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First of two inmate death lawsuits goes to court

LOCKPORT – More than two months after a state report concluded that two prisoners at the Niagara County Jail died because of “grossly inadequate” medical care and “patient abandonment,” the chairman of the County Legislature said he is going to devote time after the county’s 2015 budget is completed to familiarize himself with the conditions in facility’s solitary confinement unit where the two prisoners died.

The state Commission of Corrections in September recommended that the county “undertake an inquiry” as to whether the private health contractor at the jail, Armor Correctional Health Service, should be terminated, saying the deaths of the two inmates four days apart in 2012 were preventable and placing much of the blame on the local doctor hired by Armor.

County Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, said last week he will be become more involved when the budget is completed, scheduled for Tuesday.

“I want to see everything and talk to all the personalities involved,” Ross said. “I want a thorough working knowledge. If it takes several days, it takes several days.”

Meanwhile, Sheriff James R. Voutour said the county’s contract with Armor has a year left to run, although the state commission ordered the county to consider canceling that contract.

“We fully intend to sit down and review the contract at the end of the year,” Voutour said last week.

Voutour said he has created a new position of deputy chief jail administrator, and promoted Capt. Daniel M. Engert to fill it.

Engert’s new duties include overseeing Armor’s compliance with its contract.

The County Legislature awarded Armor, a Florida company, a three-year contract in October 2012, saying at the time it would save an estimated $800,000 over the life of the contract.

“We are saving money, but we have a large amount more (medical) staff,” Voutour said last week. “We have 24-7 coverage, which we never had before.”

The county, though, now faces two lawsuits as a result of the deaths.

Daniel Pantera died on Christmas Day 2012, and four days later, Tommie Lee Jones died.

A suit was filed by the former wife of Pantera, and a pretrial conference was held last week with State Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso.

The other lawsuit was filed by the daughter of Jones.

Pantera, 46, was in jail after his arrest for shoplifting a cup of coffee at a North Tonawanda 7-Eleven store. He suffered from mental illness. At one point in solitary, he ran full speed into the wall of his cell, knocking himself out, a guard has said. The cell was so cold that the state report said the main cause of Pantera’s death was hypothermia.

Jones, 51, who had a history of heart trouble, was jailed as a parole violator. The state report said he was refused essential medications and given an erroneous prescription by Dr. Steven C. Gasiewicz, the medical director. He is called “Dr. S.G.” in the state report, but an Armor spokeswoman confirmed his identity to The Buffalo News in October.

The state commission report accused Gasiewicz of “grossly incompetent and inadequate care,” and said he should be investigated by the state Health Department’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct.