Justice Department Announces Agreement to Protect Prisoners from Life-threatening Conditions at Erie County, New York, Facilities

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced today that it has filed a stipulated order of dismissal to resolve its lawsuit concerning conditions of confinement at the Erie County Holding Center (ECHC), a pre-trial detention center in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Erie County Correctional Facility (ECCF), a correctional facility in Alden, N.Y.The lawsuit, which the department filed on Sept. 30, 2009, in federal court in the Western District of New York, alleged that conditions at the facilities routinely and systemically deprive prisoners of constitutional rights through inadequate medical and mental health care, failures to protect prisoners from harm, and deficiencies in environmental health and safety.

“As the Supreme Court confirmed over 35 years ago, ‘There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country,’” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The relief that we have obtained through this agreement will ensure that prisoners in Erie County are no longer denied the basic constitutional rights that humanity affords to them.This agreement follows on the heels of last year’s settlement on suicide prevention to reverse the tide of years of neglect and harm at the Erie County facilities.”

“This is a historic agreement. As a result of the government’s lawsuit, the county of Erie will be making broad and significant changes that will ensure the prisoners at ECHC and ECCF will be afforded their rights under the Constitution, such as comprehensive mental health care and medical care and protection from harm,” said William J. Hochul, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York.

On June 22, 2010, the department resolved a portion of its lawsuit against Erie County regarding suicide prevention and related mental health care following a series of suicides that occurred after the United States filed suit. However, individuals with mental illness continued to suffer as a result of lack of appropriate treatment in ECHC and ECCF, and were also subjected to excessive uses of force by staff. The stipulated order entered by the court today requires Erie County to implement a comprehensive mental health program for its prisoners, including:

Screening and assessment of individuals by qualified mental health professionals within designated time periods;

Referral of individuals with mental health issues for treatment within designated time periods on an emergent, urgent or routine basis;

Provision of clinically appropriate mental health treatment at outpatient, residential and crisis levels of care; and

Implementation of medication administration policies to ensure that psychotropic medications are prescribed and delivered in a timely and clinically appropriate manner.

In order to implement this comprehensive mental health treatment program, Erie County has increased the number of mental health staff at its facilities. This stipulated order, coupled with the June 2010, stipulated settlement agreement, will afford individuals held at ECHC and ECCF with appropriate mental health care.

Erie County also has agreed to enhance its provision of medical care at the facilities, including maintaining complete and unified medical and mental health records at the location where each prisoner is actually housed, in order to ensure continuity of treatment and care. Erie County will also establish quality assurance reviews for its medical and mental health treatment programs to analyze and correct trends that present risk of harm to prisoners.

The stipulated order also includes comprehensive provisions aimed at addressing sexual abuse at ECHC and ECCF by changing the way the county investigates allegations of sexual abuse by prisoners and staff, including appointing a sexual abuse coordinator within the facilities, offering counseling services for victims of sexual abuse, and increasing training and awareness on prison rape and sexual violence. Additionally, the stipulated order includes provisions to ensure proper investigation of allegations of violence and excessive force.

Independent consultants will monitor compliance with the medical and mental health provisions of the stipulated order and the previously ordered suicide prevention settlement. The court will retain the ability to enforce the terms of both settlements.