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Austin American-Statesman, March 22, 2007
The scandal engulfing the Texas Youth Commission has provoked governmental responses that involve temporary investigative measures—which one state lawmaker labeled "a one-time deal for this set of special circumstances."
Notably absent from these responses is any recognition that independent oversight is fundamental in dealing with institutions responsible for the lives and well-being of those in their custody. Transparency and accountability should be an ongoing commitment of government, not simply a means of defusing a crisis.
More than 30 years of experience in operating the state prison and juvenile justice agencies under federal court orders should have taught us that abuse and mismanagement can thrive when institutions are cut off from public view. We should not wait until problems come to light. Instead, we should implement ongoing independent oversight measures to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.
Last year, 100 of the world's top experts gathered at the University of Texas to discuss what constitutes effective oversight of prisons and jails. The group—which included 20 percent of the nation's corrections directors, as well as policymakers, judges and prisoner advocates—heard from representatives of U.S. and European oversight organizations. Their message was clear: Independent oversight that includes routine monitoring of institutions is essential for the effective governance of these institutions and for the protection of incarcerated individuals. The details of the oversight models vary, but they all include something beyond investigations of wrongdoing. Effective oversight needs to be forward-looking and preventative as well as reactive and investigative.
Texas needs to create an independent agency responsible for conducting regular inspections of all facilities responsible for incarcerating juveniles and adults. "Independent" means that it should not be a part of the agencies it is inspecting. It should not depend on those agencies for funding, staffing or direction, and it should report directly to the public and to policymakers.
An independent oversight agency should have a "golden key" that gives it access to any institution at any time without prior notice. Inspectors should be able to meet confidentially with juvenile and adult prisoners; interview employees; and examine official records. The knowledge that monitors can show up at any institution at any time helps keep staff on their toes and helps the institutions avoid complacency when things are going well.
Monitors could issue public reports and make recommendations to the inspected agency. Unlike a conservator or a director, inspectors have no management authority—they can't order changes to be implemented. But they can provide agency leaders, policymakers and the public with credible information they need to improve institutional conditions or demand accountability in agency operations.
Independent oversight is not a substitute for improving agency policies or developing internal accountability measures. But it is a means of informing lawmakers and the public objectively about routine practices as well as a means of reassuring incarcerated juveniles and adults that someone on the outside is watching how they are being treated. When problems are identified and fixed early, it also reduces the chances of drawn-out and expensive litigation and court supervision.
We should insist on opening up the closed world of juvenile and adult prisons and shining a light inside those dim corridors. Transparency is a fundamental part of good government, and that will be as true after the Youth Commission mess is cleaned up and the wrongdoers prosecuted as it is today. We need to stop thinking of the "fix" as a "one-time deal"—it should be a commitment to an effective and permanent system of independent oversight for all places of confinement.
Deitch teaches criminal justice policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and has served as a court-appointed monitor of the Texas prison system.
Copyright 2007 Austin American-Statesman