By NICOLE ANTONUCCI
GLEN -- A new lawsuit against Montgomery County and Sheriff Michael Amato claims county jail officials are starving inmates, comparing the amount of food they get to what concentration camp prisoners received during World War II.
A class action suit was filed with the U.S District Court's Northern District in Albany Friday, claiming the county jail does not provide proper food to inmates, and fails to give them enough calories per day, resulting in several inmates suffering from illnesses related to malnutrition.
The lawsuit was filed by attorney Elmer Robert Keach III on behalf of Perry Hill, a Montgomery County resident who was detained in the jail from October 2013 to March 2014 on a parole violation, and on behalf of others "similarly situated."
"I have been getting complaints from the jail for over a year, where people have been complaining about not being fed properly," Keach said. "When you go to jail, whether you are a pre-trial detainee or convicted, you lose some of your liberty. You can't leave, you can't do what you want. But what you don't lose is your basic human rights, and one of those rights is to have sufficient food. When you, as a county official, don't provide appropriate sustenance, you are going to be held accountable, and that is what this case is about."
Keach said he is asking the court for an injunction to force the county to "properly feed the inmates in custody and to stop starving them."
He is also asking a federal judge to certify the lawsuit as a class action suit so he can then seek a monetary award for members of the class.
"Perry Hill is currently the only plaintiff but there are going to be several hundred in the proposed class," he said.
A jury trial has also been requested.
The lawsuit names Montgomery County, Sheriff Michael Amato, and jail administrator Michael Franko.
Amato said he had been advised by counsel not to comment on the lawsuit, but he did say the jail follows the state requirements regarding the food.
County attorney Doug Landon said the county has not yet been served, but he had obtained a copy of the lawsuit and read through it.
"The county will take appropriate action to defend itself in this matter," Landon said. "I anticipate the county will be denying the allegations in the complaint."
According to the lawsuit, the inmates receive 1,700 calories a day, which is lower than the 2,400 to 3,000 calories a day an active adult male needs, depending on the level of physical activity. The lawsuit also claims the jail food is largely soy-based and has little protein, nor does it include fresh fruit and vegetables. The fruit that is provided is canned and with little nutrients.
As a result, Hill and other inmates have allegedly lost significant weight -- some in excess of 90 pounds in six months -- experienced hair loss, developed skins rashes, and suffered from other medical conditions related to malnutrition, including scurvy, which is caused by lack of Vitamin C.
"I represented Mr. Hill for several months and I got to see Mr. Hill over [those] months become very thin," Keach said. "He would run his hand through his hair and you could see his hair falling out. He showed me his gums and they were all red and bleeding."
Keach said he talked to other inmates who told him they were so hungry that some were eating cocoa butter lotion and toothpaste.
The lawsuit alleges the county violated the 8th Amendment, which precludes prison officials from denying a detainee an appropriate amount of food and therefore inflicted cruel and unusual punishment.
The county is directly liable, the suit states, because it instituted a written and/or de facto policy or allowed a practice of refusing to provide detainees adequate food, which is inhumane.
"Forcing detainees to live on an unsustainable diet that results in the development of severe health conditions is blatantly illegal and is unacceptable in a civilized society," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also claims Hill and other inmates filed grievances to the jail, which were denied or ignored.
Keach said a number of individuals have also sent letters to the state corrections commissioner, who oversees the local facilities.
The county jail is reportedly inspected by the state periodically, but Keach said inmates told him that when the corrections commission shows up at the jail, their food trays become overfilled. However, once the state leaves, the inmates are given the same meager portions as before.
"They are not there 365 days a year," Keach said.
This is the second lawsuit in the past week filed against Montgomery County and Amato. A third lawsuit was filed against Amato earlier this year. Keach is the attorney representing the plaintiffs in each of them.
"My hope is that at some point in time the county sheriff's office will have the supervision it deserves and the supervision it needs to avoid the same amount of problems," Keach said. "But until that day comes I am going to keep Amato honest."