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Justice Dept. to keep eye on county jails Collins overstates decrease in oversight

The U.S. Justice Department will remain involved in the Erie County Holding Center and the county Correctional Facility for at least 18 more months.

Federal lawyers signed an agreement to dismiss their lawsuit seeking better conditions for inmate, but the pact requires the county to grant the Justice Department periodic access to the two facilities and allow it to monitor ongoing improvements.

In short, the agreement is not as stacked in the county's favor as County Executive Chris Collins boasted Thursday when he said "the Department of Justice has no role to play from this day forward" and to suggest the attorneys were on a "bus out of town."

For example:

* Two county-paid consultants, already guiding improvements, will file reports every six months on the county's efforts to update and improve policies and procedures, and they will indicate whether the county complies with the agreement. Those reports will go to the Justice Department and Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.

* Justice Department lawyers may accompany the consultants, referred to as "technical compliance consultants," on inspections. The pact gives the consultants "full and complete access to the facilities, all facility records, prisoner records, staff and inmates." Any documents given the consultants will be shared with the Justice Department.

* The agreement continues until the technical consultants deem the county in substantial compliance with the terms of the agreement for three straight six-month reporting periods.

* The agreement gives Justice Department lawyers access to the facilities every six months during that time period and in other exceptional circumstances if the county agrees.

* Until then, the county will notify the Justice Department and the compliance consultants within 48 hours of the death of any inmate or any serious suicide attempt, and turn over any reports, autopsy reports and death summaries.

* The county will answer, in writing, any reasonable questions from the Justice Department within 30 days.

* Skretny will retain jurisdiction in order to enforce the "stipulated order of dismissal" should he approve the pact.

Still, as Collins says, the Justice Department will have no power to reject or modify the county's specific improvements.

"The Department of Justice is not in a position to dictate anything to the county," said County Attorney Jeremy A. Colby, who signed the agreement on the county's behalf.

But Justice Department lawyers could unleash new legal action if they become concerned about what they see or if the county fails to do what it says it will, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said.

Further, by formally agreeing to myriad standards affecting medical care, mental health care and the protection of inmates, the county might be raising the stakes on any inmate lawsuit alleging harm from standards not met.

"That standard of care is certainly going to be one that they will be held to in the event that there are future lawsuits," said Barry N. Covert, an attorney and a member of the County Legislature-created volunteer panel suggesting upgrades for the Holding Center and Correctional Facility.

In the accord, the county and the Justice Department acknowledge that the merits of the Justice Department's lawsuit alleging constitutional violations never were tested. They say they are striking an accord to recognize the county's ongoing improvements at the facilities and to "avoid the cost and burden of continued litigation."

Among the provisions, the county agrees:

* That chemical sprays will not be used to control prisoners who officers know have serious mental illness or display symptoms that could indicate mental illness.

* To implement policies to prevent the sexual abuse of inmates, by staff or other inmates, and to select a senior-level staff person to act as "sexual abuse prevention coordinator."

* That, by next July, the county and the compliance consultants will analyze the size of the mental health staff and add jobs if necessary.

* To "ensure that each prisoner receives medically necessary dental care for a serious medical need." The dental care will be directed and supervised by a state-licensed dentist.

Through most of its 37 pages, the agreement acknowledges the improvements already under way or in the pipeline. The pact calls on the county to "continue to" require uniformed officers to walk regular rounds and monitor security cameras, receive enhanced training and maintain levels of care already established.

It expects that the county will "continue to" let inmates file grievances and that county personnel still will investigate reports of sexual abuse and adhere to current rules on the use of force, among other things.

The pact acknowledges the county will proceed on two landmark changes to the Holding Center. The county will expect the City of Buffalo to again hold its recently arrested male defendants until they are arraigned and not rely on the downtown Holding Center to serve as the Buffalo police prearraignment lockup for men. Collins ended that arrangement, which began in 2003 and immediately overwhelmed the Holding Center staff. The city expects to open a lockup Oct. 1 in the City Courts building.

The agreement also notes that the county will establish a revamped jail reception area in what is now the Holding Center's gymnasium. Collins envisions it as the hub where medical and mental health staff will assess the incoming defendants. That improvement was guided by the two county-paid consultants who now will report to the court on the county's compliance: Dr. Richard Shansky, a medical expert, and Dr. Jeff Metzner, a mental health expert.