On September 26, 2013, the New York Civil Liberties Union’ Western Regional Office appealed a federal judge’s decision to keep secret progress reports on inmate conditions at two Erie County jails.
“The public has a right to know if horrendous conditions, including physical and sexual abuse against inmates that led to a rash of suicides, along with poor medical and mental health care at the downtown Holding Center and the Correctional Center in Alden, are getting better,” said the NYCLU’s Western Regional Director, John A. Curr III. ”There is no reason to keep the reports secret unless there is something to hide.”
The reports are filed every six months by physicians hired to monitor the county’s compliance with reforms to improve conditions at the facilities; the reforms grew out of a 2009 U.S. Dept. of Justice lawsuit.
In his August 2013 decision, Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny ruled that making the reports public would have a “chilling effect” on ongoing talks between Justice Dept. and county officials; keeping the records private “allows for frank discussion between the parties.”
Though Erie County and Justice Dept. officials originally agreed to keep the reports secret, the NYCLU intervened, arguing there was “no compelling reason” for them to be sealed. The NYCLU is also appealing Judge Skretny’s decision to terminate NYCLU’s involvement in the case.
A two-year investigation by the Justice Dept. 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.
“Local leaders have told me they are alarmed over the judge’s ruling to keep the reports secret,” Curr said, “because the reports are one of the few ways to measure whether conditions are improving in the jails.”