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Inmate death in Holding Center is probed as likely suicide

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the apparent suicide of an inmate in the downtown Holding Center.

The 26-year-old Brooklyn woman was found unconscious in her cell Sunday morning and taken to Buffalo General Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead, said Superintendent Thomas J. Diina of the Jail Management Division.

Diina, at a news conference Sunday morning, did not release the inmate’s name nor indicate how she apparently killed herself.

He said she was brought to the Holding Center on Friday on misdemeanor drug and weapon charges. She was also charged with possession of a hypodermic instrument and acting in a manner injurious to a child younger than 17.

“It will be scrutinized from top to bottom,” Diina said of the death. “Every aspect of this individual’s incarceration will be examined, as well as actions of all staff members who were involved.”

The superintendent said the woman was screened, examined by medical personnel, booked and also seen by a health professional.

She was part of the general inmate population and housed, as are all inmates, in an individual cell.

Cells do not have surveillance cameras, Diina said.

“Obviously, our entire staff is very shaken up by this,” he said. “This is the worst type of incident – when a life is lost – and we have made counseling and peer support available, not just security staff, but also mental health staff that were involved with this inmate, as well as other inmates who were housed near her cell,” Diina said.

In 2010, the Holding Center posted a suicide rate five times the national average.

Nine inmates have committed suicide since 2003 and at least 15 have tried either at the Holding Center or the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.

As part of a settlement that resulted from the inmate suicides, the county agreed to hire two independent experts to monitor its jails and file progress reports.

But those reports, viewed by some as the best possible evidence of whether the county’s jails are truly getting better, were kept secret under a court order by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.

A federal appeals court ruled earlier this month that Erie County must unseal reports on jail conditions as part of its monitoring by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In ruling against the county, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the New York Civil Liberties Union and its argument that the public has a First Amendment right to see the progress reports.

Diina, who became superintendent in 2012, said Sunday that it has been more than two years since there has been an inmate suicide in either of the county facilities. He said he called Sunday’s news conference in an attempt to remain transparent.

He said a comprehensive investigation will involve representatives from professional standards and investigation services in the Sheriff’s Office, as well a representatives from the county Department of Mental Health and the county Health Department.