his own life in February. Under the agreement, the plexiglass is to be installed in all 240 cells by Sept. 1.
*Bunk platforms will be modified so they no longer have ventilation holes that can support a noose. The bunk platforms are to be retrofitted by June 1, 2011.
*Air vents in those cells will be replaced by grates with holes too small to hold a noose. As early as 2004, Howard identified the need to modify the air vents because they were being used in suicides and suicide attempts, but after six years he never completed a fix. The vents are to be replaced by Dec. 1.
The National Commission on Correctional Health Care in 2008 told Erie County, in a report requested by the county, that its cells offered "multiple ways to facilitate committing suicide, including using the steel beds, wall plates that are lifted from the wall, handicapped bars, bars on windows, etc."
Inmates are more likely than the general population to take their own lives because of their withdrawal from addictive drugs, humiliation over their arrest, the prospects for long-term confinement and their isolation from family and friends.
After a spate of three Holding Center hangings over 90 days, Skretny in March granted Justice Department lawyers and their suicide-prevention consultants their long-sought access to the Holding Center.
Howard had said all three inmates -- Adam Murr, Jeremy Kiekbush and Nye -- were coming off dangerous narcotics. So their deaths prodded the sheriff to make certain improvements, including a better effort to identify inmates who might be withdrawing from drugs. The settlement agreement formalizes a series of questions that county personnel say they started posing to new arrivals in March.
Among them: What substances or medications are they using, and how much? When was their last dose? Are they shaking, hallucinating or showing other signs of withdrawal?
Those inmates are no longer held in their own cells but are under constant watch in a dormitory-style detoxification unit.
The settlement, if accepted, also would order the nursing staff to assess inmates in the acute detoxification unit every eight hours, and for Erie County to implement a detoxification training program for the jail's mental health professionals and staff. Collins said both measures already are under way.
The settlement also would impose these demands:
*Staff at the Holding Center and Correctional Facility must go through two hours of annual refresher training on suicide-prevention and detoxification.
*Erie County must formalize a risk-management program that also includes a quality-improvement program.
*The county must merge the jail's medical and mental health records into an electronic system starting March 1, 2011.
*The Sheriff's Office must hire a jail official -- to be paid around $60,000 a year -- whose job will be to implement the requirements of the stipulated settlement agreement.
*The county must pay for a compliance officer, an outsider to be selected in concert with the Justice Department, who will assess Erie County's progress and report it to the court.
*The county also must attain "substantial compliance" with all areas of the agreement within two years, which includes no less than 18 months of "sustained substantial compliance."
The agreement might be discussed today when County Attorney Cheryl A. Green and Justice Department lawyers appear at 2 p.m. before a U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy to discuss their schedule for the entire case.
Just days ago, a negotiated settlement for the suicide issue appeared unlikely. Green had steered the matter into mediation, but the effort initially failed. Green said she and the Justice Department were unable to bridge one overriding issue, and for that reason the talks had failed. But the parties took another shot at mediation Tuesday, and those talks cemented an accord.
The overriding issue?
Collins said it was the county's insistence that it admit no constitutional violations nor that it admit that its improvements are being implemented to meet constitutional standards.
County officials worried about the implications of those admissions on pending and future inmate lawsuits.