February 26, 2015 – The New York Civil Liberties Union this morning released the first in a series of reports documenting prisoner conditions at two Erie County jails. The NYCLU won the release of the reports following a two-year legal battle with the county, and the documents reveal that while the county has made progress on conditions in the jails, improvements have been inconsistent and slow in coming.
“After years of violence and abuse in Erie County’s jails, as well as costly litigation, the county has clearly made efforts to change policies and protect the people it incarcerates,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton. “But change on paper is different than real cultural change. The reports that the NYCLU won reveal that the county has more to do to ensure that reforms take root. You cannot look at these reports and think the county has done enough to clean up the Dickensian conditions in its jails.”
For years, Erie County has aggressively resisted investigations and subsequent legal challenges by the state and federal government regarding inhumane and unconstitutional conditions at its two county jails.
Investigations and legal complaints initiated by the U.S. Justice Department and the State Commission of Corrections have included allegations of inadequate medical care, violent treatment by prison personnel, and poor efforts to protect suicidal prisoners.
A two-year investigation by the Justice Department found evidence of staff-prisoner violence and sexual misconduct between staff and prisoners, along with an inadequate monitoring system to prevent suicide at the facilities. Since 2003, 10 inmates have committed suicide at both sites, and at least 16 additional inmates have attempted it.
In 2012, the NYCLU sued the county for the public release of compliance reports filed every six months following a 2009 lawsuit brought by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The reports are filed by physicians hired to monitor the county’s compliance with reforms to improve conditions at the facilities.
This first series of reports allows the public to start getting a sense of if Erie County is doing enough to ensure prisoner safety and meet the basic benchmarks the Justice Department requires. A second series of reports, focusing on mental health issues, is forthcoming.
“Erie County fought tooth-and-nail to avoid the public release of these reports, but their release today shows that the county’s reasons for fighting disclosure were completely unjustified,” said John A. Curr III, director of the NYCLU’s Western Regional Office. “The public has a right to see how far the county has to go to fix the jails, including ending the physical and sexual abuse against prisoners that led to a rash of suicides.”