WASHINGTON – The Justice Department today announced that it has filed a stipulated settlement agreement resolving a portion of its lawsuit against Erie County, N.Y, regarding the limited issue of suicide prevention and related mental health care.
On Sept. 30, 2009, the department filed a lawsuit challenging the conditions of confinement at the Erie County Holding Center, a pre-trial detention center in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Erie County Correctional Facility, a correctional facility in Alden, N.Y. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, alleges that conditions at the facilities routinely and systemically deprive inmates of constitutional rights.
"After three recent suicides and a serious suicide attempt that left an inmate on life support, we are pleased that Erie County has agreed to promptly implement measures to safeguard inmates from further harm," said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division.
"After exhaustive mediation and settlement negotiations that resulted in today’s agreement, we are hopeful that the parties can continue to find ways to cooperatively resolve the remaining claims in this case to ensure constitutionally conditions of confinement at both facilities," said William J. Hochul Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York.
Since 2005, there have been eight suicides at the holding center, including three suicides that occurred after the Justice Department filed its complaint to remedy unconstitutional conditions that place inmates at risk of serious harm at the facilities. As part of its litigation, the United States’ suicide prevention expert found that the suicide rate at the holding center was five times the national average.
The stipulated settlement agreement addresses the county’s inadequate system of suicide prevention and self-injurious behavior of holding center inmates. Under the agreement, Erie County and the sheriff will implement detailed remedial measures to ensure that holding center inmates are protected from suicide hazards. Among these measures, the county will improve screening and assessment, provide suicide prevention and detoxification training to holding center staff, improve communication and record keeping, provide safe housing, and establish a risk management system that identifies and corrects deficiencies on an ongoing basis. Compliance with the agreement will be overseen by a jointly selected monitor, who will be paid by the county and will exercise broad duties, respectively, over suicide prevention practices and related mental health care. The county has agreed to provide the monitor broad access to the facility to ensure that the remedial measures are implemented properly. The court will retain jurisdiction over the stipulated settlement for the purpose of enforcing the terms therein.
"These changes, in particular the physical improvements, are needed to ensure the safety of all inmates. But it is also incumbent upon jail staff to follow through to prevent any more unnecessary deaths," said Hochul.
While the stipulated settlement agreement resolves this limited issue, the department will continue to vigorously advocate the remaining claims of its litigation that include broader mental health care concerns, staff-on-inmate violence, inmate-on-inmate violence, sexual misconduct between staff and inmates, sexual misconduct among inmates, inadequate medical care, and serious deficiencies in environmental health and safety.
Additional information about the Special Litigation Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division can be found at www.usdoj.gov/crt/split/index.html.