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More jail oversight needed; Latest suicides at the Holding Center show that the problems continue

Neither Chris Collins, Erie County's outgoing chief executive, nor Timothy B. Howard, the county's disengaged sheriff, seems to care much about the calamity that has enveloped the Erie County Holding Center. But with yet another suicide in the downtown jail -- the third in four months -- something has to be done. It will be up to the new county executive to see that it is.

Mark C. Poloncarz, the county executive-elect, didn't run for office to fix the jails. He had other priorities, but the continuing disaster in the jail requires his immediate and focused attention.

Lester Foster, 47, of Niagara Street, Buffalo, died on Wednesday, five days after he was found hanging from the bars of his cell. In October, Trevell Walker, 36, of Cheektowaga, hanged himself after leaving suicide notes claiming he couldn't cope with having stabbed his wife to death last year. And in September, Rakim Scriven, 18, was found hanging from a bedsheet in his cell a day after being taken off one-on-one observation.

Three suicides in four months is a lot, but even that could be ascribed to coincidence were it not for the history of suicides that prompted both the State Commission of Correction and the U.S. Justice Department to intervene. The Justice Department said the jail's suicide rate was five times the national average. And still the carnage continues.

It is, perhaps, easy to overlook this problem on the theory that the jail's inmates are superfluous people, serving a sentence as the penalty for committing a crime. But that is not the case. Whatever they may have done, the Holding Center's inmates are usually awaiting trial and are presumed innocent. But even if they had been convicted, human decency -- not to mention the Bill of Rights -- requires certain minimal conditions be met. No one is suggesting those conditions include "the amenities, conveniences and services of a good hotel," as Collins former county attorney once claimed.

Collins did all he could to block a Justice Department investigation into conditions at the jail, forcing the Justice Department to sue for access to the jail. Collins eventually agreed to new suicide prevention measures, after paying $210,000 to law firms in Washington, D.C., and Buffalo for advice on the matter.

It is true that even the best system, diligently followed, will not thwart every suicide attempt. Someone who is determined to die has an advantage over those determined to prevent the act. And, in fairness, Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman -- who is far more engaged in running the jail than his boss -- said jail personnel followed all requirements set out by the Commission of Correction and the Justice Department.

But something is amiss. As county executive, Poloncarz will be a step removed from jail oversight, which is vested in the independently elected, if oblivious, sheriff. There is no reason for county residents to have confidence in Howard in this matter. Poloncarz needs to step in and, as best he can, jam a stick into the suicide machine that is the Erie County Holding Center.

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