Erie County agreed 10 months ago to file updates with the U.S. Justice Department to document whether it is improving conditions at its two jails, but county attorneys have sought to keep those reports shielded from the public's view.
Now, the New York Civil Liberties Union is fighting to get the reports unsealed in federal court.
Attorneys for the Civil Liberties Union have filed a motion with U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, arguing that the public has a right to see whether Erie County is complying with a plan to improve the jails.
"Why is this a secret?" asked Corey Stoughton, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. "It's just a question of ‘What is the government doing?' and we have the right to know."
Erie County in August agreed to a series of ongoing changes at the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice over conditions at the jails. Part of that agreement requires the county to pay for two consultants who monitor the progress of jail improvements and who file reports every six months detailing the county's efforts to comply.
The county and the Justice Department agreed to keep those reports secret, and Erie County attorneys asked Skretny in February to keep them sealed.
"The purpose of that is to protect the integrity of the compliance efforts," said County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa. "We want our people to be as frank and self-critical as possible to improve operations and protect the taxpayers from future lawsuits."
The reports are filed by two doctors, Dr. Jeffrey Metzner and Dr. Ronald Shansky, who are monitoring the county's compliance with provisions of the settlement agreement that deal with the mental and medical health of jail inmates. The first report was due Feb. 27.
On the day the report was due, county attorneys asked Skretny to allow the county to file the reports under seal based on the fact that the stipulated settlement agreement between the county and the Justice Department noted that the reports would not be public documents.
Attorneys for the New York Civil Liberties Union argue there is "no compelling reason" for the records to be sealed.
"Compliance reports in other cases where the DOJ has sued a municipality about their jail are routinely public," Stoughton said. "It's absolutely quite exceptional that these are being kept secret."
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said attorneys are still reviewing the motion. "The department believes community oversight and transparency in correctional facilities is important," Department of Justice spokesman Michael Passman said in an email response to questions from The News. "We are currently assessing the New York Civil Liberties Union motion and will evaluate the appropriate response."
Stoughton said that without the reports, the public has no information about what has changed in the jails since the county settled the lawsuit with the Department of Justice.
"We're just trying to find out what Erie County is doing in the jail," Stoughton said. "That, in the normal course of events, obviously is a matter of public record and public concern."