What's Going on in Prisons?

By Deitch, Michele | International New York Times, January 5, 2016 | Go to article overview

What's Going on in Prisons?


Deitch, Michele, International New York Times


New York State needs effective and independent oversight of its troubled prison system.

Leonard Strickland's barbaric and unnecessary death at the hands of prison guards at the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York highlights the need for independent oversight of the state's prisons. His beating in 2010, the details of which have only recently come to light, is the latest in a long list of instances of brutality toward inmates in New York's prison system.

The state's inhumane practices involving solitary confinement have also generated outrage. Thousands of prisoners have been held in extreme isolation, in some cases for years, and often for minor rule violations, at great cost to their mental health and potential for rehabilitation. A settlement announced last month of a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union will reduce both the number of inmates held in isolation and the maximum stay, and will abolish some of the harshest conditions.

While this is a welcome move, it provides for only two years of monitoring once it has been implemented and does not address the many issues that affect inmate health and safety for the overwhelming number not in solitary confinement.

This is why additional governmental oversight is urgently needed to truly change the culture of a system that holds 53,000 inmates across 54 prisons. What goes on inside these prisons is largely hidden from view, and there is little accountability for wrongdoing.

The New York State Commission of Correction has longstanding authority to regulate and visit prisons. The state comptroller pointed out in a 2006 audit that the commission had essentially defaulted on that responsibility. Nine years later, little has changed. The commission investigates some inmate deaths, but it cannot be fairly described as a monitoring body.

The result is that New York's prison system operates almost entirely below the radar. This invisibility should end by setting up a system of effective independent governmental oversight to ensure the health and safety of prisoners. If harm is to be prevented in these dark places, we must know what is happening inside.

The New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Correction recently held a hearing about the need for such oversight. We were among the experts invited to testify about what an effective system of oversight might look like.

The American Bar Association has provided clear guidance on this issue, which we helped to develop. It calls for every state to create an independent government monitoring body for its prisons and jails that reports to the public about conditions in those facilities. The State Legislature should follow the A.B.A.'s guidance and establish a monitoring body with unfettered access to prison facilities, staff, inmates and records in announced or unannounced visits. …

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