Historic conference on prison oversight drew world’s leading experts to the LBJ School
When the participants in a recent conference on prisons came to Austin, it was not necessarily the city’s cultural venues or its natural beauty that drew them. Instead, they came to focus on such tough themes as prison conditions, standards, human rights and the need for external scrutiny of prisons.
Organized by LBJ School Adjunct Professor Michele Deitch and Pace Law School Professor Michael Mushlin, the groundbreaking event was called “Opening Up a Closed World.” Held at the LBJ School in April, it brought together some of the world’s leading experts on independent prison oversight, American corrections policy and human rights to discuss a variety of methods for ensuring transparency and accountability in U.S. prisons.
In the following post-conference assessment by Professor Deitch, she discusses the conference’s impact and future projects.
Why was this conference important? What was accomplished?
This was a groundbreaking conference for three reasons. First, it was one of the first occasions in which high-level players representing all the key stakeholder groups concerned about prison-related issues came together in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue and with a willingness to engage deeply about ways to improve prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners. Participants included 20 percent of the nation’s corrections commissioners and directors, as well as the country’s leading prisoners’ rights advocates, scholars, journalists and judges. Many of the participants are used to seeing each other only on opposite sides of the courtroom!
Second, the conference provided the first opportunity in the United States to closely examine a range of workable non-judicial prison oversight mechanisms and to explore ways that external prison oversight can be enhanced in this country. This is a critical issue that goes not only to the heart of good governance practices, but also to the protection of human rights in a closed institutional environment.
Third, by bringing together both domestic leaders and international experts, it created an opportunity for American corrections officials and prisoner rights advocates to be exposed to international practices and requirements with regard to prisons and human rights. Many countries, especially in Europe, have highly developed mechanisms for inspecting and reporting on prison conditions. These systems are designed to prevent human rights abuses before they occur. In contrast, the United States is one of the only Western countries without a formal and comprehensive system in place providing for the routine, external review of all prisons and jails, although there are some important examples of such oversight at the state and local levels. This is entirely new territory for most U.S. practitioners. At the same time, these international experts learned a great deal about U.S. practices and the challenges faced by corrections officials working in the U.S. political environment.
As for accomplishments beyond those described above, a remarkable level of consensus emerged regarding the need for increased levels of external oversight of prisons and jails in the United States. Corrections officials correctly observed many ways in which external oversight can benefit them, and advocates began to see that routine oversight could be an effective and appropriate alternative and supplement to litigation as a reform vehicle. In a post-conference work session and in follow-up communications, numerous conference participants indicated steps both large and small that they will be taking to implement some of the ideas discussed at the conference—from opening up their prison facilities for more public tours to seeking to develop independent agencies with responsibility for monitoring prison conditions to making this issue the proposed focus of the annual training for all corrections directors around the country.
What were some of the major themes that defined the conference?
The five major themes that emerged from the conference included:
How was this year's conference different from the 2003 symposium at the Pace Law School, "Prison Reform Revisited: The Unfinished Agenda”?
The earlier conference was a critical event because it provided a rare occasion to bring together those individuals who had been key players in prison reform litigation over the last two decades to examine the successes and shortcomings of the effort to reform prisons through the courts. It involved both looking back and looking forward toward new strategies to address the continuing need for improvement in American prisons.
This year’s conference built on the success of the prior event and the participants’ desire for more such gatherings, and we used a similar format. However, this conference was designed with a more focused agenda—specifically on the topic of prison oversight (which was one of the themes that emerged at the prior conference)—and it also included a more balanced group of stakeholders, particularly from the corrections community.
The Pace conference was a start, an icebreaker of sorts. Previously, there had not been any organized gatherings where correctional officials and prisoner advocates spoke with one another in a non-adversarial setting. The Texas conference—organized by the people who had organized the Pace conference—built on the trust established in that inaugural event and carried it much further.
There are no current plans for another conference of this magnitude; however, based on the level of interest from the participants, there is no doubt there will be one. In the meantime, this summer I plan to produce conference proceedings that include summaries of all the sessions, papers submitted by speakers and research projects completed by my students. I also anticipate significant follow-up at a substantive level, in the form of speaking engagements about the prison oversight issue (some talks are already planned); possible regional or statewide meetings with interested stakeholder groups around the country; and working with various key stakeholder groups at a national level to ensure that the information discussed at the conference gets shared more widely. I also have several writing projects planned that are designed to spread the word about various models of prison oversight and the need for increased oversight in the United States.
What countries were represented? How many attended?
There were approximately 115 registered participants, including nine international guests. We had four distinguished guests from England, including a member of the British House of Lords, the Chief British Prison Inspector, the President of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the founding director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College. Additionally, from Sweden, we had the Swedish Parliamentary Ombudsman, and from the Netherlands, we had a distinguished criminal law scholar. We also had three Canadians, including the country’s foremost prisoners’ rights scholar and legal advocate; the national prison system’s human rights representative; and the governmental investigator for the national prison system. Twenty-two states in the United States from all regions of the country were represented, and most of those states had a cluster of participants.
Why was the conference a by-invitation only event?
This was done to ensure that the conference would draw participants of this caliber—people with the potential to change policies and practice. We had to ensure that the participants realized they would be having the opportunity to exchange ideas with other experts and their peers. Making this a by-invitation-only event also allowed the dialogue to be conducted at a very high level, where we could assume a familiarity on the part of all participants with certain practices, terminology and history. Experts at this level receive countless invitations to events all over the country and the world, and we needed to make our event stand out among these invitations if we had any hope of ensuring the attendance of the people we wanted to participate, especially since not every one of these experts could be a speaker.
In your opinion, why was this a success?
We had the right people, and we created a dynamic in which all participants felt as though they were truly welcomed at this event. We also set a tone of respectful dialogue and conversation and began with an assumption that regardless of stakeholder group, we all were after the same thing: safe and humane prisons. It would have been very easy to have the stakeholder groups polarize—especially corrections officials and prisoner advocates—but we worked hard to prevent that from happening. Consequently, participants felt that this was a safe environment for discussion and for in-depth exploration of truly complicated issues, and this allowed the various groups to discover that they shared the same concerns and had mutual objectives. Listening to other perspectives goes a long way toward humanizing the “other side” and making collaborative work possible.
Holding this event at the LBJ School also helped make it successful. The academic atmosphere avoided any hint of partisanship and lent credibility to our desire to explore tough questions and to stimulate meaningful intellectual debate and discussion.
© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
23 May 2006
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