Editor’s note: This is the first story reported by Bruce Rushton for Investigative Post. Bruce joined the staff last week; he covers criminal justice. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A federal judge has approved termination of a consent decree designed to improve health care and reduce suicide risk in Erie County jail facilities.
At the request of county lawyers and the U.S. Department of Justice, which sued the county in 2009, U.S. District Court Judge William M. Skretny on June 13 approved dismissal of the decree created more than a decade ago to provide oversight of the Erie County Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden.
The dismissal came after two doctors assigned to monitor progress in implementing improvements determined that the county had been in compliance with the decree for at least 18 months.
In reports dating to 2011, Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, a Colorado psychiatrist, and Dr. Ronald Shansky, former medical director for the Illinois Department of Corrections, documented the county’s progress in areas ranging from providing dental care to keeping medical records to training staff to managing chronic disease to treating inmates in detox. Under terms of the decree, the county also agreed to establish a committee that would review suicides and serious suicide attempts.
Since Skretny approved the decree in 2010 and 2011, at least eight inmates have committed suicide while monitors were in place. Another dozen have died from causes that included complications from diabetes, complications of a broken arm and a heart attack, according to media reports.
State Attorney General Letitia James and the county medical examiner have faulted jailers for providing inadequate medical care in at least two cases.
At least 29 inmates, including three since Metzner and Shansky determined that the county had fulfilled settlement terms, have died since 2007, when the Department of Justice launched an investigation into medical care at county jails.
On the same day that Skretny dismissed the consent decree, the mother of Sean Riordan, who died in 2022 while detoxing at the holding center, sued Sheriff John Garcia, alleging poor medical care.
In the lawsuit, Melissa Wischerath, attorney for Riordan’s mother, cites a recent New Republic story in which Garcia addressed medical care in the county’s jails.
“We’re set up to fail,” Garcia told the magazine. “We don’t have the means to give individuals that come through the door adequate medical care.”
Via a spokesperson, Garcia declined an interview request. In a press release, the sheriff credited department employees for termination of the federal case.
“This was no small undertaking, and I am extremely proud of their efforts,” Garcia said in the release.
Metzner, who says that he’s monitored jail medical care in 40 states over 40 years, said that he can’t talk about specifics of the consent decree outside what’s contained in his status reports entered into the court record.
“I can tell you that my practice would be that I wouldn’t recommend terminating the case if I didn’t think that things weren’t better,” said Metzner, who determined in 2021 that the county was in compliance with the decree.
The doctor said that he can’t say whether he reviewed the cases of 20 inmates who died while he was monitoring jail conditions.
“As a monitor, there’s two things I would say: There are always going to be deaths, in good systems and bad systems,” Metzner said. “Whether it’s a good system or a bad system, you need to review deaths.”
Shansky did not respond to an interview request; his reports show that he did review deaths.
In 2021, the New York State Commission of Correction sued the county and former Sheriff Timothy Howard in state Supreme Court, saying that jailers had either failed to report to the commission or had improperly reported eight cases of sexual abuse involving guards and inmates, as required by state rules and regulations.
Three months after being sued, the county settled, with the sheriff’s office acknowledging that it had not properly reviewed, investigated and assessed several incidents, nor had it promptly reported incidents to the state, as required.
Sexual abuse also was an issue in the federal lawsuit, with the county agreeing to develop policies on reporting and investigating jail sexual abuse. The federal settlement didn’t specify that the county report cases to the state. In his final status report, Shansky in 2019 wrote that the sheriff’s office had complied with the settlement agreement, including terms designed to prevent and document sexual abuse.
“It’s been both a privilege and a pleasure to work with people so dedicated to developing a responsive program,” Shansky wrote in his final report. “Good luck and may your professional performance be equal to your compassion for the patients.”
The attorney general’s office did not grant an interview request, instead asking that questions be put in writing. A Department of Justice attorney referred questions and an interview request to a spokesperson, who provided copies of court documents.
“Justice Department Announces Improvements to Conditions in Erie County Holding Center and Erie County Correctional Center,” reads a headline on a department press release announcing the end of the consent decree.
Wischerath – the attorney for Riordan, the deceased prisoner – said she doesn’t know why the county jail passed muster on sexual abuse matters in the federal lawsuit but still got sued by the attorney general for mishandling sexual abuse cases.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Wischerath said. “The right hand and the left hand don’t seem to be checking in with each other.”
She said it may be a case of the feds not going further than ensuring that policies are in place as opposed to verifying that policies are followed.
Wischerath also said she can’t explain why federal prosecutors and monitors found that the county satisfied the consent decree designed to improve health care and prevent suicides even as inmates died. As with sexual abuse, she said it may be a case of making sure that policies were in place but not ensuring that they were followed.
“Having a policy and implementing a policy are two different things,” Wischerath said.
Would she feel comfortable being incarcerated in Erie County, or having someone she cared about incarcerated in county lockups?
“To be honest, I have dogs: I wouldn’t want them there,” Wischerath answers. “I don’t think it’s a safe environment.”
In the case of Riordan, Wischerath writes in the lawsuit that the doomed inmate was put into a detox unit “upon intake” and was soon vomiting blood, asking for medical help and turning delirious. The county blames the inmate for his own demise, with assistant county attorney Anthony Targia writing in the court record that Riordan had concealed his alcohol addiction from jail staff during a medical screen upon booking.
Dr. Stacey Reed, associate county medical examiner who performed an autopsy, determined that Riordan had received inadequate medical care. Garcia responded in a written statement, praising jail staff and saying that Reed’s investigation was either incomplete or based on inaccurate assessment of information.
“For reasons unknown, Dr. Reed felt it appropriate to disparage the hardworking medical professionals of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office that do an incredible job under extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” Garcia wrote in the 2022 statement cited in a Buffalo News story.