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Oversight of Prisons and Jails Must Get Better, Faster

A new Brennan Center resource tracks progress on prison and jail oversight reform.

Even before Covid-19 began to infilt­rate jails and pris­ons, Amer­ica’s correc­tional facil­it­ies were places where disease spreads quickly. Inhu­mane condi­tions such as lack of hot water and work­ing plumb­ing are also common, and assaults are often expec­ted.

Better over­sight was already badly needed. The pandemic added an addi­tional layer of danger to these facil­it­ies through both the spread of the deadly virus and the skyrock­et­ing number of staff who called out sick due to illness or a fear of work­ing inside facil­it­ies.

Our jails and pris­ons are closed insti­tu­tions, which makes it diffi­cult for those who don’t live or work there to have a true sense of what the condi­tions behind bars are like. A new Bren­nan Center resource explores the land­scape of prison and jail over­sight reform since 2018. In it, we shed light on activ­ity over the last five years to improve trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity. It high­lights progress in strength­en­ing correc­tional over­sight as well as failed attempts to improve monit­or­ing of condi­tions inside these insti­tu­tions.

The United States domin­ates the world in the sheer number of people behind bars: a stag­ger­ing 2.2 million. Despite our status as the world’s No. 1 incar­cer­ator, the organ­iz­a­tions making up our nation’s piece­meal network of inde­pend­ent agen­cies that conduct correc­tional over­sight are few and far between. Terrible condi­tions of confine­ment in Amer­ica’s pris­ons and jails continue to persist, and the nation is in dire need of more prevent­at­ive and inde­pend­ent correc­tional over­sight to rein these abuses in. Our current patch­work of over­sight provides insuf­fi­cient cover­age.

Last year, 16 people died in the custody of New York City’s Depart­ment of Correc­tions, 15 of them at the Rikers Island Jail Complex — notori­ous for over­crowding and deplor­able condi­tions. People detained at Rikers during the pandemic have repor­ted such intol­er­able condi­tions as cooked mice being served with their food, no pillows or blankets, and sleep­ing in feces. Last year, correc­tional officers sued the jail over their work­ing condi­tions, describ­ing Rikers as “hell.”

In Septem­ber, Ross MacDon­ald, the chief medical officer for New York City’s jails, reques­ted state or federal assist­ance in a letter to the New York City Coun­cil, writ­ing, “In 2021 we have witnessed a collapse in basic jail oper­a­tions, such that today I do not believe the City is capable of safely managing the custody of those it is charged with incar­cer­at­ing in its jails, nor main­tain­ing the safety of those who work there.”

New York is one of the nation’s few cities that has an inde­pend­ent over­sight agency, the Board of Correc­tion, which contin­ues to find prob­lems with how the city Depart­ment of Correc­tions repor­ted seri­ous incid­ents and injur­ies that took place behind bars. The Board of Correc­tion stepped in to create a compu­ter­ized track­ing system and conduc­ted train­ing for those who work in the jails about how to complete these injury reports. Yet this type of inter­ven­tion — while sorely needed across the coun­try — is rare.

While over­sight of our nation’s correc­tional insti­tu­tions is just the first step in fixing the inhu­man­ity so many of those in custody suffer, it provides a valu­able tool to identify uncon­sti­tu­tional prac­tices, unac­cept­able condi­tions, and viol­a­tions of state, local, and federal law. As Columbia Law professor Robert Ferguson wrote in his seminal book, Inferno: An Anatomy of Amer­ican Punish­ment, “The suffer­ing of the convicted is care­fully arranged to take place some­where out of sight.”

The dire state of affairs at Rikers Island and correc­tional insti­tu­tions around the coun­try — as well as the scarcity of access that makes even discern­ing correc­tional condi­tions so diffi­cult — make the need for expan­ded over­sight abund­antly clear. While ongo­ing move­ments to increase over­sight are prom­ising, it is essen­tial that they mater­i­al­ize into real progress.