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The public may get a chance after all to see secret-until-now documents on progress at the Erie County Holding Center.

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Erie County must unseal reports on jail conditions as part of its monitoring by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In ruling against the county, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the New York Civil Liberties Union and its argument that the public has a First Amendment right to see the progress reports.

“Today, we hold that the public’s fundamental right of access to judicial documents, guaranteed by the First Amendment, was wrongly denied when the compliance reports in this case were sealed,” the court said in its decision.

The reports, filed by physicians hired to monitor reforms at the jails, are the result of a 2009 lawsuit by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“The public deserves the right to know what is going on inside their local jails,” said John A. Curr III, director of the regional office of the NYCLU. “This is a victory for open government and an important step in securing healthy and humane conditions at the Erie County Holding Center, and throughout the county’s correctional system.”

A two-year investigation by the Justice Department found evidence of staff-inmate violence and sexual misconduct between staff and inmates, along with an inadequate monitoring system to prevent suicide at the facilities.

Since 2003, nine inmates have committed suicide at both sites, and at least 15 additional inmates have attempted it.

“Erie County wishes to keep the reports, which measure its progress, or regress, under seal and, therefore, out of public view,” Curr said in a statement. “But the First Amendment does not countenance Erie County’s position.”

Curr said it is not clear when the documents will be made public – Erie County could appeal the ruling – or how the county may handle requests for the information.

Erie County declined to comment on the appeals court’s decision.

As part of a historic settlement that resulted from the inmate suicides, the county agreed to hire two independent experts to monitor its jails and file progress reports. But those reports, viewed by some as the best possible evidence of whether the county’s jails are truly getting better, were kept secret under a court order by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.

Skretny rejected the NYCLU’s argument that the reports should be opened because of the public’s right to know if Erie County is truly complying with its jail reforms.

In siding with the county, Skretny said 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.

The judge also indicated there were 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.

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.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com