BUFFALO, NY ( release from the Office of the County Executive ) Erie County and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) have jointly signed a Stipulated Order of Dismissal related to the Erie County Holding Center (ECHC) and the Erie County Correctional Facility (ECCF). The DOJ filed the lawsuit in federal court in September of 2009. The Order of Dismissal contains no findings of liability against the County. It also contains no finding that the County ever violated the civil rights of inmates.
In addition to the dismissal of the remaining case against the County involving excessive use of force, sanitation and the delivery of medical and mental health care, the DOJ took the additional step of discontinuing the case against individually named defendants Erie County Executive Chris Collins and Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard. The DOJ recognizes Erie County’s ongoing efforts to continue to improve the processes at both the Holding Center and Correctional Facility.
Declaring a victory for the taxpayers of Erie County, County Executive Chris Collins said the lawsuit was inappropriate and improper from the start. “The DOJ’s standard operating procedure is to use intimidation to force its way into counties so Washington bureaucrats can dictate changes to local jails to advance their social agenda with total disregard to local taxpayers who must foot the bill. Their objective is not to ensure that jails are providing inmates with constitutional minimum standards of incarceration, but rather to force taxpayers into providing a level of care that is far above any minimum standard, and, in some cases, above what hard working taxpayers have access to.”
“The DOJ went to court and made serious allegations against Erie County, presenting them as fact,” continued Collins. “Now, after many months of discovery, the DOJ could never provide proof to legitimize its allegations of civil rights violations. Erie County continued to press the court on the lack of discovery response from the DOJ, and a ruling on the discovery matter was fast approaching. No longer under the belief that Erie County would simply roll over, and up against the clock without the legal case it claimed to have, the DOJ was forced to agree to dismiss the case against Erie County.”
Under the Order of Dismissal, the DOJ:
· Acknowledges the County’s ongoing efforts to continue to improve the processes at the facilities;
· Agrees that there is no admission of liability on the part of the County;
· Retreats from its demand that the County perform and be bound by a staffing analysis (this was the DOJ’s way of forcing Erie County to hire more corrections officers);
· Retreats from its position that all inmates automatically receive 7 days of medication upon release;
· Retreats from its demand that inmates be provided, at County expense, medical braces, prostheses and hearing aids;
· Drops its demand that the County never use pepper spray to gain control over an inmate;
· Abandons its requirement that the County provide inmates 2 sets of outer clothing and 7 sets of underwear on a weekly basis;
· Drops its demand that the County install and monitor surveillance cameras in the common areas of all housing units;
· Drops its demand that the County perform a documented inspection, on a weekly basis, of all its showers, sinks, and toilets;
· Drops its requirement that the County perform and document monthly pest control efforts; and
· Drops its requirement that it review and approve any changes to policies, forms, handbooks, logs, screening tools, training curricula needed to implement the Dismissal Order. This power is invested solely in the Technical Compliance Consultant (TCC).
Under the dismissal, the TCC role will be shared by two experts already employed by Erie County for months. The County will continue to seek the advice and recommendations of medical expert Dr. Richard Shansky and mental health expert Dr. Jeff Metzner as it implements continuous improvement efforts at both the ECHC and ECCF. Metzner will also be responsible for monitoring the existing settlement agreement related to suicide prevention.
“Erie County is committed to doing what is necessary to provide a safe environment for inmates housed in our facilities,” continued Collins. “We have made some changes and they were the right thing to do. Critics of my administration said we should have fully cooperated with the DOJ. Doing so would have been the equivalent of handing the federal government a blank check. Not on my watch. By standing up to the DOJ, we forced this dismissal and saved local taxpayers untold amounts of money.”
This lawsuit attracted attention from legal observers outside of Erie County. Fred Cohen, Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Albany’s School of Criminal Justice, published an article in the Criminal Law Bulletin that was highly critical of the DOJ. Professor Cohen stated that the DOJ “likely exceeds its statutory mandates, regularly distorts case law to provide a rationale for doing business, and then fails to go far enough to achieve the system change sought: overreaching and underachieving.” Professor Cohen was a monitor in a DOJ case in the state of Ohio.
Commenting on the DOJ’s lawsuit against Erie County, Professor Cohen noted that the “Erie County (Buffalo) tug-of-war with the Justice Department turns importantly on the Justice Department’s apparent refusal to provide guidance on the applicable constitutional standards to be applied in their investigation.” Prof. Cohen also noted that “juvenile facilities, hospitals, jails, and prisons appear to be intimidated by the Justice Department and [they] . . . roll over, open the doors, [and] play nice” with the DOJ.