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Drop the subpoenas; County should stop its delaying tactics in lawsuit over conditions at lockups

The fact that lawyers for County Executive Chris Collins and Sheriff Timothy B. Howard would serve subpoenas on a good government group such as the local League of Women Voters shows just how determined they are to keep outside parties from looking at what really goes on inside Erie County's lockups.

The move doesn't instill confidence in a governmental system that is supposed to be open to the public. The message is clear: ask too many questions or find someone who will talk and the county will step in with subpoenas.

Erie County's lawyers are seeking information the league and other groups might have provided to the U.S. Justice Department for its broad lawsuit seeking to upgrade conditions at the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the County Correctional Facility in Alden, as reported by The News' Matthew Spina.

The county lawyers want to see all correspondence between the organizations and the Justice Department. And they want any documents about jail conditions that current or former county employees or inmates provided to the groups, revelations that could possibly jeopardize the job of any insider who may have provided information.

The Justice Department wants conditions at the jails improved, and Collins' refusal to cooperate has now targeted the league and two small volunteer organizations. The New York Civil Liberties Union had it right when declaring the subpoenas a "clumsy fishing expedition." The NYCLU is seeking to quash, on First Amendment grounds, the subpoenas served on the League of Women Voters, the Erie County Prisoners Rights Coalition and the Partnership for the Public Good.

We wish them well in that endeavor.

In the meantime, the county continues to defend its indefensible policy of not cooperating with the Justice Department. Those subpoenas were served Nov. 10, and the groups were allowed a mere 20 days to respond before county lawyers later extended the deadline and the Civil Liberties Union embarked on its uphill climb to persuade the county to cease its demands.

The county continues to dig in its heels on the case of the United States v. Erie County, which has already cost more than $200,000 for outside lawyers and time from county lawyers.

Such stubbornness following a spate of problems at the lockups led to the Justice Department lawsuit in 2009 seeking access to the jails and to internal county records.

Problems at the jail include a spate of inmate suicides and near-suicides, the escape of a dangerous inmate and the withholding of medical care for inmates.

The county did negotiate an accord with the Justice Department to better prevent suicides, and Collins' staff has arranged to do a better job assessing the health and mental health needs of defendants as they enter the Holding Center. Those improvements are welcome, but the county should not only drop its subpoenas of groups that are interested only in ensuring humane conditions at the county's lockups, it should settle the lawsuit and simply bring its facilities and practices up to par.

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