Hernandez v. County of Monterey

Hernandez v. County of Monterey

For decades, the Monterey County Jail in Monterey, California has abused the civil rights of the people it cages. The suicide rate at the jail is over three times the average for California jails, and the death rate at the jail is over two times the national average.

In this calendar year alone, four people have died while caged at the jail. Historically, the public has had access to very little information about what is happening inside. Earlier this year, hundreds of pages of records were submitted to a federal district court when plaintiffs in a long-standing class action moved the court to enforce the settlement.

Most of the documents were under seal. We sought to end that secrecy.

In 2015, a federal judge ruled in this case that the jail violated the civil rights of the people it incarcerates. As part of the Hernandez settlement, the jail is required to improve its mental and physical healthcare, living conditions, and protection of incarcerated people against violence. The court appointed five neutral monitors to regularly inspect the jail and assess whether the jail is complying with the Hernandez settlement.

Over 30 of the neutral monitors’ reports, which contain their findings and recommendations, were conditionally filed under seal in April 2023. Despite the public’s right to access these court records, the jail and its private healthcare provider, Wellpath, insisted upon sealing these records in their entirety — ensuring the public could not read them or hold the jail accountable.

On July 20, 2023, Public Justice filed a motion in the Northern District of California federal court to intervene in the Hernandez case for the purpose of unsealing these court records. This intervention sought to facilitate public access to the records and ensure journalists can properly report on the jail, Monterey County citizens can understand the conditions their loved ones are living under, and activists, organizers, and attorneys nationwide can better hold the criminal legal system and carceral institutions accountable for change.

Less than one day after the intervention was filed, the Judge presiding over the Hernandez matter ruled that all the monitor reports should be unsealed. This was an unexpected and positive evolution in the case. However, immediately after this ruling, the jail and Wellpath moved for an emergency stay, arguing the monitor reports are “confidential.” After the district court denied that motion, Wellpath moved the 9th Circuit for the same relief, which was also denied.

On August 10, 2023—after years of secrecy—this critical evidence was finally available to the public. On August 24, 2023, the court will hear the plaintiffs’ motion to enforce the settlement agreement and decide whether this evidence proves that the County and Wellpath are failing to comply with the settlement agreement.

Public Justice’s involvement in this case highlights the organization’s commitment to protecting the public’s right to access court records as part of its work in ending court secrecy.

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