The recent ruling by a federal judge rejecting the release of information about how Erie County’s troubled jails are faring continues to keep the public in the dark on an important issue that should get as much light as possible.
U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny turned down demands by the New York Civil Liberties Union to make public the reports of two independent experts charged with monitoring the jails.
We agree with the NYCLU. The public has a right to know whether Erie County is complying with its jail reform plan, developed in the wake of a number of inmate suicides.
The reports were required under a historic agreement between the county and the federal Justice Department. Both sides originally agreed to keep the reports confidential, believing that jail personnel and prisoners would be more likely to speak freely if there was no fear of reprisal.
The Justice Department eventually retreated from its stand that the reports remain secret, agreeing not to oppose the NYCLU’s motion to unseal redacted versions of the reports. Releasing reports with identifying information redacted would retain the necessary confidentiality while allowing the public to follow progress on jail reforms.
Skretny based his ruling on the original agreement between the two sides. According to the judge’s ruling, secrecy is necessary to keep the monitoring process effective.
It may be true, as Skretny said, that there are other ways for the public to learn if the county is adhering to the settlement order. But why rely on indirect information when reports by independent experts are available?
Members of the public should remember the sorry events that led to the hiring of two doctors to monitor the county’s compliance with reforms at the downtown Holding Center and the Correctional Facility in Alden.
At one of its low points a couple of years ago, there were three suicides at the Erie County Holding Center in four months. Who could forget the infamous 2006 escape of Ralph “Bucky” Phillips from the Correctional Facility?
The range and depth of disorder at both the Holding Center and Alden facility was breathtaking. Poor medical and mental health at both facilities and a wide range of violations against inmates by jail deputies and corrections officers demanded action. But one of the many conditions in the county-Justice Department settlement – the secrecy surrounding the reports – must be reconsidered. If the judge won’t reconsider lifting the secrecy, the county and Justice Department should sit down and renegotiate that part of the agreement.
The public should not have to figure out whether a period of time without a suicide or a lawsuit filed against the county is evidence of compliance with the settlement order. That information should be made available in a way that does not violate the confidential nature of the monitoring system.