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The Landscape of Recent State and County Correctional Oversight Efforts

Since 2018, many jurisdictions have tried to strengthen transparency and accountability in their correctional systems with mixed results.

Last Updated: March 15, 2022
Published: March 15, 2022
Entrance to the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center at Rikers Island
David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images

Correc­tional insti­tu­tions — pris­ons and jails — are considered closed facil­it­ies. Few visit­ors gain access to these insti­tu­tions, even though they house people for months, years, decades, and, some­times, entire life­times. As Justice Kennedy wrote in his 2015 concur­rence to the Court’s opin­ion in Davis v. Ayala, “Pris­on­ers are shut away—out of sight, out of mind,” while their condi­tions of confine­ment are “too easily ignored” by the public and the legal academy.

These insti­tu­tions are also coer­cive envir­on­ments with marked power differ­en­tials between correc­tions staff and incar­cer­ated people that make facil­it­ies ripe for abuse. Because jails and pris­ons exert total author­ity over indi­vidu­als’ bodies and liberty, trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity are neces­sary to ensure that facil­it­ies uphold their duty of care to respect the dignity of people who are imprisoned and ensure that pris­ons are safe and secure.

One way to achieve the goals of trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity, while ensur­ing safe and humane condi­tions of confine­ment, is a formal and inde­pend­ent system of over­sight of jail and prison oper­a­tions. As the Bren­nan Center has noted before, although the U.S. has more people behind bars than any other coun­try on the planet, “it lacks a cohes­ive or integ­rated system of over­sight for its vast network of pris­ons and jails.”

The coun­try currently has about 18 entit­ies over­see­ing pris­ons, such as the Correc­tional Asso­ci­ation of New York, the John Howard Asso­ci­ation in Illinois, and the Pennsylvania Prison Soci­ety. There are also a number of inde­pend­ent agen­cies that conduct prison over­sight housed within the exec­ut­ive branch of state govern­ments, such as the Office of the Inspector General in Cali­for­nia. Addi­tion­ally, a hand­ful of inde­pend­ent entit­ies over­see local jails, such as the New York City Board of Correc­tions and the Texas Commis­sion on Jail Stand­ards. Mean­while, most state pris­ons — through their own internal account­ab­il­ity mech­an­isms — rely on monit­ors who work for the very state correc­tional agen­cies that manage these facil­it­ies. The inher­ent prob­lem in this setup is that such internal account­ab­il­ity mech­an­isms lack inde­pend­ence. 

This patch­work of over­sight provides insuf­fi­cient cover­age. And the public health crisis result­ing from the highly conta­gious and deadly Covid-19 virus has shone a spot­light on the preval­ence of inhu­mane condi­tions of confine­ment in Amer­ica’s correc­tional facil­it­ies. These condi­tions pred­ated the pandemic but worsened in many jails and pris­ons after March 2020.

Even before Covid-19 infilt­rated their walls, jails and pris­ons across the coun­try had already been deemed inhu­mane places to live. For example, in June of 2019, Missis­sip­pi’s State Health Depart­ment issued a report find­ing that the Missis­sippi State Penit­en­tiary had dozens of broken or miss­ing sinks and toilets and cells with no lights, hot water, or mattresses.

But the pandemic adds a new — and deadly — layer. Given the inab­il­ity to social distance behind bars, the constant turnover in jails, lack of masks, and the inab­il­ity to wash one’s hands frequently, it has been diffi­cult for incar­cer­ated people to avoid contract­ing Covid-19. Although these counts are likely under­es­tim­ates, at least 3,059 incar­cer­ated people and 308 correc­tional staff have died from Covid-19, and over 592,148 incar­cer­ated people have contrac­ted the virus. The situ­ation has only been exacer­bated by the lack of trans­par­ency about the spread, toll, and manage­ment of Covid-19 across the coun­try’s thou­sands of correc­tional and deten­tion facil­it­ies.

Many facil­it­ies have devolved into crisis since March 2020, as correc­tional officers called out sick or quit their jobs. Many of them worry about their own health as Covid-19 contin­ues its persist­ent trans­mis­sion within jails and pris­ons. And the outflow of staff is stark. For example, the vacancy rate for correc­tional officer posi­tions in Flor­id­a’s pris­ons nearly doubled from Decem­ber 2019 to Septem­ber 2021.

This severe under­staff­ing has exacer­bated already dire condi­tions. In 2021 alone, 16 people died in the custody of New York City’s jail system. The city’s chief medical officer at Rikers Island even acknow­ledged that “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.”

In Phil­adelphi­a’s jails, 18 people died* in 2021, and the city’s control­ler found that the facil­it­ies are continu­ously oper­at­ing 382 officers below the minimum level deemed safe for staff and detained people alike. In yet another pandemic-era disaster, the jail facil­ity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., entered a 23-hour-a-day lock­down in March 2020. It lasted for about 400 days straight and left the 1,500 people held there suffer­ing from what experts referred to as “mass solit­ary confine­ment” and “a grave human rights abuse.” Last summer, the lock­down was loosened — to 22 hours per day.

Inhu­mane 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. This resource explores the land­scape of prison and jail over­sight reform since 2018. It high­lights both progress in strength­en­ing correc­tional over­sight and failed attempts to improve monit­or­ing of condi­tions inside these insti­tu­tions. 

New Independent Entities to Oversee Conditions in State Prisons and County Jails

Inde­pend­ent over­sight is crit­ical to making pris­ons and jails safer, more account­able, and trans­par­ent. Without it, legis­lat­ors and taxpay­ers alike are often left in the dark about the true status of the crim­inal legal systems they fund. As correc­tional over­sight expert Michele Deitch recently poin­ted out, “the national land­scape for inde­pend­ent correc­tional over­sight is improv­ing, with greater aware­ness of this issue, more calls for the creation of over­sight mech­an­isms, more concrete efforts to estab­lish these entit­ies, and the success­ful imple­ment­a­tion of several new over­sight bodies.” Over the past few years, despite some stalled legis­lat­ive efforts to expand over­sight bodies, a note­worthy number of states expan­ded their inde­pend­ent monit­or­ing of state prison facil­it­ies and some juris­dic­tions have insti­tuted new account­ab­il­ity mech­an­isms for local jails.

  • Wash­ing­ton State’s legis­lature had considered propos­als to create a prison ombuds­man office for years. State poli­cy­makers finally acted in 2018 after incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als sued the state over their condi­tions of confine­ment, includ­ing improper use of solit­ary confine­ment. That year, Wash­ing­ton became the seventh state (join­ing Hawaii, Cali­for­nia, Indi­ana, Michigan, Nebraska, and New Jersey) to create an Office of Correc­tions Ombuds (OCO) to field complaints related to the health, safety, welfare, and rights of those in the state’s prison system; monitor and ensure state Depart­ment of Correc­tions compli­ance with stat­utes, rules, and policies regard­ing the treat­ment of pris­on­ers; and produce public reports explain­ing OCO find­ings and recom­mend­a­tions. The OCO is author­ized to publi­cize its reports and recom­mend­a­tions, and it must report invest­ig­at­ive find­ings to the governor and appro­pri­ate legis­lat­ive commit­tees if there is a substan­tial health, safety, welfare, or rehab­il­it­a­tion issue.
  • Minnesota re-created the Office of the Ombuds for Correc­tions (OBFC) in 2019. It had elim­in­ated a similar body in a round of 2003 budget cuts, after 30 years in oper­a­tion. The revived OBFC has the author­ity to invest­ig­ate all decisions and policies of the Depart­ment of Correc­tions, and agen­cies are now required to provide ombuds access to facil­it­ies and docu­ments. The OBFC can also subpoena witnesses and file lawsuits to invoke its powers. The new office opened in Janu­ary 2020 and began by eval­u­at­ing correc­tional responses to the Covid-19 pandemic; it opened for general complaints in Septem­ber 2020. 
  • Connecti­cut launched a Correc­tional Ombuds­man Program to address the complaints of incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als and invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of mistreat­ment in the 1970s. But in 2010, the office was elim­in­ated in a round of state agency budget cuts. Almost a decade later, in 2019, the state passed HB 7389 to intro­duce ombuds services for incar­cer­ated minors. This bill was promp­ted by a report from the Office of the Child Advoc­ate condemning the “over­all lack of rehab­il­it­at­ive struc­ture and the harm­ful prac­tices related to isol­a­tion and restraint” for young people within the state’s prison system. As of July 1, 2020, the inde­pend­ent ombud­sper­son service has the power to tour facil­it­ies as well as receive, invest­ig­ate, and recom­mend remed­ies to complaints from minors spend­ing time in adult prison facil­it­ies.
  • New Jersey passed AB 3979 in 2019, which was signed by the governor in 2020 and revamped the Office of the Correc­tions Ombud­sper­son. The ombud­sper­son is now able to conduct unan­nounced inspec­tions of pris­ons in the state. The law also allows the ombud­sper­son to receive and invest­ig­ate complaints from those who are incar­cer­ated, their famil­ies, advoc­ates, govern­ment agen­cies, and others with inform­a­tion about condi­tions in the facil­it­ies. However, almost two years later, the state has not yet imple­men­ted the legis­la­tion that gave such broad powers to the correc­tions ombud­sper­son nor created an advis­ory board to assist in over­sight efforts. Seats on the advis­ory board still remain open, and the exist­ing board members have been unable to meet given the lack of quorum and no active ombud­sper­son with whom to coordin­ate. 
  • The Correc­tional Asso­ci­ation of New York (CANY) was foun­ded 175 years ago and is the only inde­pend­ent organ­iz­a­tion in the state with stat­utory author­ity to monitor pris­ons and report its find­ings to the legis­lature and the public. In 2020, the state signi­fic­antly increased the organ­iz­a­tion’s stat­utory author­ity through AB 10194. The law permits CANY to access, visit, inspect, and exam­ine all state pris­ons without advance notice. During such visits, the asso­ci­ation can speak publicly or confid­en­tially with any correc­tional employee, any incar­cer­ated indi­vidual, or any other person who provides services in a New York state prison.
  • Hawaii estab­lished its own Correc­tional Systems Over­sight Commis­sion in 2019, appoint­ing five commis­sion­ers to lead the new over­sight effort. However, Governor Yutaka Ige’s admin­is­tra­tion delayed for years on releas­ing fund­ing to hire staff. The team was finally approved to hire a full-time over­sight commis­sioner in Octo­ber 2021, but the hiring process is ongo­ing. 
  • In Pennsylvania, the Delaware County Coun­cil approved a resol­u­tion in 2019 to remake the over­sight mech­an­ism for its county correc­tional facil­ity — repla­cing the Board of Prison Inspect­ors with a new Jail Over­sight Board. The county houses the only privately run prison in Pennsylvania, and the previ­ous board’s abil­ity to make finan­cial and policy decisions about the facil­ity without coun­cil approval has long been a source of contro­versy. The new, expan­ded member­ship includes the county sher­iff, control­ler, exec­ut­ive director, two judges, the coun­cil’s chair­per­son, and three members of the public. 
  • In New York’s Erie County, the legis­lature created the Correc­tions Special­ist Advis­ory Board in 2019 to provide increased over­sight of the Erie County Hold­ing Center and the County Correc­tional facil­ity in Alden. The board began meet­ing in early 2020, when its first offi­cial action was to recom­mend the release of most people held in county jails during the begin­ning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • In Essex County, New Jersey, the legis­lature approved a civil­ian review panel — the Correc­tional Facil­ity Civil­ian Task Force — in late 2019 to review condi­tions at the county jail, includ­ing immig­rant detain­ees who are housed there. The ordin­ance empowers the group to ensure condi­tions of confine­ment are “safe, sanit­ary, respect­ful and humane” through regu­lar visits and report­ing. But after two years in exist­ence, the board has failed to meet its annual report­ing require­ment or conduct visits to the jail and inter­view people in custody. 

Mixed Results in Litigation-Based Reform

Litig­a­tion is a tool that can force jail and prison facil­it­ies to imple­ment certain proto­cols and protec­tions to improve condi­tions. Inde­pend­ent and prevent­ive over­sight can help ensure that condi­tions do not deteri­or­ate enough that a lawsuit is neces­sary. But chan­ging circum­stances can also raise new concerns. In some states, the Covid-19 virus produced such worry about incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als’ health and concern about compli­ance with consti­tu­tional norms that federal courts stepped in. The results of these inter­ven­tions have been mixed.

  • In Hawaii, incar­cer­ated people filed a class action lawsuit in federal court in April 2021 alleging that state correc­tional offi­cials had failed to imple­ment most of the guidelines that public health experts issued to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Hawaii’s pris­ons. In July 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Jill Otake issued a 69-page ruling grant­ing partial injunct­ive relief, find­ing that the state Depart­ment of Public Safety (DPS) had failed to protect incar­cer­ated people from Covid-19 outbreaks that caused the deaths of at least nine pris­on­ers. As part of this ruling, Judge Otake ordered the DPS to follow its own response plan for coping with the Covid-19 pandemic and to specific­ally imple­ment social distan­cing meas­ures, provide personal protect­ive equip­ment, and create new intake screen­ing proced­ures. The federal judge also ordered DPS to “provide sanit­ary living condi­tions to all inmates in DPS custody, i.e., regu­lar access to a work­ing toilet, sink, and drink­ing water” and to “prohibit DPS employ­ees from restrict­ing access to inmate griev­ance forms or from prevent­ing the submis­sion of griev­ances with respect to COVID-19 issues.”
  • In July 2020, a federal judge in Connecti­cut approved a class action settle­ment that required increased medical monit­or­ing for incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als who test posit­ive for Covid-19 in addi­tion to improv­ing how the state Depart­ment of Correc­tions (DOC) quar­ant­ines these indi­vidu­als. The agree­ment also required the creation of a five-member panel to monitor compli­ance, make recom­mend­a­tions to help the DOC comply with federal guidelines, and produce public reports about its find­ings. However, the ACLU Found­a­tion of Connecti­cut had already uncovered “systemic patterns of non-compli­ance by the Depart­ment of Correc­tion” by Octo­ber 2020, and the settle­ment expired at the end of the year. Since then, condi­tions within the Connecti­cut DOC have contin­ued to deteri­or­ate.
  • At the end of March 2020, incar­cer­ated people in a geri­at­ric prison in Texas filed a class action lawsuit against the Texas Depart­ment of Crim­inal Justice (TDCJ), alleging that the prison system had viol­ated their Eighth and Four­teenth Amend­ment rights protect­ing them from cruel and unusual punish­ment, as well as the Amer­ic­ans with Disab­il­it­ies Act and Rehab­il­it­a­tion Act, by fail­ing to make reas­on­able accom­mod­a­tions to protect them from Covid-19. During review by the district court, the incar­cer­ated people were gran­ted a perman­ent injunc­tion that required TDCJ to imple­ment Covid-19 safe­guards, includ­ing provid­ing clean­ing supplies, enfor­cing social distan­cing, compel­ling the use of personal protect­ive equip­ment by staff, test­ing people inside the facil­ity, and creat­ing a contact tracing plan. However, in mid-Octo­ber, the Fifth Circuit stayed enforce­ment of the injunc­tion two weeks later, and the Supreme Court refused to rein­state it. Justice Sonia Soto­mayor wrote in dissent: “If the prison fails to enforce social distan­cing and mask-wear­ing, perform regu­lar test­ing, and take other essen­tial steps, the inmates can do noth­ing but wait for the virus to take its toll.” Ulti­mately, the Fifth Circuit denied the plaintiffs any relief in March of 2021. 

Proposed Jail and Prison Independent Oversight Bills That Did Not Pass

Increased media interest and public concern toward the condi­tions inside Amer­ica’s jails and pris­ons have not yet trans­lated to the neces­sary infra­struc­ture of robust over­sight policies which would safe­guard the human dignity of those housed in Amer­ica’s correc­tional facil­it­ies. But even in places that have not yet taken affirm­at­ive steps to protect incar­cer­ated people, there is progress. While many of these bills did not make it through their state legis­latures, they indic­ate an increas­ing effort to estab­lish mean­ing­ful inde­pend­ent over­sight of pris­ons and jails.

Prison Over­sight Bills

  • In Novem­ber 2018, Texas state legis­lat­ors in both cham­bers intro­duced identical bills that would have created an inde­pend­ent over­sight ombuds office for the Texas Depart­ment of Crim­inal Justice. Though the correc­tions system already has an internal ombuds office, the bills aimed to make it inde­pend­ent and there­fore able to report find­ings more object­ively to lawmakers without fear of reper­cus­sions within the agency. The bill failed in commit­tee six months later.
  • In Janu­ary 2021, in response to alleg­a­tions of abuse at the Lowell Correc­tional Insti­tu­tion in Ocala, Flor­ida, state repres­ent­at­ives intro­duced HB 537, which aimed to create a Citizens Over­sight Coun­cil for the state’s correc­tional facil­it­ies. The bill was with­drawn in Febru­ary, and some of its tenets were incor­por­ated in the much broader crim­inal justice reform bill HB 1609, which died in commit­tee in April.
  • Virgini­a’s HB 2325 and SB 1363, which would have created a Depart­ment of Correc­tion ombuds and state over­sight board, respect­ively, both failed in 2021. The primary reason for the propos­als’ fail­ure was concerns raised by the Depart­ment of Correc­tions over costs.
  • In Arizona, HB 2167 was intro­duced in 2021 to increase account­ab­il­ity and trans­par­ency by estab­lish­ing an inde­pend­ent ombuds office with author­ity to inspect pris­ons, propose and monitor improve­ments to prison condi­tions and facil­it­ies, and assist with concerns of pris­on­ers, their famil­ies, and staff. The bill passed the House, but then died in commit­tee during its Senate review.
  • Despite the state legis­lature passing a bill in 2021 to expand ombuds services — rein­stated in 2019 for minors only — to all those incar­cer­ated in state pris­ons, Connecti­cut Ned Lamont vetoed the legis­la­tion, which would have also ended the use of solit­ary confine­ment and abus­ive restraints, among other policy changes. In a letter explain­ing his decision, Lamont cited confid­en­ti­al­ity risks in allow­ing the ombud­sper­son to access sens­it­ive Depart­ment of Correc­tions records; safety and secur­ity risks by fail­ing to provide the Depart­ment of Correc­tions flex­ib­il­ity to limit facil­ity visit­ors; and safety risks in the bill’s limit­a­tions on the use of restraints and solit­ary confine­ment that he called “far out of line with what has been success­fully imple­men­ted in other states.”

Jail Over­sight Bills

  • Follow­ing a series of deaths and invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ism revel­a­tions in 2020, Geor­gia lawmaker David Wilk­er­son intro­duced HB 678 to mandate the invest­ig­a­tion of any future jail deaths in the state. The legis­la­tion would have required outside, inde­pend­ent invest­ig­a­tions into all fatal­it­ies, but it died in commit­tee during the 2021 legis­lat­ive session.
  • In Massachu­setts, lawmakers intro­duced S 1578, a crim­inal justice reform bill that would, among other things, estab­lish an over­sight commit­tee to monitor the use of solit­ary confine­ment in county jails. The proposed law would have required the commis­sioner to report quarterly to the commis­sion and tasked the Depart­ment of Correc­tions with improv­ing mental health care and due process protec­tions for people held in segreg­ated hous­ing. The bill stalled in commit­tee but will be revis­ited during the 2022 legis­lat­ive session. 

Attempts by Some Oversight Entities to Increase Transparency During the Pandemic

To illus­trate why inde­pend­ent over­sight entit­ies are so neces­sary, some exist­ing organ­iz­a­tions made seri­ous attempts to glean detailed inform­a­tion from incar­cer­ated people about their condi­tions of confine­ment during the Covid-19 pandemic. These efforts to learn more about how people behind bars were treated during this national health crisis provide a rare glimpse into the closed-door system of Amer­ica’s jails and pris­ons.

Progress Toward Over­sight 

  • In Illinois, the John Howard Asso­ci­ation (JHA), an inde­pend­ent nonprofit that provides citizen correc­tional over­sight of Illinois pris­ons, launched a Covid-19 survey across the state’s entire prison system, receiv­ing more than 16,000 responses completed between April 24 and May 20, 2020. Ques­tions included: Did indi­vidu­als have enough soap to regu­larly wash their hands in the past week? (Only 61 percent said yes.) How often indi­vidu­als received clean­ing chem­ic­als from the Illinois Depart­ment of Correc­tions to clean their cells and sleep­ing areas? (48 percent said that they never had, and 24.5 percent said just once in the preced­ing week.) Did they have outdoor recre­ation time at least once in the past week? (43 percent said no, not allowed to.) And did they get at least one free phone call in the last week, while no in-person visit­a­tion was allowed? (Only 9 percent said yes “and it worked.”) This survey provided crit­ical inform­a­tion on the policies imple­men­ted and the day-to-day condi­tions in Illinois pris­ons during the pandemic. It also provided better insight into how to hold the state’s correc­tions depart­ment account­able for the way it cares for its incar­cer­ated people.
  • In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Prison Soci­ety (PPS), a nonprofit organ­iz­a­tion that has been charged with prison advocacy and civil­ian over­sight since 1787, sent peri­odic Covid-19 surveys to incar­cer­ated people and issued reports on the exper­i­ence of living through the pandemic inside prison facil­it­ies. In its latest state prison survey, conduc­ted between Septem­ber and Decem­ber 2021, PPS found that personal safety concerns grew as the pandemic worsened, as only 33 percent of respond­ents repor­ted feel­ing safe (as compared to 44 percent in the first survey). Less than 50 percent of respond­ents repor­ted that staff “always” or “often” wore masks, and only 16 percent shared that they felt satis­fied with their avail­able medical care.
  • In New York State, the Correc­tional Asso­ci­ation of New York (CANY), an inde­pend­ent organ­iz­a­tion with legis­lat­ive author­ity to monitor the state’s pris­ons, surveyed friends and family of incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als about the prison system’s response to Covid-19. Because of the pandemic, CANY visits to facil­it­ies were paused, and mail processing inside facil­it­ies slowed consid­er­ably, making it more diffi­cult to commu­nic­ate with those behind bars except during video/phone visits. The survey covered topics such as pre-exist­ing medical condi­tions that might make incar­cer­ated people more suscept­ible to Covid-19 (64.8 percent of respond­ents repor­ted their loved one had a pre-exist­ing condi­tion); access to hygiene items (90 percent of respond­ents repor­ted their loved one did not have access to a face mask); disrup­tions in commu­nic­a­tion tools (86.8 percent of respond­ents expressed an inab­il­ity to commu­nic­ate with their incar­cer­ated loved one as usual); and satis­fac­tion with the prison system’s Covid-19 response (only 4.8 percent marked the response more than halfway up the satis­fac­tion scale). 
  • These organ­iz­a­tions (JHA, PPS, and CANY) also published a collab­or­at­ive report to docu­ment the impact of Covid-19 and their efforts to impact pris­ons’ pandemic responses across their states. After repeated requests by JHA, Illinois began post­ing updated inform­a­tion on cases, deaths, tests, and vaccin­a­tion rates every day, while also send­ing memos with this inform­a­tion to incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als. PPS lobbied for months to correct flawed inform­a­tion posted on the Pennsylvania state pris­ons website and was even­tu­ally success­ful in convin­cing the depart­ment to correct its data issues. In New York, advocacy from CANY and others has only been success­ful in convin­cing the state to post a monthly report (rather than weekly or daily, as reques­ted) on cases and deaths, along with a list of response actions by the depart­ment. The joint report also notes the meas­ures — or lack thereof — taken to protect incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als from the virus and to commu­nic­ate with incar­cer­ated people, their famil­ies, the public, and over­sight bodies.
  • In Wash­ing­ton State, the Office of Correc­tions Ombuds created a dedic­ated phone hotline for “ques­tions, concerns, or inform­a­tion” about the DOC’s hand­ling of Covid-19. The ombuds office also surveyed incar­cer­ated indi­vidu­als at least twice during the pandemic, publish­ing survey results online and releas­ing invest­ig­a­tions of multiple facil­ity responses to Covid-19 outbreaks. In its report on the Coyote Ridge Correc­tions Center, the ombuds office found that prison admin­is­trat­ors worsened the spread of Covid-19 by not requir­ing mask­ing, not quar­ant­in­ing symp­to­matic people, and misman­aging medical care. Simil­arly, the ombuds report on pandemic response at the Monroe Correc­tional Complex found inef­fect­ive social distan­cing meas­ures, mistreat­ment of people in solit­ary confine­ment, and “grim” condi­tions for symp­to­matic people in isol­a­tion.
  • Because incar­cer­ated people from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., are held at prison facil­it­ies across the coun­try, the D.C. Correc­tions Inform­a­tion Coun­cil — an inde­pend­ent monit­or­ing body estab­lished through Congress and the D.C. Coun­cil — sent a 20-ques­tion survey to the D.C. popu­la­tion inside Bureau of Pris­ons facil­it­ies in June 2020, releas­ing its results in July 2021. The survey focused on four areas of concern, namely: insti­tu­tional clean­ing (for example, only 28 percent of respond­ents shared that staff always wore masks and gloves); access to medical care (81 percent of respond­ents were not tested for Covid-19 between June and August 2020); move­ment (81 percent of respond­ents shared that their facil­ity had been on continu­ous lock­down for over a month); and commu­nic­a­tion (25 percent of respond­ents were not able to send email corres­pond­ence).

Moving Forward

In states and local­it­ies across the nation, the need for consist­ent, power­ful over­sight over what happens behind jail and prison walls contin­ues to grow. In addi­tion to the numer­ous steps toward increased over­sight taken in the past three years, there are addi­tional legis­lat­ive actions being debated this session.

For example, Nebraska is consid­er­ing launch­ing an over­sight task force to eval­u­ate its Justice Rein­vest­ment Initi­at­ive programs and help imple­ment other changes to its crim­inal justice system. In response to a recent scath­ing Cali­for­nia State Auditor report, San Diego is consid­er­ing imple­ment­ing legis­lat­ive over­sight mech­an­isms for its county jails — as an interim meas­ure, the civil­ian over­sight board for the sher­iff’s depart­ment will be tasked with invest­ig­at­ing jail deaths directly. The Louisi­ana Legis­lature passed a resol­u­tion in 2021 to study the health and safety condi­tions in its local jails, develop basic jail stand­ards, and propose a new jail over­sight mech­an­ism. And in Missouri, lawmakers are debat­ing the creation of an over­sight commit­tee tasked with invest­ig­at­ing complaints, collect­ing data, and monit­or­ing condi­tions within the Depart­ment of Correc­tions.

In another prom­ising endeavor, Deitch recently foun­ded the Prison and Jail Innov­a­tion Lab (PJIL) at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, which will provide help to juris­dic­tions look­ing to imple­ment better over­sight of their facil­it­ies. These ongo­ing move­ments to increase over­sight bode well for the poten­tial of even more coordin­ated efforts to come.

*COR­REC­TION: The number of people who died in Phil­adelphia jails during 2021 was 18, not 14.