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On the Inside: Survey on prison oversight by professor, students could help lead to reform in nation's correctional system

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The Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay scandals have shed harsh light on prisoner abuse. Details of torture at the two U.S.-run prisons have grabbed headlines around the world.

Yet far less light is shed on how inmates in prisons and jails on American soil are treated. The United States operates a hodgepodge of local, state and federal systems for oversight of the country’s estimated 5,000 prisons and jails, which house about 2.2 million adults at any given time at an annual cost in the billions of dollars.

Michele Deitch
Professor Michele Deitch

Michele Deitch, an attorney who is an adjunct professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, says the United States is one of the only Western nations without a system for routine, external review of prisons and jails. However, research conducted by students in a class taught by Deitch could help lead to formation of such a system in this country.

The dozen students in Deitch’s spring 2006 course on prisons and human rights compiled a 50-state survey of prison and jail oversight mechanisms in this country, and researched oversight models from around the world. That research was presented to participants at an April conference hosted by the LBJ School of Public Affairs and chaired by Deitch—“Opening Up a Closed World: What Constitutes Effective Prison Oversight?” Attendees at the invitation-only gathering included policymakers, academic experts, corrections officials, journalists, prisoners’ advocates,  lawyers and representatives of international and domestic correctional oversight bodies.

The state-by-state review documented that “there’s very little meaningful and significant external prison oversight in this country,” Deitch says.

“There are pockets of good things happening, but nothing systemic,” Deitch says. “There’s nothing required in every state. Looking at this research, you see there is a huge gap in this country. We, for the most part, do not know for sure what’s going on in prisons and jails. The public has no way of knowing. Policymakers have very little information, other than what they are told by prison and jail officials. Prisons and jails are essentially closed institutions.”

Michael B. Mushlin, vice chairman of the prison conference at The University of Texas at Austin and a professor at the Pace University Law School in White Plains, N.Y., says the difficult research performed by Deitch and her students is “groundbreaking” and will make a “significant contribution” to U.S. prison reform.

The Prisons and Human Rights class exits the Estelle Unit
The Prisons and Human Rights class exits the Estelle Unit, which is about 10 miles north of Huntsville, Texas. The unit houses an intensive substance abuse program, a program for physically disabled inmates, a geriatric facility, a high-security unit and a regional medical facility.

“Before her class undertook the research on oversight mechanisms in the U.S., no one in the field had anything other than anecdotal information about what actually was being done in this country to oversee America’s prison systems,” Mushlin says. “Without reliable information about what is, it is difficult to have a realistic conversation about what ought to be.”

Although the U.S. system of prison and jail oversight is deficient, Deitch says some states do offer positive examples:

  • In California, the independent Office of the Inspector General is mandated to assess state prison conditions through regular inspections and to investigate reports of wrongdoing.
  • The independent, nonprofit Correctional Association of New York has legislative authority to inspect state prisons.
  • In Ohio, state legislators and staffers from the legislature’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee routinely visit state prisons and issue reports about conditions.

As a 2005-06 Soros Senior Justice Fellow, Deitch is studying the range of models for monitoring prisons and jails, with an eye toward expanding the use of workable oversight models in the United States. The Soros Senior Fellowship is a one-year fellowship with funding from the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute; Deitch’s was one of only six such fellowships awarded to criminal justice experts for that period.

Deitch says she is confident that her work as well as the work of students in her course on prisons and human rights and the attendees at the conference is “advancing the dialogue” on oversight of U.S. prisons and jails.

“We really got in on the ground floor of this issue. This is going to be the next wave of reform in the United States,” she says.

David Wagner enters an administrative segregation housing area at the Wynne Prison Unit
David Wagner enters an administrative segregation housing area at the Wynne Prison Unit, also in the Huntsville area.

A new report from the national Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons bolsters the efforts of Deitch, her students and the conference participants. Among the recommendations in the report, released in June, are that every state should create an independent agency to monitor prisons and jails and that a national non-governmental organization should be set up to inspect prisons and jails at the invitation of corrections administrators.

“As the corrections industry has become professionalized, corrections officials have come to see that there are actual benefits to being scrutinized by external entities,” Deitch says. “And it’s appropriate. If you want to be thought of as a profession, then you subject yourself to professional standards, and you seek feedback from credible external observers about ways to improve.

“We do more to license and certify barbers and funeral homes in this country than we do to accredit prisons or make sure prisons are meeting certain standards. Yet prisons are fully responsible for the care and treatment of millions of people 24 hours a day.”

The report from the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a blue-ribbon panel comprising 20 members, suggests that every prison and jail in the United States be accredited. Now, fewer than half the country’s prisons and only a fraction of the country’s jails are accredited by the American Correctional Association, according to the report. Prisons and jail seek that accreditation voluntarily, Deitch says, and findings of the accreditation evaluations aren’t available to the public.

By contrast, independent inspections of prisons and jails are the norm in many other countries, Deitch says. For instance, the 139 prisons and jails in England and Wales are subject to scrutiny by an independent inspector. The government-appointed inspector possesses no enforcement authority, but does wield the power of persuasion and the ability to apply public pressure, Deitch says.

“There’s an incredible tension between respecting human rights—trying to provide more dignity and respect for prisoners—and the need to promote security and safety within institutions. That tension underlies every single operational practice in prisons,” Deitch says.

“But it’s not easy to just come out one way or the other on these practices. You have to recognize the complexities involved.”

Students stand inside the rotunda of the Wynne Prison Unit
Students from the Prisons and Human Rights class stand inside the rotunda of the Wynne Prison Unit.

Among the complexities is the expense of running this country’s prisons and jails: The annual tab exceeds $60 billion, according to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons.

But beneath the financial figures is the reality that hundreds of thousands of Americans are released from prisons and jails each year. Many of them return to society with new or existing struggles, such as drug addiction, HIV infection, mental illness or a lack of job skills.

“The public has started to recognize that what goes on inside prison doesn’t stay inside prison. It comes back and affects us,” Deitch says.

As Deitch and a host of other experts try to make U.S. prisons and jails more transparent and accountable in hopes of curbing human rights abuses and ensuring prisoners receive the rehabilitation they need, no single mechanism of oversight should be adopted, Deitch and others told the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons. Rather, a “layered” approach incorporating a variety of mechanisms should be taken, Deitch told the commission.

“Oversight of America’s prisons and jails is underdeveloped and uneven,” the commission’s report says. “The foundation exists, however, to improve the mechanisms that now exist and to create new ones.”

Deitch says a variety of international oversight models—models researched by her students and showcased at the conference—can be drawn upon to shore up that foundation.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she says.

Relying partly on the research assembled by the students in her course on prisons and human rights, Deitch aims to keep the oversight issue in the public eye. Citing remarks from a participant in the conference at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Deitch says she believes U.S. prisons and jails of the 21st century will be characterized by more extensive oversight.

“I think we’re at the beginning of a new phenomenon,” she says.

BY John Egan

Photo of Professor Deitch: Christina Murrey

Photos of Prisons and Human Rights class courtesy of Professor Deitch

On the banner: Law School student Genesis Draper (left)
and LBJ School students Bill Vetter and Crystal Jones
look into a recreation yard at the Estelle Prison Unit.

For more information, read Taking a hard look at prisons:
LBJ School class explores imprisonment policies
and myths
by María de la Luz Martínez.

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  Updated 7 August 2006
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