Essay: Independent oversight is essential for a safe and healthy prison system | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin
Brennan Center for Justice
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Preventive monitoring of conditions in American prisons can help shine a light on what needs to change, writes the LBJ School's Michele Deitch for the Brennan Center for Justice. Her essay is part of the center’s series examining the punitive excess that has come to define America's criminal legal system.


"...[M]ost of the Western world has recognized that the protection of human rights in prisons demands transparency and the routine monitoring of conditions. Almost every country in the European Union, for example, has a government entity designated as a 'National Preventive Mechanism,' responsible for inspecting all places of detention and reporting publicly on conditions. These entities shine a light on correctional institutions and help normalize discussions among policymakers and corrections officials about human rights in prison, and about the protection of the dignity of people who are incarcerated.

"But the United States is an anomaly on the world stage. Prisons and jails in this country are among the most opaque public institutions in our society. We have erected massive walls and razor wire fences around these buildings, placed them in remote corners of each state, limited public access to these spaces, and restricted information that can reveal what is happening inside the walls. We lack reliable data pertinent to the health, safety, and well-being of people in custody, and cannot even assess the relative safety or danger of any particular facility. Information about deaths in custody remains elusive in many states. Even data about the spread and toll of COVID-19 behind bars is spotty and unreliable, and is virtually nonexistent in local jails. In contrast to our peer nations, most states in this country lack oversight mechanisms that can prevent harm in prisons and jails by allowing independent officials to routinely monitor conditions of confinement."