Erie County and the U.S. Justice Department have signed an agreement to dismiss the federal lawsuit that sought improved conditions at the downtown Holding Center and the Correctional Facility in Alden, County Executive Chris Collins said Wednesday.
Under the agreement, the county will continue to retain two respected corrections consultants who will guide improvements to policies, procedures and physical surroundings at both facilities, Collins said.
The county also will inform the Justice Department of any improvements it intends to implement -- in medical care, mental health care and sanitation, and in regulating the use of force against inmates -- and let the federal agency comment. But the Justice Department will not be able to reject or affect the changes, he said.
"We are always going to look at continuous improvement," Collins said. "We never violated anyone's constitutional rights. We always met or exceeded the minimum standards of incarceration."
Erie County agrees to retain the consultants for 18 months, though Collins said they have proven so useful he will keep them longer. Medical expert Dr. Richard Shansky and mental health expert Dr. Jeff Metzner cost the county a total of about $70,000 a year, Collins said.
But Shansky also will replace an outside expert from Connecticut, Dr. Robert L. Trestman, who cost the county about $65,000 a year monitoring the improved suicide-prevention measures it already had agreed to implement, Collins said.
On the advice of Shansky and Metzner, the county plans to remake the Holding Center's second-floor gym into a reception area, where the medical and mental health needs of new detainees will be assessed by medical professionals with offices and resources nearby.
Collins called the agreement a victory for his administration and "the taxpayers of Erie County" because county government will not have to implement expensive and unnecessary improvements in inmate care.
For example, he said the county will not have to ensure that inmates receive seven days of medication upon release, or that they be provided medical braces, prostheses or hearing aids. The county also need not ensure that inmates be provided two sets of outer clothing and seven sets of underwear a week, nor document weekly inspections of all showers, sinks and toilets.
Nor does the county admit violating the constitutional rights of any inmate, Collins said.
"Critics of my administration said we should have fully cooperated with the [Justice Department]," he said in a news release announcing the agreement. "Doing so would have been the equivalent of handing the federal government a blank check. Not on my watch. By standing up to the [Justice Department], we forced this dismissal and saved local taxpayers untold amounts of money."
The county executive said that, also as part of the agreement, the Justice Department acknowledged that Collins, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and their key aides involved in jail management should not have been named as defendants in the lawsuit. The county's lawyers said it's redundant to name as defendants both the county and its employees acting in their official capacities. The county, in this case and others, has sought to have employees dismissed as defendants.
With Collins no longer a defendant, County Attorney Jeremy A. Colby signed the agreement on the county's behalf. Among those signing for the Justice Department were Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general who leads the Civil Rights Division, and U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., Collins said.
Hochul late Wednesday said it would be inappropriate to comment until an agreement has been finalized in court. He has called a news conference for this morning "to discuss developments which could resolve the lawsuit," according to an advisory for reporters.
The agreement would require the approval of U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division embarked on an investigation into the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility in 2007, when Joel A. Giambra was county executive.
When Collins entered office in 2008, he refused to cooperate with the probe. His county attorney at the time, Cheryl A. Green, said Erie County would fare better by forcing the Justice Department to sue rather than negotiating a slate of potentially expensive improvements. Collins and Green said the Justice Department was trying to install hotel amenities into a jail.
The Justice Department did sue, in September 2009, after completing a 50-page report that described shoddy medical care and mental health care at the two facilities, and assorted horrors against inmates perpetrated by jail deputies and corrections officers.
The county and the Justice Department later agreed to an order improving suicide-prevention measures.
But lawyers for both sides then jousted in court for months in the discovery phase of the lawsuit. Erie County recently complained the Justice Department was rebuffing requests for documents about how the lawsuit and the 50-page report came together.
"The [Justice Department] went to court and made serious allegations against Erie County, presenting them as fact," said Collins, who is seeking re-election in November. "Now, after many months of discovery, the [Justice Department] could never provide proof to legitimize its allegations of civil rights violations."