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Mysteries surround sudden death of Erie County Holding Center inmate

An Erie County Holding Center inmate died days ago under mysterious circumstances, even as federal authorities continue to monitor the jail they described as brutal and inhumane.

“It’s difficult to say what happened,” said Matthew A. Albert, an attorney for the family of India Cummings, 27, who had lived in Lackawanna for three months before being jailed Feb. 1. “But she went from physically healthy to dead in three weeks.”

The lawyer said he sent a letter to Sheriff Timothy B. Howard insisting that he preserve relevant evidence, such as any surveillance camera footage that recorded Cummings’ final days, including the moments when she is said to have banged her head against a wall.

Albert also vowed to contact the U.S. Justice Department, which sued Howard and other top county officials in 2009, to urge federal attorneys to begin a new investigation. To Albert, the Sheriff’s Office failed in its duty to protect an incapacitated person.

A Howard spokesman told The Buffalo News little about the matter this week, saying only that Cummings was released from the jail and transferred to a hospital Feb. 17 after a “medical event” that was reported to the Commission of Correction, the state agency that regulates local jails.

Cummings was pronounced dead Sunday, four days after arriving at Buffalo General Medical Center.

Cummings, described as a typically calm person, was arrested 26 days ago after a series of rash acts brought on, in part, her family said, by the synthetic marijuana known as K2. It can trigger hallucinations, agitation and violent behavior.

Her landlord, David Pintabona, said Cummings wanted desperately on the afternoon of Feb. 1 to return to her hometown of Rochester and went door-to-door on Knowlton Avenue to find someone to take her there.

“She was freaked, screaming, ‘Help me, help me,’ ” Pintabona said, describing her outbursts as totally out of character. “She was anxious and panicked.”

She also was moving in fits and starts. In one moment, she prayed with a neighbor. In the next, she hijacked a car.

She punched the driver and dragged him out of his Ford Taurus, according to Lackawanna police. She then led officers on a chase that ended after her car struck three vehicles and a school bus.

At her arraignment in County Court on Feb. 9, she did not recognize her mother.

“When I saw her, I knew something was very, very wrong,” said the mother, Tawana White, of Rochester. “The condition she was in, how she looked, the way she looked at me … as a mother, I knew something was wrong from the very beginning.”

Two days after Cummings was jailed on $15,000 bail, she went to the Holding Center infirmary for reasons not specified in a Sheriff’s Office report. But while there, she argued with the medical staff and was denied treatment. Then she punched a jail deputy returning her to her cell. The female deputy keeled over with a concussion as several deputies were called to subdue her.

The next day, Feb. 4, she was examined at Erie County Medical Center for “a possible broken bone,” according to another report. But she struggled with deputies placing her into the patrol car for the drive back to the Holding Center. Both episodes led to more charges against her.

Less is known about Cummings’ confinement over the next two weeks. Jail protocols suggest she could have been placed in a unit for mentally ill or emotionally disturbed inmates. Sheriff’s officials won’t say where she was housed.

When her family tried to see her, they were told Cummings was not accepting visitors, said Albert, their attorney.

On Feb. 17, Cummings was rushed to Buffalo General. The sheriff’s investigator who called Cummings’ mother to tell her that her daughter was hospitalized and on life support explained that she had been banging her head against a wall and had gone into cardiac arrest. Cummings’ vital signs flatlined Sunday, the date of her death, Albert said. An autopsy was completed Wednesday, but the findings are not yet known.

At the hospital, family members learned that Cummings had blood clots that threatened the viability of one of her legs, and ribs that had been broken, perhaps by efforts to revive her using CPR.

The rough outlines of her death are similar to the November 2012 death of Holding Center inmate Richard A. Metcalf Jr., 35, who had struggled with Depew police when arrested on a burglary charge. In the Holding Center, jail deputies reported seeing him picking scabs on his arms with a plastic fork and wiping blood on the walls. When they tried to restrain him, he began striking his head against his cell bars and the wall, a deputy said at the time.

But according to his family’s wrongful-death lawsuit against the county, an ambulance crew summoned to the jail found Metcalf on a medical table with a pillowcase over his head. Jail deputies then put Metcalf facedown on the ambulance crew’s stretcher and refused to let the medics assess his condition, the suit says.

When the medics finally had Metcalf alone, they found a spit guard tied tightly around his neck. He was unconscious with no pulse and no respiration. His family removed him from life support in ECMC, and he died Nov. 30, 2012. The death was ruled a homicide, attributable to three causes: a heart attack, liver disease and “multiple blunt-force injuries with associated stress.”

Episodes like these over the years fueled the Justice Department lawsuit in 2009 accusing the county, its sheriff and then-County Executive Chris Collins with failing to monitor and protect inmates and turning a blind eye toward abuses. Howard and Collins fought the lawsuit until 2011, when Collins agreed to a settlement as he geared up his re-election campaign.

In the settlement, Collins agreed to open the Holding Center and Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden – both overseen by Howard’s appointees – to regular inspections by two federal monitors, one assessing the health care provided to inmates and the other assessing the mental health care. In reports filed quarterly, both monitors describe gradual improvement by jail personnel and health staff controlled by the county Health Department. The monitors, however, are not assessing the staff’s performance in the treatment of individual inmates. They are assessing the staff’s ability to establish systems and protocols common in the field and the ability to meet them.

Cummings’ friends and relatives, as well as attorney Albert, are still trying to learn why an otherwise healthy woman landed on life support after 16 days in the Holding Center.

“I think she had an awful lot going for her,” said Pintabona, the landlord. “This hopefully will reinforce what drugs can do to people, the damage they can do. She was not a violent person. She never even raised her voice. I believed in her. I still do.”