WASHINGTON – The United States has filed a lawsuit alleging that conditions 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, routinely and systematically deprive inmates of constitutional rights, the Justice Department announced. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York.
The lawsuit follows a nearly two year investigation, the findings of which were detailed in a letter sent to Erie County Executive Chris Collins on July 15, 2009. That letter documented evidence of numerous constitutional violations, including staff-on-inmate violence; inmate-on-inmate violence; sexual misconduct between staff and inmates; sexual misconduct among inmates; an inadequate system to prevent suicide and self-injurious behavior; inadequate medical and mental health care; and serious deficiencies in environmental health and safety.
The department’s investigation revealed evidence of a number of serious violations of constitutional rights at the jail. For example, Erie County fails to protect inmates against known suicide risks and to provide constitutionally required mental health care. Since 2003, nine inmates have committed suicide, and at least 15 inmates have attempted to commit suicide or have taken steps that demonstrated suicidal ideation. Between 2007 and 2008, there were three suicides and at least 10 attempted suicides.
“Jails must provide for the basic medical and mental health needs of inmates and must keep them safe from attacks by other inmates and excessive force by staff. We have repeatedly sought the county’s cooperation in working toward an amicable resolution in this matter, and we regret that the county’s failure to cooperate compels us to litigate,” said Loretta King, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “In light of the severity of the conditions, including multiple suicides and beatings, we must take action to ensure that the constitutional rights of those persons detained at the facilities, many of whom have not been convicted of any crime, are protected.”
Kathleen M. Mehltretter, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, stated, “Our purpose in bringing this action is to ensure that the facilities consistently maintain policies, procedures and practices that protect the well being and health of the inmates. Due to the county's lack of cooperation, we must seek court intervention to resolve these issues.”
The Civil Rights Division is authorized to conduct such investigations under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980 (CRIPA). This statute allows the federal government to identify and root out systemic abuses such as those discovered in Erie County. Under CRIPA, the Justice Department has investigated the conditions at nursing homes, mental health facilities, residences for persons with developmental disabilities, and juvenile justice facilities, as well as similar institutions.
The United States’ findings letter to Erie County Executive Chris Collins is available at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/split/documents/Erie_findlet_redact_07-15-09.pdf. 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.