Mental health care inside the Erie County Holding Center

Sep 14, 2018

The 2016 death of 27-year-old India Cummings has raised many questions about the care of inmates at the Erie County Holding Center.  As part of our Mental Health Initiative, WBFO’s senior reporter Eileen Buckley finds out how inmates are screened for mental health while held at the jail.

Inside the Erie County Holding Center from 2010 during a media tour.
Credit Media pool photo from 2010 tour of Erie County Holding Center

“In my opinion, I think her first stop should have been at ECMC for evaluation,” said India Walton.

India Walton has been very vocal about the case of Cummings case.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

Walton is a nurse who now works as a community organization with Open Buffalo. She’s been very vocal about the case of Cummings case. 

In a recent report, the New York State Commission of Corrections declared the death of India Cummings as a “homicide due to medical neglect.” 

“You have a young woman, who by all other accounts has lead a normal life, who all of a sudden, steals a car and has this sort of erratic behavior and is very combative – that should have alerted someone to take her to ECMC for a mental health evaluation,” Walton explained.

There were reports Cummings allegedly use synthetic marijuana, but she had no history of mental illness. However, the corrections report clearly indicates her behavior at the holding center should have been cause for concern.

“This is outrageous. I mean we can’t tolerate this,” declared Ann Venuto, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for Buffalo and Erie County.

Venuto said she has learned Cummings behavior was totally out of character.   

Ann Venuto, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for Buffalo and Erie County.
Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley

“I actually spoke to someone who worked with her and who was baffled by the description of her in jail. She said this young woman worked - I think at an insurance company – she’s lovely, she had no psychiatric history, no criminal history. My understanding is she took synthetic marijuana - which some people can have a terrible reaction - bring on a psychosis,” Venuto said.

County mental health leaders were willing to meet with us, but clearly stated they could not discuss or answer questions about the Cummings case because it is in litigation.  Michael Ranney is the Erie County commissioner of Mental Health.

“We have had to increase and enhance services and staffing within the facility. We have been very activity involved in reform of jail work over the last several years, that has included – one of the very positive things we did was we established a relationship with the University,” Ranney said.

In the last couple of decades there’s been an increase in the number of individuals with mental illness incarcerated in jails and prisons across the U.S., creating a major challenge to provide enough mental health services.

"We see about 4,000 patients a year in the holding center,” noted Dr. Daniel Antonius, University at Buffalo professor and director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry.

Inside the Erie County Holding Center from 2010 during a media tour.
Credit Media pool photo from 2010 tour of Erie County Holding Center

The county contracts with the UB’s Psychiatry Department, providing psychiatric services at both the holding center and Erie County Correctional Facility.

“We typically see inmates, based on level of care, we see inmates sometimes within a day and sometimes within one to two weeks, so if you compared to the community standard - it's actually  pretty quick because in the community you often wait  two to three months before you’re seeing a psychiatrist,” Dr. Antonius described.

When an individual arrives at the holding center, they undergo a screening process. A registered nurse reviews their medical health, mental health, and any history of substance abuse and provides a suicide screening.

“We might get one real chance to meet with this individual - try to give them some information,” replied Ronald Schoelerman, director of Erie County Forensic Mental Health.

“What can we hand them or get into their wheel house for tools for when they get out because we might see that individual one day at noon and by the next day they’re released from custody,” Schoelerman explained.

In the State Corrections report, the Medical Review Board directly cites Erie County Forensic Mental Health as failing to ‘properly initiate and expedite’ what is known as the ‘730-copentency exam’ requested by a judge for Ms. Cummings.

“Is this person capable of managing and sustaining through the rigors of the legal process, understanding what they need to do to cooperate with their attorneys and then proceed through that,” Schoelerman stated.

Meanwhile, the county has increased services and staffing at the holding center as part of on-going federally required reforms.   

Outside the Erie County Holding Center.
Credit WBFO News file photo by Eileen Buckley

"With respect to the Department of Justice - mental health care has been in substantial compliance as well as sustained compliance in many areas. There are a couple of final areas we are working on right now - but we anticipate that in the very near future - we will be at a level where we have met all those all of those agreed upon pieces that we agreed upon with the Department of Justice,” Ranney replied.   

But delivering all the needed mental health care services remains a daunting task.

“It’s ridiculous to ask the criminal justice system to have correction officers and police to take care of people who are challenging to people who are trained in psychiatry,” conclude NAMI’s Venuto.