Spring 2020 - 58190 - PA 680PB - Policy Research Project
Jails, Women and Oversight
This PRP offers students the opportunity to work on one of two substantial research and writing projects.
The first project offers students the opportunity to evaluate and make recommendations for improvement on various aspects of jail operations in Harris County on issues related to women inmates. The Harris County Jail, the nation’s third largest local detention facility with over 9000 inmates, has had numerous highly publicized problems. For example, it is the largest mental health facility in the state; it has had a spate of recent suicides; and on several recent occasions it has failed state inspections for compliance with state jail standards. The jail also houses many individuals who are there simply because they are poor and unable to raise money for bond, not because they are dangerous.
The Sheriff has specifically requested our help in developing recommendations to meet the needs of the female population in the jail. Women in jail have especially significant histories of trauma and high levels of medical and mental health needs compared to their male counterparts. Extensive prior research demonstrates that incarcerated women need a different approach in order to avoid harm while in custody and to have better outcomes.
We will work with Harris County to review and assess core policies and practices around the management, classification, and programs for female inmates in the Harris County Jail. For example, we will examine the policies and procedures that determine the classification and custody levels for women; the availability of gender-responsive medical and mental health services; gender-responsive programs to address women’s needs; work release options; family visitation; staff-inmate interactions; and the potential for specialized training of staff that work with this population. This project will draw upon research previously conducted by the Instructor to determine best practices.
Students working on this first project will need to be prepared to make four trips to Houston over the course of the year.
The second project is related to jail oversight across the United States. While the research is national in scope, it is intended to benefit advocates, policymakers, and corrections practitioners in Louisiana who are wrestling with implementation of a new statute requiring jails to comply with certain best practices in order to receive state funding for state prisoners held in the jails. Our project will be conducted on behalf of the advocacy organization VOTE, which championed passage of the new law. VOTE is a grassroots organization run by people who are formerly incarcerated, along with their families and allies. It has been highly effective at promoting criminal justice reform in Louisiana.
Building upon research previously conducted by the Instructor and her students, our class will identify, analyze, and assess the various models that states have developed to regulate and provide oversight of jails. We will also gather and analyze the standards used by each of these oversight bodies, compare them to Louisiana’s minimum jail standards, and consider Louisiana’s standards in light of what we know about best practices on a variety of key issues related to the treatment of prisoners. We will also propose standards that should be considered when it comes to the care and management of women in jail custody—since no such standards exist, this part of our project will be especially groundbreaking. We will also examine enforcement mechanisms that exist for jail oversight bodies. Finally, we will examine the few local models of jail oversight (as opposed to statewide oversight) that exist across the country, with an eye towards developing recommendations for more effective oversight of the Orleans Parish Jail, which is notoriously problematic and currently under federal court oversight, as well as for other jails across Louisiana.
We will issue a report of our findings and recommendations that will not only benefit our client but will also be an excellent resource for other jurisdictions around the United States.
These two projects will dovetail perfectly with a related project for the course on behalf of NACOLE (the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement). We will help organize the NACOLE national academic symposium on correctional and law enforcement oversight that will take place at UT Law School in early March 2020. Representatives from oversight bodies all over the country will be participating in the conference, along with advocates who wish to develop oversight entities for their prisons, jails, and police agencies. Our class will develop poster presentations for that conference based on our jail oversight research as well as on our research about best practices for women in custody, and will have the opportunity to speak with participants to share our findings and recommendations more widely. We will also develop conference proceedings from the event to be shared more broadly so that we can increase the impact of the symposium. Students will have the opportunity to collaborate with conference speakers and other experts in the preparation of these materials.
Over the course of the PRP, all students will have an opportunity to tour at least one jail and to meet with a variety of corrections officials, staff, and inmates, as well as experts, advocates, and oversight practitioners. Both projects will result in a report of our findings and recommendations, and we will also have the opportunity to brief officials.
The course will have a co-instructor, Alycia Welch, M.P.Aff, MSSW, who worked closely with Prof. Deitch on a major project involving women in jail custody.