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Latest suicide at Holding Center testing whether county is committed to openness

Sadly, there has been another apparent suicide in the downtown Holding Center. What comes next will be a test of what the county has learned about conducting open and transparent operations at the county’s lockups. So far, things don’t seem to be going well on that score.

Here’s what the public was told, which is very little:

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

Diina, to his credit, held a news conference to reveal that much. However, he did not release the inmate’s name nor indicate how she is believed to have killed herself.

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

That’s it.

Diina promised that the incident “will be scrutinized from top to bottom,” including “every aspect of this individual’s incarceration …” along with the actions of all staff members who were involved.

Protocols were in place. The inmate 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 that doesn’t have surveillance cameras.

It is important for the public to know what came next, and without unnecessary delay. There has been a history of reticence by the Sheriff’s Office and the previous county executive’s administration when it came to informing the public on the details of a number of suicides and attempted suicides.

In 2010, the Holding Center had the dubious distinction of possessing a suicide rate five times the national average. 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 getting the information to the public which has a right to know was an uphill climb.

Those reports, which would have allowed the public to know whether the situation at county jails was improving, were kept secret under a court order.

It took the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to declare that taxpayers have a right to know what is happening in the jails that they fund. This information got out only because the New York Civil Liberties Union took the matter to court.

Now, so soon, is a new test.

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

The investigation is under way, and the public should not have to go to court to learn years from now exactly what happened. The Sheriff’s Office should commit to keeping the public informed. Every painful step of the way.