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Top Erie County sheriff's officials today unveiled their spanking-new $1.2 million reception housing area, designed to streamline the whole assessment process for new inmates in the Erie County Holding Center.

The sheriff's Jail Management Division turned an old basketball court and weight room on the second floor into a one-stop reception area, where inmates can be screened for medical, mental, drinking and drug problems, along with security concerns.

The unit also includes 36 beds for inmates with special needs – including drinking or mental health problems – who aren't ready to be housed in the jail's general population.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard led the tour of the new reception unit, built to clear up the logjam in the current first-floor reception area, where jail officials had to complete all the intake and assessment tasks within the legally mandated four hours.

The new streamlined process, along with other steps taken by sheriff's officials in the last few years, also will allow mental-health and medical professionals – rather than deputies – to screen new inmates for drinking, drug and suicidal tendencies. Experts say inmates are more likely to reveal such problems to those health professionals.

The unit is expected to open in about 30 days.

“Everything that we're doing in this area has always been done,” said Thomas Diina, superintendent of the Jail Management Division. “We're just doing it in a streamlined way.”

Michael Reardon, the jail's first deputy superintendent of compliance, put it another way.

“If you picture a river, it flows in one direction,” he said. “The inmates are going to do the same thing – flow in one direction.”

email: gwarner@buffnews.com