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Abuses in New York Prisons Require Independent Oversight

We deserve a prison system worthy of our values. But without meaningful independent oversight, we will not have that, and we will see far too many instances of inhumane conditions, escape, abuse, and even death.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Recent headlines about Leonard Strickland’s tragic, barbaric, and unnecessary death at the hands of prison guards highlights the need for independent oversight of New York’s penal facilities. The shocking video of the assault is only the latest revelation in a long list of recent instances of brutality toward inmates in New York’s prisons, which were also scandalized by the escapes in June of two convicted murderers.

New York’s inhumane practices regarding solitary confinement have also generated outrage, with many prisoners serving years in extreme isolation for minor rule violations at great cost to their mental health and potential for rehabilitation.

The recently announced settlement of a lawsuit about conditions in solitary confinement, along with plans to abolish its most destructive features, is a welcome development, but more is needed. The settlement highlights the need for new forms of oversight to ensure true culture change.

All of these harms occur in a prison system that is largely hidden from public view, and there is little accountability for wrongdoing.

The New York State Commission of Correction has longstanding authority to regulate and visit prisons. But the commission has essentially defaulted on that responsibility, as the Office of the New York State Comptroller pointed out in its 2006 audit of the commission. The commission’s work is now mostly limited to investigating some in-custody deaths, and it cannot be fairly described as a monitoring body.

And although the New York prison agency has agreed to major changes in its use of solitary confinement, it will receive only two years of monitoring of its compliance with that agreement once it has been implemented. Moreover, that settlement is limited in scope, and does not address many other issues that affect inmate health and safety.

As a result of this lack of independent external government oversight, the New York prison system operates almost entirely below the radar. The invisibility of the state’s correctional system should end.

The consequence of invisibility is not a problem just in New York, as evidenced by the suicide of motorist Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell, the dehydration death of a jail inmate with mental illness in Michigan, the scalding-shower death of a Florida prison inmate, the harms caused by overuse of solitary confinement throughout the U.S., and the shocking frequency of prison rape in every state. 

All point to the need for independent oversight to ensure the safety of people in custody.

The New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Correction recently held a hearing about the need for a new independent oversight body for state prisons. We were among the national experts invited to testify about what an effective system of oversight might look like. 

The American Bar Association has developed clear guidance on this issue, and it has called on every state to create an independent monitoring body for its prisons and jails that issues public reports about conditions in those facilities.

The New York State Assembly should heed that call and implement the American Bar Association’s resolution on correctional oversight. It should establish a monitoring body with “golden key” access to prison facilities.

The monitor should proactively examine and report on all aspects of a facility’s operations, including, for example: medical and mental health care; use of force; inmate violence; conditions of confinement; staffing practices; inmate discipline and use of solitary confinement; substance abuse treatment; educational and rehabilitative programming; and re-entry planning. 

There also should be an independent investigatory body that reviews complaints and investigates allegations of wrongdoing, including inmate grievances, abuse claims, denial of access to health care, and inmate deaths. 

Such external oversight in no way competes with the agency’s legitimate need for internal accountability measures. But as recent events confirm, the public is unlikely to be satisfied with an agency’s pronouncement that everything is fine with its operations or to trust an agency’s vindication of staff members for abusive behavior. Only independent monitoring and investigations can provide that level of public accountability. 

Although there is modest expense associated with such oversight entities, those costs pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars paid in lawsuits stemming from unconstitutional practices and the untold costs associated with ineffective programs and unnecessary use of solitary confinement.

Meaningful prison oversight can help prevent abuse, rather than simply reacting after abuses occur. Designed correctly, an oversight body can provide an early warning system about patterns of complaints against certain staffers, assess the appropriateness of staff discipline, address concerns about inadequate health care or protocols for dealing with mentally ill inmates, highlight programs that are ineffective and the need for improved staff training, and identify policies that need to be adjusted. The problems that contributed to the homicide of Leonard Strickland would be detected and corrected in advance of that tragic confrontation.

Also, awareness that a monitor can show up at any time helps keep conditions safe and acts as a check on staff misbehavior. The culture of a facility changes when outsiders shine a light on these conditions.

As demonstrated by the monitoring work of the British Prison Inspectorate, external oversight will result in safer prisons for inmates and staffers alike, more effective programs to rehabilitate inmates, a healthier prison culture that supports positive outcomes, and taxpayer savings from fewer lawsuits and lessened recidivism.

We deserve a prison system worthy of our values. But without meaningful independent oversight, we will not have that, and we will see far too many instances of inhumane conditions, escape, abuse, and even death. If further tragedies are to be avoided, the New York Legislature, and its counterparts around the nation, must promptly address this issue and provide for comprehensive and meaningful oversight of all correctional facilities.

Michele Deitch is a senior lecturer in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin. Michael B. Mushlin is a professor of law at Pace Law School. The authors serve as the co-chairs of the American Bar Association’s Subcommittee on Independent Correctional Oversight, and they coordinated publication of the “Sourcebook on Prison Oversight.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in the New York Times.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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