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About the Conference

Overview and Purpose
The University of Texas in Austin, Texas will host a by-invitation-only conference on prisons from April 23 to 26, 2006. Entitled “Opening Up a Closed World: What Constitutes Effective Prison Oversight?,” the conference is designed to bring together some of the world’s leading experts on independent prison oversight and leaders in American corrections policy and human rights to discuss a variety of methods for ensuring that prisons remain transparent and accountable. The conference is a follow-up to a highly successful symposium on the future of prison reform held at Pace Law School (NY) in 2003, and many of the same participants will be involved.

This groundbreaking event will provide the first opportunity in the United States to closely examine a range of workable non-judicial prison oversight mechanisms, to analyze the conditions under which these models can be successful at improving prison conditions and protecting human rights, and to consider ways that international models and domestic models of oversight can be adapted for wider use in the United States. Many countries, especially in Europe, have highly developed mechanisms for inspecting and reporting on prison conditions. These systems are designed to prevent human rights abuses before they occur. In contrast, the United States is one of the only Western countries without a formal and comprehensive system in place providing for the routine, external review of all prisons and jails, although there are some important examples of such oversight at the state and local level. Typically, problems come to light only when there is a lawsuit or a disturbance, either of which can have disastrous financial, human, or legal consequences for the agency.

In the absence of external scrutiny, conditions are ripe for human rights violations, and it is difficult to assess the extent of problems such as sexual assault, inadequate health care, unsafe housing, and lack of rehabilitative programming. Neither policymakers nor the public have an independent source of reliable information about the treatment and care of prisoners in those jurisdictions that lack formal inspection mechanisms.

Recently, our country has seen the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the report of the American Bar Association’s Justice Kennedy Commission, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the national debate about torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners during wartime, and the ongoing work of groups such as the National Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, and the American Bar Association’s Task Force on prison legal standards. There has been a national revival of interest in the question of what happens behind the closed doors of our correctional institutions. In addition, there have been recent calls in the national media to make United States prisons and jails more transparent and accountable for the protection of human rights. Now the time is ripe to explore exactly what we mean when we talk about “transparency” and “accountability.” This critical issue forms the basis for our gathering in Austin.

This conference is organized by Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Adjunct Professor Michele Deitch, with the expert assistance of Pace Law School Professor Michael Mushlin and a Conference Advisory Committee. The event is co-sponsored by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and Pace Law School, with support from other academic departments and centers. Most events will be held at the Thompson Conference Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus.

Gathering of Experts
This is a by-invitation-only gathering targeting state and federal policy-makers, top-level correctional administrators, prison monitors, human rights advocates, prisoners’ rights attorneys, journalists, and scholars. All of the conference participants will be very high-profile players in the field of corrections policy and human rights. Participants will include experts from all over the United States, and we will be joined by distinguished European guests as well. The caliber of the conference participants will create exceptional opportunities for dialogue and the sharing of information.

Some events will be open to a limited number of observers from the University of Texas community.

There will be a two-day conference program and a one-day optional executive session work group. The conference program will use a variety of formats, including individual and panel presentations, roundtable discussions, and use of respondents/discussants. We intend for there to be significant opportunities for interaction between audience members and speakers throughout the program.

Following the formal conference, the one-day executive session work group will allow interested participants to engage more fully with issues discussed at the conference. This will be a professionally-facilitated work session that includes the use of both focus groups and large groups. One goal of this gathering will be to explore areas of commonality and difference when it comes to the views about prison oversight held by various stakeholder groups. The emphasis will be on both dialogue and consensus. One possibility is that the group will seek to develop a consensus document about the need for transparency and accountability in prison settings and about the essential elements of effective oversight. There will also be discussion about the ways to advance discussion of these topics within the broader communities represented by the stakeholders at the conference.

We ask all conference participants (including speakers) to attend the entire two-day formal program (Monday and Tuesday), in order to ensure good discussion and a full understanding of the issues involved in prison oversight. Participation in the third-day work group (Wednesday) is optional, though any participant must also have attended the formal conference program. There will be a limited number of places available for participation in the third-day work group and we want to make sure that all the stakeholder groups are represented, so please let us know as soon as possible if you would like to be part of this separate gathering.

The conference will be coordinated with a graduate seminar on “Prisons and Human Rights” taught by Michele Deitch at the LBJ School. Students in the seminar—who come from the departments of public affairs, law, sociology, social work, and communications—will be helping to prepare substantive background materials for participants, as well as the conference proceedings.

Previous Conference
The University of Texas conference is a follow-up to a highly successful symposium on the future of prison reform held at Pace Law School (White Plains, New York) in October 2003 and organized by the same individuals. That conference, entitled “Prison Reform Revisited: The Unfinished Agenda,” brought together the leading figures in the efforts over the past 25 years to reform prisons using legal strategies. There was an emerging consensus at that gathering that greater emphasis should be placed on non-judicial forms of prison oversight. This upcoming conference provides an opportunity to explore that conclusion in greater depth. There is a special symposium issue of the Pace Law Review that includes papers presented at the previous conference: 24 Pace Law Review (Spring 2004). This volume, containing 24 articles written by many of the world’s top experts on prison reform, is available for downloading on the web at: