This is the third part of Columbia-Greene Media’s three-part series focusing on the county’s handling of past inmate deaths at the former Greene County Jail.
CATSKILL — Officials have denied failures at the former Greene County Jail, as well as accusations lodged in a March 2019 civil lawsuit filed against the county that a Greene County Jail corrections officer did not take action to prevent a recent inmate death.
Former Greene County Sheriff Greg Seeley defended the jail operations at a county Legislature meeting June 12, 2017.
“I understand through the grapevine because my phone never really rang that there’s some concerns about a letter written by the commissioner of corrections that I personally don’t answer anything the commission has to say,” Seeley said during the June 12 meeting, according to meeting minutes. “I’ll stand in front of yous [sic] all right now and say it’s absolutely bogus. I was elected by the people of Greene County here to be the sheriff of this county and I do designate people to answer letters and they do. I don’t answer to Tom Beilein, commissioner of corrections, OK? He didn’t elect me to be Greene County sheriff.”
Referring to the jail, Seeley told lawmakers at the June 2017 meeting they should be proud of Spitz for putting “Band-Aids” on the “disaster” the county has, according to meeting minutes.
During the meeting, Seeley stated either himself, former jail Superintendent Michael Spitz or Greene County attorney Edward Kaplan answered the commission’s letters.
Former Legislator Aidan O’Connor, D-Durham, questioned Seeley at the June 12 meeting about the allegations in a May 25, 2017, Commission of Correction letter to Seeley directing him to appear at a commission hearing because he had not responded to health and procedural concerns at the jail the commission laid out in prior reports and letters to the former sheriff.
“I’ll be honest with you, is it unfit? Is it unsafe? Absolutely,” Seeley replied, according to June 2017 meeting minutes. “But do you want me to be out there screaming and yelling and saying that to everybody out there? Absolutely not. I’ve never said a word about it. ‘It’s totally unsafe, unfit.’ We all know it is. Take a tour, come down and look, everybody.”
A month later, on July 24, 2017, Seeley wrote a letter to the commission arguing against closure of the facility.
“It is the position of the Greene County sheriff that the Greene County jail facility is not unsafe, unsanitary or inadequate to provide for the separation and classification of prisoners,” Seeley wrote in the July 24 letter.
On April 20, 2018, eight days after inmate Matthew Leombruno’s suicide, Seeley informed the commission that a recent engineering study found portions of the Greene County Jail structure on Bridge Street to be unsafe.
“Our mapping of the defects shows a loss in the integrity of the connection between the floor diaphragms and the south exterior wall of 80-90%,” according to the report by Kaaterskill Engineering. “This means that under a seismic event or wind storm that would be considered possible for our area, this wall could collapse.”
The firm estimated it would cost $300,000-$400,000 to reinforce the wall.
Seeley met with Legislators Michael Bulich, R-Catskill; former Public Safety Chairman William Lawrence, R-Cairo; and former Board of Legislators Chairman Kevin Lewis, R-Greenville, on April 20, and the group made the decision to close the facility.
The commission formally gave its approval to permanently shutter the original Greene County Jail in a letter May 3, 2018.
“The commission agreed with your decision to immediately vacate the jail and approved substitute jail orders to transfer custody of all committed inmates to other jails,” according to the letter.
Greene County Jail’s administration received a 14-page Commission of Correction report of citations May 27, 2016, about the facility’s inadequate security and supervision, discipline and visitation policies, food services, sanitation, commissary, nondiscriminatory treatment, grievance program, good behavior allowance, educational services for youth and chemical agents policy.
Seeley was allowed to submit comments responding to the citations until June 27, 2016, according to the report. The commission received no response and sent Seeley another letter July 21, 2016.
“As of this writing, no response from your department has been received,” according to commission Chairman Thomas Beilein’s July 21 letter. “Please submit such response immediately.”
The commission wrote Seeley again Sept. 28, 2016.
“To date, no response has been received,” Beilein wrote. “In order to avoid judicial enforcement by the commission, please provide a response to the report by Oct. 12.”
Judicial enforcement may result in the commission petitioning a judge to close a jail facility.
Beilein noted Seeley’s lack of response a third time in a fourth letter Nov. 15, 2016, which reduced the facility jail’s maximum facility capacity to 12 beds.
The capacity was reduced due to staffing deficiencies, according to Beilein’s letter.
“The capacity reduction is necessary given the facility’s inadequate staffing levels that continue to remain well below the level required by the Commission’s Position and Staffing Analysis,” according to the letter. “Additionally, security staff continue to abandon required jail posts following their reassigned [sic] to perform inmate transports, without having the required jail posts backfilled, resulting in violations of facility staffing regulations.”
The findings were reported in a previous evaluation in May 2016, Beilein wrote, which required corrective action be taken to address the staffing deficiency.
“Nevertheless, the commission received no response to the evaluation despite two subsequent correspondences requesting a response,” Beilein said in his May letter.
The commission’s November 2016 citations included keeping male inmates locked in their cells for almost all of the day without cause, having a food service program that had not been approved by a state certified dietician or nutritionist and lacking a grievance program for inmates.
Kaplan addressed the facility capacity in a Dec. 13, 2016, response to the commission’s November letter.
Kaplan argued the jail was in compliance with state corrections law and inmates not being disciplined were out of their cells for seven hours and 25 minutes each day. Changes to the grievance program were made after a commission site visit in April, the county attorney wrote.
Grievance forms were available to all inmates and determinations were made and presented to the inmates within five days, Kaplan wrote. An appeals process was also in place, according to Kaplan’s letter.
The Greene County Jail used the state Department of Correction and Community Supervision-approved menus for inmate meals, Kaplan added in his response to the commission.
On Jan. 4, 2017, Beilein wrote Seeley about the jail’s outstanding citations the commission raised the previous year that included issues with the security and supervision, and discipline policies, food services, classification policies and procedures, grievance program and confinement of male inmates, despite Kaplan’s December 2016 letter of response to some of the outstanding citations.
Kaplan responded Jan. 18, 2017, to allegations of male inmates being locked in their cells for most of the day, stating the jail’s daily schedule allowing inmates to be out of their cells for seven hours and 25 minutes total, in increments, had been in place since 2011 and no physical altercations between inmates had occurred in the six-year period.
In his January 2017 letter, Kaplan acknowledged the county jail’s classification policy may be lacking, attributing it to the age of the facility.
“The Greene County Jail facility, constructed in 1908, does not permit nor lend itself toward full compliance with state minimum standards in this regard because the physical plant lacks the space for classification and separation of inmates during intake procedure,” according to Kaplan’s letter.
The commission followed up with a site visit November 2017. After the inspection, the commission prompted the jail’s administration to address issues with the facility’s system of reporting incidents, along with other citations, according to an April 10, 2018, letter from the commission.
“These findings were brought to your facility’s administration attention at an exit interview that took place at the conclusion of the evaluation,” according to the letter signed by Commission of Correction Chairman Allen Riley. “A response to this evaluation is required and is requested by no later than May 10. Such response shall include actions taken or to be taken to address the findings contained within this report.”
In 2016, the commission found the jail had not updated its written security and supervision policy for a decade, or since 2006 — prior to Seeley taking office in 2007.
“The facility implemented a blanket policy in which all inmates deemed to be a risk of self-harm were required to wear [anti] suicide smocks,” according to the report. “Such inmates must be placed on constant supervision — in such instances, there is no need to deprive inmates of clothing required by regulation.”
An anti-suicide smock is a tear-resistant, single outer piece of clothing generally used to prevent an individual from forming a noose with the garment.
More than one year after the jail closed, former Lawrence, R-Cairo, was not concerned with the management of the former jail, he said Sept. 5, 2019.
“Mike Spitz is a very good manager,” Lawrence said of the former jail superintendent. “I hope someone as competent takes his place.”
The commission can issue citations to police or law enforcement agencies that do not comply with the state’s minimum standards in operating a jail. Other disciplinary action includes issuing a directive, petitioning a court if the directive is not followed or ultimately closing the facility.
The commission nearly closed the Greene County Jail in July 2017 after Seeley failed to respond to multiple requests from the commission to address its multiple supervision, policy and safety violations.
Seeley was directed to appear at a July 12, 2017, hearing to “show cause why the Greene County Jail shall not be ordered closed,” according to correspondence from the commission.
The hearing was rescheduled for July 26, 2017, at Kaplan’s request. It ultimately did not take place after Seeley issued his response to the citations July 24, 2017.
Nine months before the jail was closed, Seeley said the facility should be kept open in his July 2017 response to the commission.
The commission is charged with ensuring facilities are safe, state Commission of Correction Public Information Officer Janine Kava said Feb. 21.
“The commission’s goal is to have facilities comply,” she said. “Those laws, rules and regulations exist so that jails are safe and secure for staff, inmates and the community.”
The commission continuously monitors jails statewide, including annual evaluations.
The commission can recommend an outside agency review circumstances surrounding an inmate’s death to determine if a crime has been committed or an individual’s civil rights have been violated, but it has no statutory authority to direct another agency to investigate.
The Greene County Jail was named to the commission’s 2018 Worst Offenders report as the second-worst in the state for improper policies and procedures with Rikers Island finishing as the worst.
In a 2017 site visit, the state commission discovered jail administration was not reporting required incidents, including assault, sex offense, contagious illness, contraband, maintenance/service disruption, disturbance, natural/civil emergency, escape/abscondence/erroneous release, fire, discharge of firearm, group action, hostage situation, physical injury/hospitalization and death.
“[The] facility has no policy that reflects current practice or regulations [regarding reportable incidents],” according to the report. “The facility has failed to report all incidents that meet SCOC criteria. The facility does not make available to all staff the reportable incident guidelines information established by the commission.”
The county sheriff oversees the jail’s operations.
Seeley retired in December. His successor, Sheriff Peter Kusminsky, brought a new jail superintendent on board, replacing longtime Spitz, who served in the position for about a decade.
Kusminsky declined to comment about measures that could have been taken to prevent Leombruno’s death and how deaths at the jail will be prevented in the future, citing the Leombruno family’s pending litigation against the county.
County officials and corrections officers have denied responsibility in the death of 43-year-old Leombruno, according to a $35 million civil lawsuit Leombruno’s family filed March 29, 2019.
The suit alleges Greene County and unnamed corrections officers at the jail were negligent in Leombruno’s wrongful death following his 2018 suicide. No review by an outside agency was requested in Leombruno’s death, according to the commission’s death report.
The lawsuit is pending, with a deadline for discovery of evidence set for Aug. 31 and depositions are due by Dec. 15.
The county and Corrections Sgt. Christopher Statham, who served as the jail’s watch commander the day of Leombruno’s suicide, denied knowing about a call from the inmate’s brother-in-law, who was concerned about Leombruno’s mental health and that he may harm himself, according to court documents.
Statham did not respond to multiple calls for comment. Statham’s attorney, Gregg Johnson, of Clifton Park, also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The county’s defense attorney Thomas Murphy said Leombruno was solely responsible for his own death, adding it was caused by actions the outside of the corrections officers’ control, according to the suit. The defendants acted reasonably and in good faith at all times without malicious intent, according to the litigation.
“No item of injury or damage which the plaintiff claims to have sustained was caused, or in any way contributed to, by any culpable conduct on the part of the defendants,” according to the suit. “...The injuries, damages and death alleged in the plaintiff’s complaint were proximately caused by an unforeseeable, independent, intervening and/or superceding event(s) beyond the control, and unrelated to, any conduct of the defendants. Defendants’ actions or omissions, if any, were superceded by the negligence and/or criminal conduct of others.
“Whatever [Leombruno] may have sustained at the time and place alleged in the complaint were caused...by the assumption of the risk on the part of [Leombruno] without any negligence or want of care on the part of the defendants and such damages should be reduced by the percentage of [his] fault.”
Murphy declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
On March 3, 2020, Murphy delivered Statham’s personnel file to Northern District of New York Federal Court Judge Christian Hummel for review. Hummel ordered pages 11-23 of the file be shared with the defense counsel, according to court records. Johnson requested a protective order for the records the day prior to the viewing, which would prevent the public disclosure of the documents. Because of the protective order, these documents will not be available.
“I respectively ask that Greene County only disclose such documents only after the court issues a protective order that prevents any public disclosure of such documents that could injure our client’s reputation and/or be misused in the public domain,” according to a letter from Johnson to Hummel on March 2.
Hummel approved the protective order and denied Leombruno’s family’s attorney Eugene Nathanson’s, of the law firm of Eugene B. Nathanson in New York, New York’s, request to vacate the order.
Leombruno’s family’s attorneys filed a motion March 31 to add Corrections Officer Ashley Proper Acker, who is not a defendant in the case and is listed as “A. Proper,” to the suit, accusing her and Statham of not taking appropriate action after listening to a phone call between Leombruno and his daughter, Rebecca, where the inmate repeatedly mentioned an intent to harm himself hours before committing suicide.
Statham and the county’s defense, Johnson and Murphy, both requested the judge deny the motion because the additional allegations are false, provocative, misleading or incomplete and are “directed at non-parties and/or are otherwise futile.”
Acker testified in her deposition she did not recall anything specific about the conversations she had with Corrections Officer Jenna Schlenker after Leombruno hanged himself, according to the civil suit.
The attorneys representing the Leombruno family, at a later date that was not released because of the protective order, deposed Corrections Officer Jenna Schlenker, who testified shortly after Leombruno’s death Acker had told her she “had ‘listened to the phone calls and the guy was going to kill himself.’”
Nathanson requested Proper have a second deposition in a letter July 27, 2020. Hummel withdrew the motion Aug. 5.
The state has taken measures to increase the safety of jails and prisons over the last decade.
In 2011, the commission partnered with the Office of Mental Health and the Division of Criminal Justice Services to update its training curriculum for Suicide Prevention in Jails and Police Lockups.
The commission recommends its suicide prevention checklist be completed before assigning inmates to their cells. If the arresting or transporting officer believes the inmate is at risk of suicide, they are required to notify their supervisor, according to the state checklist.
Throughout the checklist, jail personnel will evaluate the inmate’s support system, whether they have experienced a recent loss, if they are experiencing unusual stress, have a family history of suicide, their patterns of drug or alcohol use, if they have a history of mental illness and if the inmate has attempted suicide before.
If the suicide attempt occurred within the past year, the staff member must notify their supervisor. Other reasons to notify the supervisor include an inmate expressing a feeling of hopelessness, thinking about killing themselves, has extreme feelings of shame and humiliation due to being incarcerated or is incoherent, disoriented or otherwise showing signs or mental illness, according to the form.
Staff members also report signs of depression, anxiety, hallucinations and withdrawal.
If the inmate has eight or more of the 19 available boxes checked, they require constant supervision and the supervisor must be notified, according to the form.
Greene County inmates are evaluated for suicide risk using a computer system that rates them by number, Spitz said Sept. 9, 2019.
“They are evaluated as soon as they walk in the door here and I imagine they are evaluated again in Albany County since we have no cells here,” he said.
After the jail was closed in 2018, Greene County inmates have been housed in Albany, Ulster and Columbia County jails.
The jail’s security and supervision policy, last updated April 24, 2018, shows that inmates are assessed visually, through document review and with a screening interview.
The jail uses Blackcreek Sallyport System to report visible injuries with photographs, medical conditions, mental or physical handicaps, history of mental illness, potential for self-mutilation or suicide, history of past incarcerations, any medications, behavior and appearance, history of drug or alcohol abuse, and criminal charges and convictions.
Depending on the inmate’s score, the corrections officer may be required to notify the shift supervisor, mental health and/or medical, according to the policy.
The severity of the situation may lead the shift supervisor, mental health clinician or medical personnel to increase supervision, refer the inmate to an outside medical facility, immediately refer the inmate to the county’s Mental Health Department, notify the jail’s nurse or physician or place the inmate in a different housing unit.
The Greene County Mental Health Center provided the former jail with an onsite mental health consultant on weekdays whenever possible, according to jail documents. Emergency consultants were on call on nights and weekends.
If an inmate is listed as mentally ill or poses a suicide risk, the inmate will be placed on suicide watch until a mental health worker can evaluate them. If the mental health worker determines the inmate needs to be placed on a one-to-one watch, the inmate will be referred to a psychiatric consultant.
The mental health worker, the psychiatric nurse practitioner, the Greene County director of community services, the sheriff, the undersheriff and jail superintendent are required to meet on a regular basis, no less than quarterly to ensure compliance with the agreement, according to the 2011 contract.
A mental health consultant will also perform an evaluation if corrections staff or medical staff feel an inmate is at risk and complete a referral, according to jail documents. If the shift supervisor is unable to reach the mental health consultant, the inmate should be placed on suicide watch, according to the policy.
Lawrence believed proper protocols were followed before Leombruno’s death, he said.
“Protocols are internal,” he said. “I assume they are always followed. Can they prevent every death or injury? No.”
The established protocols were followed in Leombruno’s case, Spitz said. Spitz declined to comment further on the matter and referred further questioning to the county attorney.
The jail’s classification policy, which outlines how inmates should be assessed for suicide risk when being processed at the jail, was updated April 24, 2018 — 10 days after Leombruno’s death and four days after the facility closed.
If an inmate recently attempted suicide, verbalizes suicidal intent or a family member communicates they know of such intent, the inmate should be placed on constant or one-on-one watch, according to the county jail’s suicide watch policy and procedure.
“In addition to the constant watch by correction[s] staff, the medical staff will check on all inmates on a constant watch at least twice per shift,” according to the policy.
All items except for an inmate’s uniform are removed from their cell during a constant watch under the county’s policy.
Then-sheriff Seeley requested assistance to draft a classification policy for the jail in his July 2017 letter to the commission.
The jail’s administration did not review or revise the policy as annually required, according to a December 2017 site evaluation by the commission, and the facility was not using a formal system for inmate classification; minimum-, medium- and maximum- security inmates were allowed to commingle; new inmates were not screened for medical conditions; and staff had not completed the required classification training, according to the 2018 Worst Offenders report.
Sheriff’s office investigators conducted an internal investigation into Leombruno’s death.
Greene County attorney Edward Kaplan denied The Daily Mail’s Freedom of Information Law request Dec. 16, 2019, for the jail’s incident report of Leombruno’s death. Releasing the report would be an invasion of privacy and may deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or impartial adjudication, Kaplan wrote in his response.
The Daily Mail requested Statham’s disciplinary records after the June 12 repeal of law 50-a, which officials across the state have cited to conceal law enforcement records. Kaplan denied the request July 7, again due to the pending litigation.
The state Commission of Correction also conducted an investigation into Leombruno’s death and released a report of its findings in December 2019. Included in the report was that the Columbia County Coroner’s Office failed to perform an autopsy in accordance with state law.
A NEW BEGINNING
Kusminsky appointed Jail Superintendent Michael Overbaugh Jan. 1. Overbaugh has a background working for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision at Greene Correctional Facility in Coxsackie.
Lawrence feels Greene County Jail staff did very well given the antiquated facility, he said.
“They cited us for being one of the worst jails and our jail is over 100 years old,” Lawrence said last year. “With the new jail, everyone will do a better job with corrections. With the new system — the pod system — one CO can view 40 inmates.”
Construction on a new 64-bed Greene County Jail, adjacent to the maximum security Coxsackie Correctional Facility on Route 9W, is expected to start accepting inmates in July 2021. The jail project is funded by a $39 million bond from Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. at 2.49% interest and an $8.1 million contribution from county taxpayers.
Construction on the new jail began in June 2019 and is expected to be completed in July 2021.
A transition team is working to prepare procedures for the new facility, in accordance with guidelines set by the Commission of Correction, Kusminsky said Aug. 4.
“The transition team consists of four corrections officers dedicated to all facets of the construction and development stages of the new facility,” Kusminsky said. “Supervised by jail Superintendent Michael Overbaugh, they are on site four days a week, do daily jobsite inspections and are in constant contact with the builders and architects.”
In addition to monitoring and evaluating construction, the team is working with the commission to write and prepare new policies and procedures to assure the facility will be in complete compliance with state rules and regulations when it opens next summer.
“Their job is to develop new methods of operation and will make a difference for all jail stakeholders,” Kusminsky said. “It is their responsibility to assure that every jail function is tested and operates securely and efficiently.”
Kusminsky also aims to have the Sheriff’s Office Corrections Division state-accredited, which it is not, he said.
The road patrol division within the sheriff’s office was last accredited in 1992. Benefits of the accreditation program include a set of professional standards, assurance of fair selection, recruitment and promotion processes, diminished vulnerability to civil lawsuits, enhanced personnel understanding of the department’s policies, greater administrative effectiveness and public confidence in the agency, according to criminaljustice.ny.gov.