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LBJ School prison photo

UT Law School student Genesis Draper (left) and LBJ School students Bill Vetter and Crystal Jones look into a recreation yard at the Estelle Prison Unit.

“I’ve been struggling with a wariness of the prison system and the simultaneous belief that it is necessary in some form.”

—Journal entry by Crystal Jones

Taking a hard
look at prisons

LBJ School class explores imprisonment policies and myths

The United States has more prisoners than any other country, with about 2.2 million people locked up in prison or jail. In Texas, the prison population is larger than that of most countries, and when one compares the number of individuals who are incarcerated in the state against numbers from countries around the world, Texas leads the way, with places like Russia, Cuba and South Africa falling into a distant second-place.

This spring, students enrolled in an LBJ School class called Prisons and Human Rights are taking an in-depth look at prisons—not only from a human rights perspective but also from operational, budgetary and political standpoints. Taught by LBJ School Adjunct Professor Michele Deitch, the class, which includes LBJ School students and students from other UT departments, combines traditional research with hands-on fieldwork.

“Prisons are fascinating institutions; they are microcosms of society,” said Deitch. “Prisons are something that the public thinks they know a lot about because they tend to superimpose images of prison that have been acquired from pop culture.”

Hoping to break down some of the myths on both sides—whether it is the belief that every prisoner is being raped or the idea that prisoners live in country-club settings—Deitch said that she would like to help students see the big picture and understand the competing interests that pit security concerns against the recognition of prisoners’ human and civil rights.

To help broaden the students’ understanding, Deitch’s class covers many topics, including human rights abuses, torture and brutality, recent events at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, cultural relativism, effective prison management and leadership, accountability and controls, European models of oversight, the use of standards and performance measures, prisoners’ rights law, the cost of prisons in our society, and the dynamics of modern prison life.

“We also talk about the need to open up the prison environment to make it more transparent to the public and more accountable for problems that sometimes occur,” she said. “When you shine a light on what is happening, that is when people tend to live up to the expectations you set for them.”

LBJ School prison photo

Students stand inside the rotunda of the Wynne Prison Unit.

“The first thing that hits you is the smell. The smell was awful. It was constant, it didn’t fade and your nose didn’t adjust with time. It was just a sickening smell at all times.”

—Journal entry by Emily Sitton

The class dovetails with a conference that Deitch organized this spring. Called “Opening Up a Closed World: What Constitutes Effective Prison Oversight?,” the conference took place at the LBJ School April 23-26 and drew some of the world’s leading experts on independent prison oversight, American corrections policy and human rights.

“Throughout the semester, a lot of the readings that the students have done have been pieces written by people who attended the conference,” Deitch said, adding that the students’ research assignments were used by the conference participants.

“The first half of the course involved more traditional seminar readings and discussions and such,” she said. “But as the course went on, it shifted into a mode where students produced work that is directly relevant for practitioners.”

To accomplish the latter, the class was divided into two teams. One team developed an annotated bibliography that includes international and domestic sources on the topic of prison oversight. The second group conducted state-by-state research to collect information about the types of prison and jail oversight that exist in the United States.

“This is the research that was distributed to the conference participants,” Deitch said. “Nothing like this exists, so it will be tremendously useful to anyone interested in this subject matter.”

The proceedings of the conference, which will also be produced by the class, will be widely distributed and will become an invaluable resource on prison oversight.

Deitch, who has a law degree and a master’s degree in psychology, traced her interest in prisons and prison reform to several experiences that took place early in her career. During her first year in law school, Deitch worked in a clinic that represented prisoners before disciplinary boards.

LBJ School prison photo

Adjunct Professor Michele Deitch (second from left) poses with her class. The students are (back row, left to right) Bill Vetter, David Wagner, Bryan McCann, (front row, left to right) Crystal Jones, Michelle Burman, Emily Sitton, Courtney Chavez, Fabiola Flores and Genesis Draper.

“The first time I set foot in a prison, it got into my blood, and I knew I wanted to devote my career to working on these issues,” she recalled.

Later, looking for a way to combine her interests in social justice issues and psychology, she studied at Oxford University, where she focused her research on the study of a therapeutic community prison in England. “My project involved participant-observation research, which meant that I was based on-site in the prison working with prisoners and staff for months at a time and learning about innovative approaches to correction,” Deitch said.

After graduation from law school and a judicial clerkship with a federal appellate judge, Deitch moved to Texas, where she was appointed by U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice to be a court monitor of conditions in the Texas prison system for the federal courts in the Ruiz v. Estelle landmark prison reform case.

“Our office was set up so that we had unfettered access to every prison and prisoner in the state. This was an extraordinary—and unprecedented—opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the prison system and the lives of the prisoners, and to work with the agency to develop policies and implement necessary reforms,” she said. “When our office closed down in 1990, I spent a number of years working for the legislature in various capacities on criminal justice policy issues at a time of great crisis in the system.”

Deitch later branched out as an independent consultant on prison and sentencing issues, working all over the country, and in spring 2004, she began teaching at the LBJ School. In 2005, she was selected as a Soros Senior Justice Fellow by the Open Society Institute.

Through all these experiences, Deitch has gained valuable insights that now allow her to view through various lenses the complex issues related to prisons. She has also developed an extensive network of contacts that she uses to help her students gain similar insights.

In February, Deitch and her class traveled to the Huntsville area for a one-day field trip to visit the Wynne and Estelle prison units. At the Wynne Prison Unit, which houses about 2,500 inmates at all custody levels and offers industrial programs such as the license plate plant, the students toured the housing areas, talked with prison staff members, met face to face with a group of inmates and then had a lunch meeting with Doug Dretke, director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Correctional Institutions Division. At the Estelle Prison Unit, which has about 3,000 inmates, the students toured some of the specialized program areas of the prison system, including the geriatric facility and the regional medical facility.

LBJ School prison photo

The Prisons and Human Rights class exits the Estelle Unit, which is about 10 miles north of Huntsville. The unit houses an intensive substance abuse program, a program for physically handicapped inmates, a geriatric facility, a high-security unit and a regional medical facility.

“It was . . . interesting to see how some of the individuals we toured with seemed to be as much of a product of the system as the inmates. . . .”

—Journal entry by Bill Vetter

While LBJ School student Bill Vetter was “impressed with the conscientiousness with which the higher administrators carried out their responsibilities,” he found the smell of the Wynne unit and the size of the cells repulsive.

“It is the most basic accommodations I can imagine,” he wrote in his class journal. “The rest of the facilities struck me as the lowest of institutional construction and design. The facilities seemed drab and pointless, to the point where concern for prison employees was questionable.”

Vetter was also disturbed by the administrative segregation (ad-seg) housing areas, where inmates are held in a cell for 23 hours a day. “In these cases, ‘rehabilitation’ is not remotely possible, and the inmate can only be damaged by the experience,” he said. “. . . (T)here did not seem to be a point to them, except for the goal of ‘behavior modification,’ which seems to work in the negative in ad-seg. If behavior modification is the goal, then prisons have accepted the notion of negative reinforcement as an axiom of self-improvement.”

After the trip, some of the students expressed their discomfort at being watched by the prisoners. There was also a feeling among some in the group that they were intruding or invading someone’s space. Despite those feelings, there was general agreement that the experience was extremely valuable.

“My first reaction when I got back (from the trip) was to call two of my friends from the law school who have spouted pure retributionist language in regards to prisons and inmates,” wrote Law School student Courtney Chavez. “I took a moment to call them both and tell them that they need to take a prison tour. It is impossible to make reasoned judgments without experiencing that life for yourself.”

Deitch echoed that sentiment, saying that there is only so much one can learn from books. “There was not a person in that class who didn’t walk away feeling that was absolutely the most critical experience for the course,” she said. “It is just unlike anything you can imagine, and even if they felt prepared having done the reading, it still affects them emotionally. I don’t think it’s an experience that will ever leave them.”

In terms of costs, Deitch noted that the rate of imprisonment in the United States makes the American prison system the most expensive in the world.

LBJ School prison photo

David Wagner enters an administrative segregation housing area at the Wynne Prison Unit.

“The setup of the prison, especially in administrative segregation, is similar to a zoo. The men are locked up in single cells where there is only a window to see out of or look inside. It is difficult to expect the prison guards to treat the offenders as people, as human beings, when they are locked up as if they are animals.

—Journal entry by Courtney Chavez

“The criminal justice system is such a huge part of our society. We lock up a phenomenal number of people,” she said. “As a society, we are suffering from our imprisonment policies in terms of their impact on race, communities, neighborhoods and urban areas. There’s a huge financial impact, and having these imprisonment policies affects not only taxes, but it also diverts resources from many other things we care about in this society.”

Because of the significant impact prison policies have on American society, Deitch works to transform her students into better-informed citizens, hoping that when they move into their professions—whether it is at the local, state or federal level--this knowledge will help assure that tax dollars are being used appropriately and that human rights are being protected.

By María de la Luz Martínez

Related Links

Leading prison experts convene to advance transparency and accountability in U.S. prisons

Opening Up a Closed World: What Constitutes Effective Prison Oversight?

On prison rape, Texas tries to report it right

Michele Deitch named Soros Senior Justice Fellow for work on prison reform

Advanced Topics in Public Policy: Prisons and Human Rights

A bright light in the criminal justice arena: Carl Reynolds dedicates his career to justice policy

© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
P.O. Box Y
Austin, TX 78713-8925

25 August 2005

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