Improving Accountability through Independent Correctional Oversight

With unacceptably high rates of sexual assault and recidivism, today’s prisons are in dire need of increased accountability and transparency. Since prisons are closed institutions, the public rarely knows what happens inside—unless inmates take their horror stories to court or a tragedy is exposed in the media. The U.S. remains one of the only nations in the Western world that lacks a comprehensive independent system for monitoring corrections conditions.

How can the public be sure that prisons and jails are treating inmates humanely and preparing them for re-entry in the most efficient and effective way?

If each state established an independent correctional oversight body to report on prison and jail conditions, the public could see into one of the United States’ most opaque institutions.  As Michele Deitch, Senior Lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, shares in her proposal, this oversight group would both generate more public awareness and protect inmates. The following critical components of an oversight board would help ensure this:

(1) the oversight body must be independent of the correctional agency, and be able to work without interference or pressure;

(2) it must have a mandate to conduct regular, routine inspections of the facilities under its jurisdiction;

(3) monitors must have a “golden key,” giving them unfettered and confidential access to facilities, prisoners, staff, and records;

(4) it must be adequately resourced, with sufficient staffing, office space, and funding, and with control over its own budget;

(5) it must have the duty to report its findings and recommendations;

(6) monitors should use a wide variety of methods to evaluate the treatment of prisoners including observations, interviews with prisoners, surveys, grievances, statistics, and performance-based outcome measures;

(7) the oversight body should serve both a preventive monitoring function and an investigation function for reviewing systemic or serious complaints; and

(8) the correctional agency should be required to cooperate fully with the oversight body and to respond promptly and publicly to its findings.

Deitch’s proposal builds on recent successes in the Texas juvenile justice system. After a 2007 juvenile scandal, the Texas legislature created an Office of the Independent Ombudsman (OIO) for the juvenile corrections agency. Since its conception, the OIO has notified state lawmakers and the public of multiple systematic abuses and inefficiencies.  The greater public awareness and resulting mobilization of concerned citizens prompted Corrections to address these problems.

Partially thanks to OIO reports, 3,900 incarcerated Texan youth have moved out of the correctional facility to community settings close to home. The improvements stemming from OIO reports, as well as the expensive lawsuits they help to avoid, more than fund and justify its existence.

While Massachusetts must form its own independent correctional oversight committee to address its prison’s high suicide rates and prisoner abuse cases, our state leaders can certainly learn from the challenges and successes of the OIO.

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