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State to investigate death of woman taken from Holding Center

The State Commission of Correction will investigate the death of India T. Cummings, an otherwise healthy woman who died 20 days after entering the Erie County Holding Center.

The commission’s Medical Review Board will begin an inquiry even though Cummings was no longer an inmate when pronounced dead Sunday. With Cummings at death’s door in Buffalo General Medical Center, jail personnel obtained court permission to release her from their custody Feb. 17.

“While technically this wasn’t an in-custody death, the commission and its Medical Review Board still have the legal authority to investigate and report on the circumstances,” said Justin Mason, a spokesman for the state agency that regulates local jails.

The Medical Review Board is a panel of doctors that dispatches its “forensic medical unit” to gather information at individual jails, prisons and lockups when someone dies in custody. In many cases, the board assembles detailed reports on the care and supervision provided, or not provided, and whether missteps contributed to the death. The panel makes its findings public, usually with private information redacted. But with dozens of deaths each year in New York’s jails, prisons and lockups – 157 in 2015 – the reports usually take months to complete.

Still, the findings could eventually shed additional light on the mystery of whether Cummings’ confinement played a role in her death at age 27. She had been spinning out of control and at one point in her final days reportedly banged her head against a Holding Center wall.

In the case of Cummings, Holding Center personnel properly notified the Commission of Correction that the inmate was admitted to a hospital. A spokesman for Sheriff Timothy B. Howard told The Buffalo News only that Cummings had suffered a “medical event.”

Later, jail personnel did not tell the state agency that Cummings was dead. But they weren’t required to do so because Cummings was no longer an inmate, Mason said.

Cummings was arrested in Lackawanna on Feb. 1. Information pieced together from her family, acquaintances and the police indicates that Cummings smoked the synthetic marijuana known as K2, which can bring on hallucinations and violent behavior, then started pleading with neighbors for a drive to her hometown of Rochester.

When those attempts failed, Cummings hijacked a Ford Taurus by punching its driver and dragging him from the vehicle. That triggered a police chase, which ended after the Taurus banged into three autos and a school bus.

Over the next few days, Cummings argued with staff at the jail’s infirmary and punched a female deputy, inflicting a concussion, according to a Sheriff’s Office report. On a trip to Erie County Medical Center the next day, for treatment of a possible broken bone, Cummings struggled with officers before the drive back to the jail.

Friends described the violent outbursts as uncommon for her. Matthew Albert, an attorney working on the family’s behalf, said something had gone wrong with Cummings mentally and emotionally. When she appeared for a County Court arraignment on Feb. 9, she didn’t recognize her mother, her mother told The News. When family tried to visit Cummings at the Holding Center, they were told she wasn’t accepting visitors.

Soon after a Sheriff’s Office employee called her family to say she was unresponsive in Buffalo General, relatives learned Cummings had banged her head against a wall and her kidneys were failing.

To Albert, the Sheriff’s Office failed in its duty to protect an incapacitated person. He said he intends to contact the U.S. Justice Department, which sued the Erie County sheriff and other top county officials in 2009, alleging they were failing to protect inmates. Erie County settled the case by agreeing to myriad improvements to the jail’s health care and mental health care and allowing outside monitors to inspect progress.