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Fixing the jail ; Settlement limits costs but undermines county's claim that conditions were fine

For months, Erie County Executive Chris Collins insisted that there was nothing wrong with the County Holding Center that was any of the federal government's business.

Last week, Collins agreed to fix many of the things that were seriously wrong with the Holding Center, in return for a federal surrender on a point of law that he says will protect taxpayers from lawsuits that might otherwise be filed.

Thus Collins can claim a political victory, and the people of Erie County gain some hope that the operation of their downtown lock-up will be the site of fewer inmate suicides and the cause of fewer expensive lawsuits.

The pact also stands, as Collins argues, as a good model for settling a handful of other troubling charges against the county's correctional facilities.

Taxpayers may be left to wonder why county officials were so willing to draw this line in the sand, exposing the county to high legal fees now and the threat of very expensive court orders later, rather than work more cooperatively with the U.S. Justice Department and reassure the public that it took the spate of jailhouse suicides seriously.

Collins says the reason is that counties that have cooperated with the Justice Department on similar issues were saddled with expensive fixes that burdened taxpayers. The resolution of this part of the lawsuit avoids significant expenses, so for that, taxpayers may be grateful.

What we still don't understand is Collins' refusal to get in front of this issue, even in a symbolic way. In announcing the settlement to The Buffalo News editorial board, Collins said the sudden spate of suicides had imposed a moral duty on county leaders to act. Even within the restrictions that lawsuits place on litigants, the county's top elected leader should have been able to reassure voters that he understood that duty and intended to act.

Voters may also be confused as to why Sheriff Timothy Howard, the department head responsible for the suspect facilities, has apparently been out of the settlement loop, and why he hadn't pushed for reforms earlier. To those questions, there are still no answers. This page last month called on the sheriff to resign over his mishandling of the jail. Nothing that has occurred since then has changed our minds.

Still, the pact is a good way out of a serious and potentially expensive dilemma, even if it undermines the long-standing claims by Collins and Howard that nothing about the facilities violated minimal standards. The list of matters to be addressed includes shortcomings in the Holding Center's design, equipment, training and procedures. Records will be kept where, in the past, they weren't. The punch list includes making it more difficult for inmates to use cell bars or bunk platforms as makeshift scaffolds, as well as training corrections officers so that they are better able to recognize and deal with inmates who are contemplating suicide.

With the announcement of the settlement, now being pondered by U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, came news that the county had already hired contractors to begin the needed upgrades and would formalize various ad hoc practices used to screen inmates. That's reassuring; it's too bad voters didn't know about it months ago.

If that all sounds like an admission that the Holding Center was deficient all along, it apparently matters less to Collins than the giveback he got from the Justice Department: A concession that the conditions in the Holding Center, however deplorable, were not unconstitutional.

Running a jail so badly that it violates inmates' constitutional rights is, by Collins' reading of the law, the only justification for federal involvement. And, he argues, it is also such an undefined criteria that any attempt to meet it could mean millions of dollars in increased capital and operating costs to maintain an unreasonably high standard of care. That's what happened in other counties, he says.

The county still faces federal accusations that it subjects inmates to excessive force, that staff members encourage fights among prisoners, and that the facilities fail to meet medical, mental health and hygienic standards.

If Collins can also cut deals with the Department of Justice in which he promises to fix on Tuesday problems that he denied on Monday, fine. If he can keep a straight face about it, taxpayers can, too.

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