U.S. Prisons Need a Board of Visitors
It’s time to shine a light on the hidden shame of our prison system
In early February, a scene that would warm the heart of any prison-reform advocate unfolded outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Dozens of protesters, maybe hundreds, crowded the sidewalk outside, braving the cold and bearing signs that read “Enough,” “Cruelty,” and “You Are Loved.” Videos of incarcerated men banging on the windows of their cells trended online. Family members used megaphones to inquire if their jailed loved ones were okay. The response? A resounding “No!”
Local elected officials, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, showed up to voice their outrage. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez fired off a tweet to a couple million followers, drawing national attention to the issue. Governor Andrew Cuomo called for a federal investigation, which is now being conducted by the Justice Department. A local advocacy group, Federal Defenders of New York, filed a lawsuit, and New York Attorney General Letitia James signed on.
The indignation had been prompted by a story in The New York Times revealing the terrifying conditions inside the jail: Well over a thousand men had been locked in their cells for days, freezing in dark cages, without access to medications or hot water. Visits had been cancelled. It turned out that an electrical fire had led to the devastating power outage, but that was only the nominal cause of the crisis.
What really led to the week of excruciating torture for the men inside — and a primary contributing factor in innumerable less-celebrated cases of prison neglect, cruelty and violence nationwide — was invisibility. The suffering had been permitted, at least in part, because no one outside the bureaucracy of the Center’s operations knew about it. The fierce response demonstrated that, contrary to what one might expect, the public at large actually does care about the welfare of our incarcerated neighbors. But it also served as a critical reminder that in order for people to care, they first need to see.
It’s just about impossible to receive an undergraduate course in sociology without learning about the “panopticon,” the 19th century innovation in prison architecture that allows a single guard station to observe an entire floor of jail cells from a central hub (the idea was also floated for schools and hospitals). Of course, not everyone would be surveilled at all times, but even when prisoners weren’t being watched, the theory went, the possibility that they might be would shape their behavior.
The incident at Metropolitan Department of Corrections, and the response to it, suggests that corrections officials might benefit from some observation as well. Because the abhorrent conditions at the MDC — and the horrific abuse and neglect uncovered there — are not anomalies. Across the country every day, men and women are suffering behind jail and prison walls, subject to maltreatment and abuse on a daily basis, away from the public eye.
The attitude of corrections officials seems to be, “out of sight, out of mind.” And in the absence of media attention, the imperative to quickly correct problems is simply not present — contributing to a corrections culture that values punishment over rehabilitation and care.
An investigation into the Center’s actions is ongoing, but questions abound. If the public was never told what was happening at the Center and officials felt no pressure to act, how long would the men under their supervision have suffered? And when facility officials can act to alleviate suffering and choose not to, at what point do they violate the Constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment? When does the treatment of defenseless incarcerated people amount to torture?
The St. Clair Correctional Facility, located in Springville, Alabama, is just one of the prisons investigated by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) over the years. In 2014, the group published its findings in a sweeping report on the dire state of Alabama’s prisons: a litany of misconduct including corruption, the use of solitary confinement for protection, and particularly egregious acts of physical and sexual violence by corrections officers upon incarcerated men and women, as well as among the incarcerated population. Murder was common and went unchecked. EJI called St. Clair one of the deadliest prisons in the nation.
Even with EJI’s yearslong effort, what really brought the conditions inside St. Clair to light were the pictures — 2,000 of them, taken inside, presumably by the prison staff as evidence of infractions, and obtained by The New York Times. Recently, the paper published just a selection of them. “It is hard to imagine a cache of images less suitable for publication — they are full of nudity, indignity and gore,” reporter Shaila Dewan wrote. “It is also hard to imagine photographs that cry out more insistently to be seen.” In the end, the paper deemed just a handful worthy of publication, but even those shocked the conscience.
As with MDC, much of the problem inside Alabama’s prisons stems, at least in part, from secrecy. What happens in prisons is by design hidden from public view, and as a result, authorities act with impunity.
Those of us who are familiar with the carceral state know that physical violence, sexual abuse and rape, inadequate mental health care, medical malpractice, denial of basic services, and the like have long been the norm at these secretive institutions. We know that state agencies charged with oversight often fail in their efforts, and that nonprofits and other groups that might prove more effective are routinely denied access.
A growing public constituency believes, as I do, that the carceral system itself will always be evil and corrupt, generally doing more harm to society than good, but in lieu of the complete dismantling of an institution in which we trap millions of human beings and then taint them for life with criminality, a simple change could have a vastly positive impact on the situation.
Simply put, prisons are in desperate need of public oversight. An effective oversight mechanism should include the following elements:
• First, the prison system cannot effectively police itself. The watcher and the watched must be separate entities, answering to different institutions. So rather than being beholden to the state, an oversight board should be independent, drawn from the world of nonprofit, social-services organizations.
• Second, this oversight organization must have the right of entry into facilities, and enforcement power beyond mere advocacy and recommendations. It would adopt the best practices developed by the three external oversight organizations currently operating in the country: the John Howard Association in Illinois, The Pennsylvania Prison Society, and the Correctional Association of New York. Only these three are relatively free of institutional bias and provide a degree of meaningful oversight of the prison conditions in their states. That said, these groups are currently far from perfect and should be further empowered.
• Third, legislation should be introduced to establish a Board of Visitors, overseen and funded by a non-partisan public policy institute. Each board would be composed of a rotating non-partisan pool of non-governmental community, civic, and religious leaders and mental health professionals not affiliated with the DOC or its contractors. Such a board would be endowed with the power to approve or disapprove, prior to implementation, any resolution or directive of the departments of correction that directly affects incarcerated people. Contact information for the board would be made widely available to incarcerated men and women, and correspondence with the board would be privileged mail, and therefore confidential. Members of the board would receive no compensation beyond travel expenses.
• Fourth, board members would be directed to visit facilities at random and on an impromptu basis, and prison administrators would be compelled to facilitate these visits. Moreover, every individual board member should have the right of access to all facilities under their jurisdiction–even during facility lockdowns–allowing for unannounced visits day or night and free movement throughout the facilities. At the very least, each prison should be visited six times a year, with additional visits conducted as necessary based on reports from incarcerated people.
• Fifth, in order to deter corruption, board members would be assigned a numeric identification, which would stand as their only identifier when entering facilities, and in all communications with correctional officers, staff, and incarcerated men and women.
• Sixth, incarcerated individuals wishing to report incidents of violence and abuse must be able to do so without disclosing their identities to prison officials.
• Seventh, all reports would be distributed to prison officials, the Department of Corrections central office, and the relevant policy institute. The board would follow up on any allegations and be empowered to demand either immediate remediation or an action plan. Failure of a facility to act would trigger the launch of an investigation, with subpoena power.
• Eighth, the board would also be empowered to void or suspend contracts and/or withhold payment to private contractors that violate, endanger, and/or discriminate against incarcerated people. It must also have the authority to close unsafe or mismanaged departments, dorms, and facilities, and/or suspend executive staff for creating and/or sustaining unsafe, unhygienic, and inhumane living conditions.
• Ninth, in the further interest of transparency, board members would be authorized to highlight abuses through the media.
If my imagined Board of Visitors had been active in New York or Alabama in recent years, composed of people from the impacted communities with the ability to immediately amplify the voices of those inside, maybe their suffering would have been minimized.
I am under no illusion that violence and mistreatment will ever be entirely eradicated under the carceral system as currently conceived, but I do believe that by breaking down the wall of secrecy and letting the light of public attention shine in those cordoned off spaces, improvements can be made that will help ensure the safety of everyone living under the custody — and the care — of the state until the system itself is dismantled.