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Unseal jail reports; Public has a right to see information about conditions at the county lockups

Just when it seemed that the veil of secrecy surrounding conditions at the two Erie County jails might be lifted, it turns out the county and U.S. Justice Department agreed 10 months ago not to make public reports documenting conditions at the facilities.

The secrecy agreement is patently wrong and a disservice to the public. The News strongly supports the New York Civil Liberties Union in its effort to unseal the reports. The organization has 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.

The principle is quite simple: This is a freedom of information issue. Skretny should reverse his earlier decision and allow the public to view documents concerning the jails, which are paid for with public dollars.

The two county lockups have been under fire for years over suicides, escapes and accusations of mistreatment. The situation became so heated that the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in and filed a lawsuit. In settling the lawsuit last August, the county agreed to a series of reforms at the Holding Center and the Correctional Facility. The agreement, in part, calls for the county to pay for two consultants who monitor the progress of jail improvements and file reports every six months detailing the county's efforts to comply.

Remarkably, the county and the Justice Department agreed to keep those reports secret. The county attorney said the secrecy protects "the integrity of the compliance efforts."

In reality, the public has a right to know about conditions at a public institution. County attorneys asked Skretny in February to keep the reports sealed. The reports are the only way for the public to know if conditions at the jails are improving, and the Civil Liberties Union is looking out for the taxpayers in trying to unseal those records.

Why should the county try to hide evidence of conditions at the jails? If the reports find the county is not complying with the agreement, the Justice Department will step in again and the negative reports will become public whether the county agrees or not. The reports would answer concerns about conditions and could even show the county is, in fact, doing all the right things.

There is no credible reason for the Justice Department to agree to keep these reports secret.

Bottom line, the public has a right to know what's going on. This is not just common sense, but legally the Second Circuit has established strict criteria for sealing reports, and this case does not meet those standards.

Secrecy at the jail facilities was the hallmark of the previous administration, which for years refused to allow inspections by the Justice Department. It's surprising that the new county administration is continuing the policy of hiding what is happening at the jails, and disappointing that Skretny allowed it to happen.

The judge needs to unseal these reports so the public can regain confidence about the operation of the two county lockups.