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Jail improvements to be monitored

U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York William Hochul and Mary E. Flemming, Chief of the Civil Rights Division
photo by Joyce Kryszak
U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York William Hochul and Mary E. Flemming, Chief of the Civil Rights Division

By Joyce Kryszak

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wbfo/local-wbfo-982639.mp3

Buffalo, NY – A four-year long battle over conditions at Erie County's jails ended Thursday with an agreement signed by the County and the United States Department of Justice.

U.S. Attorney for the Western District William Hochul called it an historic agreement that protects prisoner rights and improves their living conditions.

But County Executive Chris Collins is claiming victory for the County. He said the County forced the United States Department of Justice to end the suit, saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in unnecessary perks for prisoners. Collins said the DOJ retreated because it could not prove its case.

"The Department of Justice went to court and made serious allegations against Erie County, presenting them as fact," said Collins. "Now, after many months of discovery, the Department of Justice could never prove any of their allegations of civil rights violations."

Among other things, the DOJ sought through the lawsuit to make the County improve its suicide prevention efforts.

The agreement signed Thursday requires the County to retain two compliance consultants who were hired to recommend and monitor improvements at the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility in Alden.

That includes revamping the mental health program with screenings, treatment and additional psychologists. Hochul said it should not have taken an expensive lawsuit to enforce basic constitutional rights.

"What began as a cooperative effort and could have ended the moment the County agreed to the minimal constitutional protections that it has now committed to, finally, after all these years, and all this expenditure of judicial resources, has been resolved in today's [Thursday's] agreement," said Hochul.

At least a half dozen U.S. attorneys and administrative staff were assigned to the case since it was filed in 2009. Collins said the County's expenses were minimal, handled by the County Attorney with a couple of outside consultants.

The stipulated order of dismissal still must be signed by federal judge William Skretney, who is currently reviewing the 38-page document.