If the county executive wants to claim some measure of victory for taxpayers in the recent "historic agreement" that will require Erie County to vastly improve its treatment of prisoners in the Holding Center and Correctional Facility, then he should produce the numbers.
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. contends that the years-long battle that the county waged in trying to keep the feds out of the Holding Center downtown and Correctional Facility in Alden actually cost taxpayers substantial amounts of money.
Some actual numbers could be revealed at the end of September when County Executive Chris Collins presents his budget to the state control board. Any savings, or additional spending at the jail, may show up in the budget plan. Overtime at the jail, which had been flat for some time, has been on the increase. We'll see if the budget allows that overtime to continue to rise, or calls for hiring more personnel.
Hochul understandably took issue with Collins' claim that the county saved taxpayers "untold amounts of money" by fighting the federal government for years on making improvements at the facilities. Indeed, it's hard to ignore the county's obvious legal costs. Plus, taxpayers also foot the bill for the federal side of the case. As the U.S. attorney made clear, the Justice Department had been investigating complaints about prisoner treatment in the two county facilities before Collins took office in January 2008. Hochul said discussions over settling the complaints and heading off the federal lawsuit were under way, then stopped in 2008.
The 38-page "stipulated order of dismissal" that should end the federal lawsuit over jail conditions requires the county to implement procedures giving prisoners better medical and mental health care and "protection from harm." To its credit, the county is already carrying out many of these initiatives.
Despite the order of dismissal, the Justice Department will have a prominent role at the Holding Center and Correctional Facility for at least 18 more months.
Two county-paid consultants, already guiding jail improvements, will be filing reports every six months on the county's improvement efforts. Also, Justice Department lawyers may accompany the consultants, and those lawyers will have access to the facilities every six months, or when exceptional circumstances warrant.
The degree to which the county must answer the Justice Department must be a bitter pill for the county executive, who did everything in his power to block access to the facilities despite repeated requests by the Justice Department.
Moreover, the Justice Department lawyers could file new legal action if they become concerned about what they find or if the county fails to comply with its promises.
After so many years of battling, it may not be possible to declare which side "won." But the agreement for new compliance and transparency at the Holding Center and Correctional Facility is a victory for the humane treatment of the county's prisoners.