Court Casts Sunlight on|Prison Reform Reports

     MANHATTAN (CN) – Reports measuring the “progress, or regress” two prisons in Erie County, N.Y., have made since a 2011 settlement with the Justice Department face disclosure, the 2nd Circuit ruled Monday.
     Unconstitutional conditions in the state prisons prompted Attorney General Eric Holder to file a 2009 complaint in Buffalo against Erie County.
     Officials “repeatedly and consistently disregarded known or serious risks of harm to inmates,” including sexual abuse from guards, excessive force, infectious diseases and placing prisoners in cells with “multiple means for committing suicide,” the lawsuit said.
     Two years later, Erie agreed to extensive reforms outlined in a 40-page settlement dismissing the case. The terms called for two compliance officers looking into mental health and medical issues to file sealed biannual reports of their prisons’ progress with the court.
     The New York Civil Liberties Union sought to uncover these documents in 2012.
     While the federal judge overseeing the case found that the public had no First Amendment right to the reports, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit sharply disagreed with that assessment Monday.
     “The notion that the public should have access to the proceedings and documents of courts is integral to our system of government,” Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for the panel. “To ensure that ours is indeed a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, it is essential that the people themselves have the ability to learn of, monitor, and respond to the actions of their representatives and their representative institutions.”
     Erie County had argued that it needed to have “frank, and hence confidential, discussions” with the Justice Department and its compliance monitors, which their lawyers likened to “settlement negotiations,” according to the ruling.
     Calabresi, however, noted that this “ignores the crucial fact that, in the case before us, a settlement has already been reached.”
     Joined by Judges Gerard Lynch and Barrington Parker, Calabresi reversed the lower court’s decision and ordered the documents unsealed “forthwith.”
     The director of the NYCLU’s Western Regional Office hailed the decision as a “victory for open government.”
     “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,” John Curr III said in a statement.
     The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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