As part of a historic settlement that grew out of a rash of inmate suicides, Erie County has agreed to hire two independent experts to monitor its jails and file progress reports with the U.S. Justice Department.
But those reports, viewed by some as the best possible evidence of whether the county’s jails are truly getting better, will be kept secret under a new federal court order.
Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny has rejected a civil liberties group’s demands that the reports be opened because of its contention the public has a right to see if Erie County is complying with its jail reform plan.
“It’s really inexcusable that the county is continuing to keep these reports secret,” said Corey L. Stoughton, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “There’s no reason to keep them a secret, unless you have something to hide.”
In ruling against the NYCLU, Skretny decided the reports should be kept confidential because that is what the two sides originally agreed to and that is what best ensures that the monitoring process remains confidential and effective.
“Confidentiality has allowed personnel to readily communicate perceived inadequacies,” Skretny said in his ruling. “This in turn has allowed the reporting, compliance and improvement process to be as productive as possible, and unsealing would have a chilling effect on progress.”
Skretny, in his decision, said there are other ways for the public to learn if the county is adhering to the settlement order without interfering with the confidential nature of the monitoring system.
Erie County welcomed the ruling and said it preserves the integrity of the compliance process.
“When people are upfront, frank and honest, issues can be dealt with,” County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa said of the need for confidentiality.
The reports are from two doctors hired to monitor the county’s compliance with reforms at the downtown Holding Center and the Correctional Facility in Alden, and are part of a 2011 agreement that settled a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department.
The suit, filed two years earlier, followed a 50-page report that described poor medical and mental health care at the two facilities, and detailed a wide range of violations against inmates by jail deputies and corrections officers.
Eager to maintain some control over the reforms, the Justice Department asked for several conditions in the settlement, including the requirement that the two doctors file reports every six months on the county’s efforts at the jails. Those reports go to the Justice Department and Skretny.
Early on, the two sides agreed to keep the reports secret, and the county subsequently asked Skretny to keep them sealed.
That’s when the NYCLU intervened and filed a motion opposing the practice and arguing there was “no compelling reason” for the records to be sealed.
“We have no idea what’s going on there,” Stoughton said of the jails. “The jails could be failing, and we wouldn’t know.”
The Justice Department eventually backed off its demand that the reports remain secret and agreed not to oppose the NYCLU’s motion to unseal redacted versions of the reports.
Skretny still ruled to keep them confidential.
Stoughton said the NYCLU is deciding whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.