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Lawsuit alleges inmate abuse still alive at Erie County jails

Meet Antwan Green. He’s 36 and he says he was denied medical treatment at the Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility because he’s black and gay.

He was suffering from chronic rectal bleeding and an eye injury.

“I was bleeding from the inside," he said. "I had informed the deputies that I was bleeding, that I needed to seek medical attention, the deputies refused to allow me to receive medical attention.”

Green is currently the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the county. He said when he was seen by medical staff, they refused to actually treat his injuries or send him to the hospital.

For his eye injury, he was told to use a hot compress. But, when he asked for one, court documents state he was told “You want medication, and you want a warm towel. It’s mostly the black gays that are always trying to pull this shit.”

“When she said that, I was so shocked," he said.

And, for his bleeding he was given Tylenol. Over his five month stay his injury was getting worse and worse.

"Horrible, terrible," he said. "I was in pain. I couldn't walk. My stomach was hurting, my anus part was hurting real  bad."

When he was released, he went straight to the hospital. He was told to get immediate surgery.

The county was taken to task over its long history inmate abuse and neglect. Back in the early 2000s, the federal government sued claiming staff at the holding center and correctional facility repeatedly and consistently disregarded risks to inmates.

The suit uncovered several extreme instances of excessive force that included “elevator rides” where inmates were physically assaulted; also using the same gloves covered in blood and feces during cavity searches; and hitting a pregnant woman in the face and  stomach.

The county declined to comment about their history or for this story. 

"When the government takes away your freedom, by detaining you they become responsible for your health and your safety," said  retired University at Buffalo law professor Nan Haynes.

Back in the mid-90s there was a problem with overcrowding. Haynes was a part of a group of lawyers who sued the county over conditions at the jail.

“The conditions were horrendous, it was like walking into a third world prison. It smelled terrible, there were insects flying around, there were rodents. There were people packed into small rooms, 20 people into a room smaller than my living room, with one toilet," she said. "It was terrible.”

Those issues were addressed, but problems began to emerge again in the early 2000s. Haynes says, care, custody and control are the three things that should be the focus in the county jails. But so far, she says, it’s not.

“They can’t get their own medicine anymore, they can’t get to the doctor on their own anymore, so you have to provide those things," she said. "They can’t get their own tooth brush anymore, you have to make sure they have toothbrushes and toothpaste.

"At one time a few years ago, women were complaining that there were not sanitary napkins, and they were using whatever they could find, sandwiches, and bread, there are some very horrible things, that don’t need to happen."

Some say race may play a role in the mistreatment of inmates.

Ivy Yapelli is a self-described white, middle class, suburban housewife, but she’s also an activist.

She found herself behind bars a few years ago, after getting arrested while participating in a sit in the county executive’s office.

"As poorly as I was treated, it still isn’t anything compared to what people of color experience at the hands of law enforcement and the holding center," she said.

But, take a look at the roster of inmates who have died, not all of them are minorities. Like Richard Metcalf was he was killed shortly after thanksgiving in November 2012. A spit mask was tied around his neck and a pillow case was pulled over his head.

"Awful. Just terrible," Haynes said.  "Yes he was difficult. They’ll always say well so and so was being difficult. It doesn’t matter, you can’t beat someone to death, you can’t strangle them. These things are not ok."

Right now, Haynes is pushing for the re-instatement of an oversight committee. If staffed fairly, she thinks is a possible solution to the problem.

Yapellie  says, the solution begins when folks start to speak up.

"If people don’t speak up about it, then nothing is ever going to change, especially white people" she said.  "Because, white people are the ones who benefit from the racism in our society.”

But, in the meantime monitoring and site visits of the county jails continues. According to court documents, the stipulated order of dismissal that resulted from the federal suit is still active. The next site visit is scheduled for October.

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