Justice Department wants suicide expert to examine Erie County Holding Center

By Matt Spina
The Buffalo News
February 6, 2010


The Erie County Holding Center reported a suicide in December and a suicide attempt in January. Now, Justice Department lawyers are pushing a judge to let them and their suicide-prevention expert into the Holding Center no later than next month.

The lawyers say the Holding Center’s suicide rate is almost five times the national average, so they want to examine county documents and conduct interviews that will help them improve the suicide-prevention effort.

For almost two years, Erie County Attorney Cheryl A. Green has refused to let the Justice Department inspect the county Holding Center in Buffalo and county Correctional Facility in Alden without a county lawyer present. Three suicides have occurred in the facilities during Erie County’s refusal to grant access.

Green opposes the Justice Department’s latest request as well, describing it as improper until U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny rules on her motion to dismiss the Justice Department’s lawsuit against the county and the officials who manage its jails.

The lawsuit, filed in 2009, levels broad accusations that the county fails to protect the constitutional rights of inmates at its Holding Center and Correctional Facility by condoning violence against inmates, providing poor health care and mental health care, and doing too little to prevent suicide, among other things.

The Justice Department restricted its request for “expedited discovery” to an examination of suicide-prevention efforts. The Justice Department said it wants its expert to identify “immediate measures” Erie County can employ to “decrease the likelihood of preventable suicides and suicide attempts.”

Green, however, does not agree the Justice Department has offered a helping hand. “I would see this as putting a toe in the door and pushing it wide open,” she said. Green said Erie County meets state regulations on suicide prevention, and she disagrees with the calculation that the Holding Center suicide rate is almost five times the national average.

“We are doing exactly what needs to be done,” she said. “Until a court says otherwise, there is no reason to engage in this type of pre-action discovery.”

While no date has been set for the matter to be argued before Skretny, the Justice Department says it wants to begin its inspection at 9 a.m., March 22, and asks to interview inmates about mental health treatment and suicide-prevention “outside the presence” of Holding Center staff or the county’s lawyers.

Green argued in federal court Dec. 16 that the Justice Department lawsuit against Erie County over conditions at its two jails should be dismissed. The next day, Adam Murr, a 31-year-old bank robbery suspect, hanged himself in his Holding Center cell by using shoelaces tied to an air vent. Murr was the latest of several inmates to use a vent grate for suicide, the Justice Department said.

One month later, 29-year-old Marcia Mitchell, an inmate on constant watch because she had attempted suicide, was able to ingest a bottle of aspirin in another attempt to end her life. She recovered and has admitted to charges that she tried to smother her baby.

“Mr. Murr’s suicide marks the fourth suicide by hanging at ECHC since 2007 and the eighth since 2003,” the Justice Department said in court papers. “Ms. Mitchell’s suicide attempt,” the lawyers continued, “marks the second time that we are aware of since 2007 that an inmate attempted suicide by ingesting medication and the fourth time since 2007 that an inmate was able to improperly obtain or hoard copious amounts of medication.”

Even though Skretny has yet to rule on Green’s motion to dismiss the case, the Justice Department said it can seek the right to collect information because it’s far from certain that Skretny will dismiss the lawsuit, and the federal government will be allowed to collect evidence at some point.

The Erie County Holding Center is one of the state’s busiest jails, maintaining a daily population of around 680. It receives thousands of people a year just hours or minutes after their arrests, when experts say they are most prone to suicidal thoughts.

Researchers cite three primary reasons why inmates are at greater risk of suicide than society at large: the large proportion of inmates who have mental illness, the enforced withdrawal from alcohol and drugs, and the traumatic effect of incarceration and/or conviction.

The Justice Department wants the Holding Center to allow an inspection by Lindsay M. Hayes, a project director for the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives. Hayes, in a statement for the court, said he has 32 years of experience related to suicide prevention in jails, prisons and juvenile facilities.

Hayes said that based on the Holding Center’s average daily population and the eight suicides he believes occurred from 2002 to 2009, its suicide rate is almost five times the national average as set by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. “I have a substantial number of concerns regarding ECHC’s suicide-prevention practices,” Hayes wrote but said he cannot determine which practices are deficient without access to the facility and firsthand information on the intake process.