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A Tale of Two Jails

Could Erie County have benefited from a different response to the feds?

Following a long-term federal investigation that exposed violations of the constitutional rights of inmates—including failure to protect inmates from physical harm caused by excessive force used by staff, and failure to provide adequate medical and mental healthcare—the Westchester County Jail will now have to clean up its act or face a federal lawsuit.

According to a 42-page report handed down on November 19 by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, such a lawsuit might not be necessary, in light of the cooperative response demonstrated thus far by Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano.

“We interviewed Jail staff in administration, security, medical and mental health, facilities management, and training. We also interviewed inmates. Before, during, and after our visit, we reviewed an extensive number of videos and documents, including policies and procedures, orientation and staff training materials, and unit logs. We also reviewed numerous internally prepared Jail reports involving incidents, uses of force, investigations, and disciplinary matters. In keeping with our pledge of transparency and to provide technical assistance where appropriate, we conveyed our preliminary findings to WCJ officials and legal counsel for Westchester County (the “County”) at the close of our site visit,” the letter to Spano reads.

“We thank the staff at WCJ for their helpful and professional conduct throughout the course of the investigation. The County provided us with access to records and personnel, and responded to our requests, before, during, and after our on-site visit in a forthcoming manner. We also appreciate the County’s receptiveness to our consultants’ on-site recommendations. Accordingly, we have every reason to believe that the County is committed to remedying all known deficiencies at WCJ.”

Contrast that tone with the letter from the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice sent to Erie County Executive Chris Collins on July 15:

“The County’s unreasonable denial of our request for access is especially troubling, given that inmates committed suicide on March 31, 2008, and April 30, 2008, well after we placed the County on notice that our investigation would review allegations of deficient suicide prevention measures. If the County had agreed to our proposed investigation procedures, County officials would have had an early opportunity to work directly with our experts and staff, in an effort to improve conditions at the facilities with the hopes of avoiding such incidents. They also would have had an opportunity to address any identified problems on a voluntary, proactive basis at an early stage of this investigation.”

As we all know, Erie County chose to deny the feds access to facilities.

The letter continues, “By law, our investigation must proceed regardless of whether officials choose to cooperate. Indeed, when CRIPA (Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act) was enacted, lawmakers considered the possibility that state and local officials might not cooperate in our federal investigation…such non-cooperation is a factor that may be considered adversely when drawing conclusions about a facility. We now draw such an adverse conclusion.”

And then they started a lawsuit against Erie County and the Sheriff’s Office. They are scheduled to be in court in a couple of weeks.

Neither County Attorney Cheryl Green nor the county’s communications director, Grant Loomis, returned phone calls seeking their thoughts on the matter, but you’ve gotta wonder, in light of the way things are going for Westchester, if they might wish they’d toned it down a bit with the feds right from the start.

“There’s really two ways of handling it. Either you cooperate or you don’t,” says Erie County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz. “I’ve spoken to the county attorney and others on this, in regard to why the county is acting as it is. They feel it is in the best interest of the county to fight in the hope that it would result in a better deal for the county. I’m an attorney by trade, I’m not an accountant. I can understand the legal issues, but it’s difficult. I thought all along that not allowing the federal and state government to come in was wrong. I thought it created a more adversarial environment than it needed to.

“We do know there’s problems in the jail,” Poloncarz continues. “There is a Constitutional standard of care we owe to inmates, whether people in the public care about it or not. Otherwise, we not only face the wrath of the federal and state government, but we subject ourselves to lawsuits from inmates. We’ve had them in the past and we’ve paid out on them in the past.

“I think it’s just time to clean up the act. I would hope that the administration and the sheriff would do that, and not just fight to the nth degree in the hope that the federal and state government would go away, because I don’t think that’s gonna happen. And they’ve got more resources than we do.”

—buck quigley

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