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Lawmaker asks sheriff for answers after critical state report on inmate's death

In its scathing report on the death of India Cummings, a state agency cited the "alarming pattern" of Erie County inmates who have wound up dead after a mental health crisis.

The county Legislature should take up the topic, the state Commission of Correction's Medical Review Board said as it forwarded its report to the Legislature chairman.

One well-placed legislator said she wants to do just that.

"This is not something I am taking lightly," said April Baskin of Buffalo, the Democratic majority leader who also heads the Legislature's Public Safety Committee.

"This is not a good representation of Erie County," she said of the Medical Review Board's finding that Cummings' death in February 2016 should be ruled a homicide because of medical neglect.

Baskin composed a letter inviting Sheriff Timothy Howard and his jail administrators, plus officials from the county Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health – whose employees played a role in Cummings' care – to attend a special Public Safety Committee meeting at 10 a.m. July 25 in the Legislature's chambers in Old County Hall.

Baskin said a Sheriff's Office official responded that Howard's team is willing to meet with her privately, but would not commit to discussing the state report at the committee's public meeting.

"This is unacceptable," Baskin said of the state's report about Cummings' death.

The Medical Review Board, a panel of doctors and lawyers which examines New York's in-custody deaths, said the medical and mental health care given to Cummings while in the Erie County Holding Center "was so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience."

Inmate's death should be ruled homicide, scathing state report finds

Many researchers and academics have noted that with the closing of large psychiatric centers, people in the throes of mental illness or despair often end up in jails. Sheriffs and prison wardens have become the nation's largest caretakers of people with serious mental illness who, in an earlier era, would be cared for in asylums.

The Medical Review Board often looks at the mental health care that jails provide inmates who die after displaying disorientation, confusion, mental illness and the throes of addiction. The review board said Cummings would have survived her physical and mental tailspin had the jail's medical care and mental health care been adequate.

She was not the first Holding Center inmate to die in a mental health crisis, the review board said. Others include:

  • Richard A. Metcalf Jr., a burglary defendant, who was reportedly raking his skin with a fork and hitting his head against a wall when a team of deputies extracted him from his cell in November 2012. To stop him from spitting blood, jail deputies placed a spit mask over Metcalf's head but knotted its strings so tightly around his neck they strangled him, the Commission of Correction said. Several of the deputies, testifying in a civil suit against the county, said they had no idea how to apply a spit mask.
  • Robert J. Henchen, a defendant in two murders who, like Cummings, had stopped eating and taking medications and was urinating on himself in 2007. Henchen died of bronchopneumonia due to starvation and dehydration, according to an autopsy report. When it examined Henchen's death, the Medical Review Board said Henchen had received "inadequate mental health care of professional-misconduct proportions."
  • Michael Bennett, who was arrested in July 2002 when Buffalo police found him walking naked on Seventh Street. In the Holding Center three days later, he was throwing himself against his cell door and to the floor. He struggled with jail deputies and stopped breathing on the way to Erie County Medical Center, where he was declared dead. The state investigation attributed Bennett's death to traumatic asphyxia: A shoe had been pressed into his back. The county paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit.

Then there are the inmates who have committed suicide. Over the last 10 years, the Medical Review Board criticized the mental health services offered six Holding Center inmates who killed themselves.

A total of 24 Erie County inmates have died in the county jail or the county correctional facility since Howard became sheriff in 2005. Many of those deaths have led to lawsuits that cost county taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to both settle and defend. By December 2017, the lawsuit filed over Metcalf's death had cost county taxpayers an average of $15,000 a month to defend.

A list of 24 Erie County inmates who have died since Howard became sheriff

A lawsuit has been filed against the county over Cummings' death. The Medical Review Board's report strengthens the case that the plaintiff's lawyers have alleged, said Matthew Albert of Buffalo, one of the lawyers pressing the litigation. But the review board's report also restated many facts the lawyers already knew and are able to prove in court, Albert said.

For example, the lawyers had obtained statements from inmates who said they knew Cummings was laying on the floor of her cell, moaning, disoriented and incontinent. The inmates said they had urged deputies to get her medical help.

"Other inmates were trying to get her medical care," Albert said. "They were concerned for her when those who were paid to protect her were not."

The Medical Review Board cited a number of factors in Cummings' death: complications from a broken arm – likely inflicted during her arrest in Lackawanna after stealing a car; a blood clot that traveled to her lungs; dehydration; and acute renal failure.

It is "unconscionable," the Medical Review Board said, "that for a six-day period, Cummings was maintained on constant-observation status, with documented observations of her failing to eat, failing to urinate (and) mentally decompensating without any immediate referrals to the jail physician or reports to the jail administration."

The existence of a lawsuit has a chilling effect on the willingness of public officials to publicly discuss jail deaths. Citing the lawsuit filed by Cummings' mother, the Sheriff's Office declined to comment Monday for an article about the Medical Review Board report. So did an aide to County Executive Mark Poloncarz. Poloncarz appoints the leaders of the county's Health and Mental Health units.

But Baskin has persuaded Howard to appear before her committee on other sensitive matters. In April, he addressed the state Commission of Correction's findings that the two facilities he oversees – the Holding Center and Correctional Facility – are among the worst-run in New York. Howard answered her questions while a county lawyer sat at his side, to stop him should his words stray into any of the topics being litigated.

The forum gave Howard another chance to complain about the Commission of Correction, which he called "foolish," among other things.

“I ask that this body remain open-minded to the possibility – at least the possibility – that the state is being picayune with certain facilities that have opposed their will in the past,” Howard said, “probably none more so than us.”
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