Projects: Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons
Vera established the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons in 2005 to identify and recommend solutions to the most serious challenges facing America’s jails and prisons. The commission was co-chaired by former United States Attorney General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach and the Honorable John Gibbons.
Over the course of four public hearings held in 2005 in cities throughout the United States, commissioners collected voluminous testimony and supporting information from a broad and diverse array of experts and stakeholders.
In June 2006, the commission published Confronting Confinement, a comprehensive report of its findings, along with 30 practical recommendations for operating safe and effective correctional facilities.
Based on several of the recommendations, Vera launched the Segregation Reduction Project and the Corrections Support and Accountability Project, which partnered with two states and three large counties to create systems of oversight for correctional facilities that are tailored to meet each jurisdiction’s needs.
For roughly a year, beginning in March 2005, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons explored violence and abuse in America's prisons and jails and how to make correctional facilities safer for prisoners and staff and more effective in promoting public safety and public health. The Commission examined dangerous conditions of confinement – violence, poor medical and mental health care, and inappropriate segregation — that can also endanger the public; the challenges facing labor and management; weak oversight of correctional facilities; and serious flaws in available data about violence and abuse in prisons and jails. The Commission's findings and a set of 30 practical recommendations for operating correctional facilities that reflect America's values and serve our best interests are captured in the report,Confronting Confinement.
The Commission is co-chaired by former United States Attorney General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach and the Honorable John Gibbons, former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The 20-member panel includes Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, those who run correctional systems and those who litigate on behalf of prisoners, scholars, and individuals with a long history of public service and deep experience in the administration of justice. The Commission is staffed by and funded through the Vera Institute of Justice.
The Hon. John J. Gibbons
An attorney in private practice who argued the groundbreaking Rasul v. Bush case before the United States Supreme Court and a former Chief Judge of U.S. Court of Appeals, Third Circuit
Nicholas de B. Katzenbach
An attorney in private practice and former Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General of the United States (Under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) who led the federal governments efforts to desegregate the American south and chaired the 1967 Commission on Crime in the United States
CEO of Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe in El Paso, Texas; Board Member of the National Council of La Raza; and a nationally respected Chicano activist for social justice
Stephen B. Bright
Founder of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, which provides representation to prisoners in cases involving claims of cruel and unusual conditions of confinement, and one of the most well-known advocates for the rights of prisoners
Richard G. Dudley, Jr., M.D.
A psychiatrist in private practice who is frequently called to provide expert testimony in criminal and civil cases around the country about the lasting psychological damage of violence and abuse in prison
James Gilligan, M.D.
A renowned expert on violence and violence prevention, who is currently Visiting Professor of Psychiatry and Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and was formerly Director of Mental Health for the Massachusetts prison system
Saul A. Green
A Principal and member of Miller Canfield's Minority Business Practice Group and former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan (1994-2001)
Former prisoner who spent more than a decade behind bars, some of it on death row, before DNA testing cleared his name
Mark H. Luttrell
Sheriff of Shelby County (Memphis), Tennessee, and former the warden at three federal prisons
Gary D. Maynard
Director of the Iowa Department of Corrections and President-Elect of the American Correctional Association
Marc H. Morial
President and CEO of the National Urban League, and a former Mayor of New Orleans and Louisiana State Senator
President of Prison Fellowship's Justice Fellowship and a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, and a former Republican leader in the California State Assembly who served 25 months in a federal prison on a racketeering charge
Stephen T. Rippe
Executive Vice President and COO of the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation and former Major General in the United States Army
Laurie O. Robinson
Director of the University of Pennsylvania's Master of Science in Criminology Program and former Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Office of Justice Programs (1993-2000)
Senator Gloria Romero
California Senate Majority Leader and Chair of the Senate Select Committee on the California Correctional System
Chief of Corrections for Orange County, Florida, and in that role oversees one of the largest jail systems in the United States
A leading authority on prisons and inmate litigation; Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri; and a former attorney in the Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section, of the U.S. Department of Justice
Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Jr.
Senior Counsel at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP and also at New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, and Chair of the Vera Institute of Justice Board of Trustees
The Hon. William Sessions
A partner in the Washington, D.C. office of Holland & Knight LLP, former U.S. District Judge in the Western District of Texas, and former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
Hilary O. Shelton
Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau
''What's known about safety failures and abuse; violence and uses of force''
April 19-20, 2005, Tampa, FL
The Commission's first hearing opened with testimony from invited witnesses about safety failures and abuses from individuals with direct experience of prison life as inmates, corrections officers, or other staff. Following their personal accounts, and questions by Commissioners, witnesses throughout the afternoon provided an overview of what's known about the most serious problems in America's prisons and jails, the sources of this information, and significant gaps in our knowledge and data.
The second day of testimony focused on violence and uses of force. Invited witnesses addressed the scope of the problem in its various forms: violence among prisoners, excessive use of force and other violent acts by corrections officers against inmates, and the violent victimization of officers by inmates. The day also included discussion of specific issues, including gang violence and sexual violence.
A transcript of the complete proceedings of Hearing 1 can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking on the link below. Alternatively, you can download transcripts of each witness panel as separate PDFs. Look to the right-hand side of this screen, next to each panel heading for those links.
Download the complete Hearing 1 transcript
WHEN & WHERE
April 19, 2005
Commission Co-Chairs Nicholas Katzenbach and John Gibbons
Col. David Parrish, Commander of the Hillsborough County [Tampa] Jails
Accounts of Prison Life
Ron McAndrew — A 23-year corrections veteran, who rose through the ranks to become warden of a maximum security prison in Florida, described battling abuse "tooth and nail" and events leading to the death of one inmate
Garrett Cunningham — Former Texas inmate, who described being sexually harassed by a corrections officer, eventually raped, and then intimidated into silence
Judith Haney — Lead plaintiff in a recently settled class action law suit involving thousands of women in Miami-Dade County who were strip-searched at the jail
Scott Hornoff — Former Rhode Island police detective, who was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for six and a half years and testified about daily acts of degradation and the destructive environment of the segregation unit
"What We Know, How We Know It, and Gaps in Our Knowledge"
Laying a common foundation about what's known about safety and abuse in prisons and jails, the basis for that information, and significant gaps in our knowledge. The first panel addressed these issues from the perspective of those who run and oversee corrections systems; the second by those who seek access to information from outside the system.
Witness Panel 1: System "Insiders"
Jack Cowley — Former warden, Oklahoma Department of Corrections, currently involved in faith-based re-entry programming
Glenn A. Fine — Inspector General overseeing all federal prisons
Mike Gennaco — Lead attorney for the Office of Independent Review, which oversees the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office and charged with developing a system of oversight for the entire California prison system
Witness Panel 2: System "Outsiders"
Alan Elsner — Reporter and author of Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons
Barbara Owen — Professor, California State University, Fresno, and an ethnographic researcher with expertise in women's prisons
Margaret Winter — Associate Director, ACLU-National Prison Project, and lead counsel in a case involving sex slavery in a Texas Prison
Wednesday, April 20th
Violence and Excessive Use of Force by Officers
A discussion of the various forms of violence in prisons and jails—inmate-on-inmate, inmate-on-officer, and officer-on-inmate—through the testimony of a broad range of experienced voices.
Witness Panel 1
Don Cabana — Former warden of a maximum security, death row prison in Parchman, Mississippi
Steve J. Martin — Former corrections officer, now a national expert on excessive use of force by corrections officers
Don Specter — National expert on violence in prison and Director of the California-based Prison Law Office
Witness Panel 2 (Roundtable Discussion)
Kenneth Adams — Professor, University of Central Florida, and an expert on the culture of violence in prison, especially as it relates to inmates with mental illness or mental retardation
John Boston — Director of the Prisoners' Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society
Anadora Moss — Consultant with expertise in the work of corrections officers and staff sexual misconduct
Douglas Thompkins — Former gang leader and inmate, now a "convict criminologist" who specializes in the sociology of incarceration
Moderator: Margo Schlanger — Washington University law professor, former trial attorney for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, and member of the Commission
"The systemic and institutional drivers of abuse and lack of safety"
July 19-20, 2005, Newark, NJ
The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons held its second hearing on July 19th and 20th in Newark, New Jersey. The hearing offered the public an opportunity to hear firsthand about institutional policies and practices that can create unsafe and abusive environments for those who are incarcerated, and for the women and men who work in U.S. prisons and jails.
The two-day hearing focused on: the rate of incarceration; overcrowded systems and facilities; the use of isolation and rise of the supermax prison; medical and mental health care failures that endanger individual prisoners and officers and the public health; and how corrections leaders can prevent the worst dangers and abuses.
Staff and former prisoners talked about the impact of these polices and practices on their daily lives. State corrections commissioners, doctors, advocates, and other experts testified about the problems nationally and how to solve them.
A transcript of the complete proceedings of Hearing 2 can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking on the link below. Alternatively, you can download transcripts of each witness panel as separate PDFs. Look to the right-hand side of this screen, next to each panel heading for those links.
Download the complete Hearing 2 transcript
WHEN & WHERE
Mary Burch Theater, Essex County College (303 University Avenue), at the intersection of MLK and West Market streets.
Note: Only invited witnesses had an opportunity to address the Commissioners during the proceedings.
Tuesday, July 19th
Commission Co-Chair Nicholas Katzenbach; Devon Brown , Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections.
Prison Population: Size and Demographics, Trends and Context
Allen Beck, Washington, DC — Chief of the Corrections Statistics Program at the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, his work has included research related to rising incarceration rates, causes of death among prison and jail inmates, inmate medical problems and health care, and prisoner reentry.
Pearl Beale — Pearl Beale's son was awaiting trial for a nonviolent offense when another inmate stabbed him and he bled to death. She described the conditions that led to this tragedy and its impact on her.
Daud Tulam — A recently released prisoner, Tulam described the 18 years he spent in isolation in various New Jersey facilities.
Sergeant Gary Harkins — A corrections officer for 25 years in the state of Oregon, Harkins described how direct supervision—regular contact between officers and prisoners—made it possible for him to work in the isolation wing of the state's maximum security, death-row prison with only a whistle for protection.
Bonnie Kerness — Associate Director of the American Friends Service Committee's Prison Watch, Kerness read letters from a few New Jersey prisoners who are currently living in isolation, and she described what she's learned about the use of isolation and its impact from her years of advocating on behalf of prisoners.
Expert Testimony on Overcrowding
This panel explored how overcrowded facilities strain prisoners, staff, and whole systems and become breeding grounds for violence and abuse.
Vincent Nathan, Toledo, Ohio — An attorney and one of the most authoritative national voices on prison management, he explained what corrections professionals mean by "overcrowded" facilities—and the limits of current measures—and described the present state of crowding in the nations prisons and jails.
Craig Haney, Santa Cruz, California — A psychology professor at UC Santa Cruz, he explained the links between overcrowding, institutional instability, and violence and abuse, advancing prior research.
Richard Stalder, Baton Rouge, Louisiana — Head of the Department of Public Safety and Corrections in Louisiana and President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, he described what it's like to operate a prison system in a state with the highest rate of incarceration and to battle overcrowding and the institutional instability it creates.
Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Vera Institute of Justice and author of Downsizing Prisons
Expert Testimony on Isolation
This panel addressed the forms of isolation, when it's used and for whom, and the effects of living in isolation and working in an isolation unit. The panel also offered ideas about how to limit the use of isolation and how to create a safer and more humane use of this extreme form of confinement.
Dr. Stuart Grassian, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts — A psychiatrist and former faculty member of the Harvard Medical School, he described the damaging psychological effects of prolonged isolation—what he calls the Security Housing Unit "SHU" syndrome."
Fred Cohen, Tucson, Arizona — An expert consultant and court-appointed monitor in several states, he addressed the rise of isolation and the special case of the supermax prison and discussed why mentally ill prisoners often end up in isolation and its caustic effects on them.
James Bruton, White Bear Lake, Minnesota — Former warden of the supermax prison in Oak Park, Minnesota, and author of "The Big House: Life Inside a supermax Security Prison," he discussed how he restricted the use of isolation—relying on it only for protection, never as punishment—and what he did to make that experience more humane and less damaging.
Wednesday, July 20th
Commission Co-Chair John Gibbons
Sister Antonia Maguire — A Catholic nun and member of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Sister Maguire has worked for 32 years with inmates at three different New York State Prisons. She is currently Chaplain at Taconic Correctional Facility, a women's prison in Westchester County, just north of NYC. She described barriers women face in accessing medical care for serious illnesses, from cancer to HIV and Hepatitis C infection, and the dire consequences of medical neglect.
Thomas Farrow — A former inmate incarcerated for more than two decades in New Jersey, and diagnosed with bi-polar disorder; Farrow recounted his own experience of poor and interrupted mental health care. He also described the abuse of mentally ill inmates that he witnessed: beatings and inmates left lying in their own urine and feces in the segregation unit.
Joe Baumann, California — a state correctional officer in California for 19 years; Baumann is currently assigned to the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) and is the CRC Chapter President of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), a position he has held since 1998. Mr. Baumann has worked in men's and women's facilities and in several mental health program housing units.
Expert Testimony on the Quality of Medical Care
This panel explored medical neglect and abuse and its impact on the prison population. The witnesses also discussed ways to improve the quality of health care for men and women, based on existing models.
Dr. Robert Cohen, New York, New York — Former director of Medical Services on Rikers Island in New York City, and now a national expert on correctional medical care, he testified about dramatic failures to treat illness and why, and the tragic consequences. He addressed problems associated with private health care in prisons and the ways that cost-cutting contributes to serious abuses.
Dr. Joe Goldenson, San Francisco, California — An expert in infectious disease and public health, he currently directs medical services for San Francisco's County Jail—a partnership between the jail and the department of public health—and is involved in assessing the statewide prison health care crisis in California. He put California's problems in a national context and suggested promising practices to solve problems that are common nationally.
Arthur Wallenstein, Rockville, Maryland — A 30-years corrections veteran; director of jails in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; King County (Seattle), Washington; and now Montgomery County, Maryland, he is widely recognized as a progressive administrator, particularly in the area of correctional health care. He ran one of the first facilities to be accredited by the American Medical Association and recently won the National Conference on Correctional Health Care's highest award of merit. He discussed the obligation of corrections administrators to provide high quality health care, how to make that responsibility a reality, and the importance of national standards.
Expert Testimony on the Public Health Implications of Health Care in Facilities
This panel addressed the public health problems that arise from a failure to detect and treat infectious disease among prisoners—including risks to inmates, staff, and the communities to which prisoners and staff return. Panelists also discussed promising ways to contain the threat of infectious disease.
Jeffrey Beard, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania — Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, he discussed the public health consequences of high rates of infectious disease behind bars—e.g. HIV, Hepatitis C, Tuberculosis—and how Pennsylvania is facing the threat, despite challenges.
Dr. Robert Greifinger, Dobbs Ferry, New York — Principal investigator of the 2002 NCCHC report to Congress, "The Health Status of Soon-To-Be Released Inmates," he has examined the conditions of confinement and health services in more than 100 correctional facilities in 33 states. He outlined the numbers of inmates with infectious diseases who move in and out of prisons and jails and discussed how we are harming the public health by failing to properly screen and treat infectious diseases among prisoners.
Dr. David Kountz, New Brunswick, New Jersey — Medical director of the Somerset County Jail, he provides medical care through a contract with the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, a public university. He discussed the challenges that short-term jail confinement poses in screening and treating infectious and chronic diseases among people who cycle quickly in and out of jail. He also discussed the benefits of partnerships like the one between the jail and the medical school.
Expert Testimony on Caring for the Mentally Ill
This panel addressed the tremendous challenges that result from incarcerating a large number of people suffering from mental illness. In particular, the witnesses discussed abuse of the mentally ill in our prisons and jails and how a large population of mentally ill inmates can make a facility more violent and abusive for everyone—prisoners and staff.
Jamie Fellner, New York, New York — An attorney and U.S. Program Director at Human Rights Watch, she co-authored "Ill Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness," a report published in October 2003. Her testimony focused on the enormous difficulties involved in detecting and treating mental illness among prisoners, why most corrections systems are ill suited to the task, and the inevitable and tragic consequences of our failures in this area.
Dr. Gerald Groves, Washington, New Jersey — A psychiatrist who worked for 15 years in New Jersey prisons and as the sole psychiatrist on call to the Mercer County jail, he talked about the difficulty of providing effective mental health care in a correctional environment marked by lack of respect for individuals and their mental health problems. Specifically, he talked about the false conflict that often develops between officers and doctors, and between security and treatment. He explained the real harm that results from corrections officers routinely violating doctor-patient confidentiality by listening in on therapeutic sessions and spreading private information among the staff. He also discussed rising rates of mental illness among women prisoners and the connection with substance abuse.
Reginald Wilkinson, Columbus, Ohio — Director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for 14 years, he discussed the dangers to prisoners and staff of untreated mental illness and Ohio's efforts to provide appropriate care.
Commission Executive Director Alex Busansky
Dr. Terry Kupers, a nationally known expert on mental health care in prison, and Gary Jones, a former administrator for the Washington State Department of Corrections, submitted written statements to the Commission in lieu of testifying in person.
Use the links below to download their statements.
"A look at the problems from the perspective of corrections officers"
November 1-2, 2005, St. Louis, Mo
The Commission's third public hearing focused on corrections officers and their work environment, and the impact on safety and abuse. Witnesses testified about pivotal changes in the workforce and the job; trouble recruiting and training officers; the personal toll of functioning under extreme stress; and problems ranging from understaffing and compulsory overtime to low pay and esteem.
The hearing also explored labor-management relations as well as dynamics between officers and inmates and the 'code of silence'—why it exists and how to promote greater openness and accountability. This hearing included discussions about professional accreditation and differences between public and private facilities.
Invited witnesses described personal experiences of working or living in a correctional facility, and leading corrections professionals and other experts in the field testified about problems and solutions nationally. The hearing provided an up-close look at a vast yet poorly understood workforce that shoulders tremendous responsibilities, and the crucial role of leadership, training, and resources.
Transcripts of the complete proceedings of Hearing 3 can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking on the links below. Alternatively, you can download transcripts of each witness panel as separate PDFs. Look to the right-hand side of this screen, next to each panel heading for those links.
Download the complete Hearing 3 Day 1 (November 1s) transcript
(PDF: 383 KB / 284 pages)
Download the complete Hearing 3 Day 2 (November 2nd) transcript
(PDF: 374 KB / 288 pages)
WHEN & WHERE
Tuesday, Nov. 1st 8:30 am - 4:30 pm & Wednesday, Nov. 2nd 8:30 am - 3:20 pm
Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Missouri
Anheuser-Busch Hall, Room 310
"A look at the problems from the perspective of corrections officers"
co-sponsored by the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis
"Oversight, accountability, and other issues"
February 8 - 9, Los Angeles, Ca.
The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons held its fourth hearing on February 8th and 9th in Los Angeles, California, focusing on the crucial role of oversight. The hearing was open to the public. Invited witnesses debated whether America's prisons and jails are transparent in the way that public institutions should be and discussed what the public should but doesn't know about life behind bars. They described in detail why it is important to strengthen both internal and external oversight of correctional facilities and practical ways of achieving that goal. The hearing also explored gang and drug activity behind bars. Witnesses discussed why prisoners join gangs, explained the relationship between gangs and violence, both inside facilities and in the community; and described cutting-edge programs designed to curb gang activity.
Ten veteran corrections professionals testified, including California Corrections Secretary Roderick Hickman; American Correctional Association President Gwendolyn Chunn; Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Harley Lappin; and Michael Ashe, who has served for 31 years as the elected sheriff of Hampden County, Massachusetts.
The Commission also heard from individuals who monitor correctional systems from the outside, including California's new Inspector General Matthew Cate, former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who chaired the Governor's Commission on Corrections Reform; Federal Judge Myron Thompson; William Yeomans, who supervised litigation at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division for 29 years; Anne Owers, Great Britain's Chief Inspector of Prisons, and several others. Scholars, other national experts, and former prisoners and gang members are among the thirty-some witnesses who testified.
Transcripts of the complete proceedings of Hearing 4 can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking on the links below. Alternatively, you can download transcripts of each witness panel as separate PDFs. Look to the right-hand side of this screen, next to each panel heading for those links.
Download the complete Hearing 4 Day 1 (February 8th) transcript
WHEN & WHERE
St. Robert's Auditorium, Loyola Marymount University
Wednesday, February 8th
Opening Statements and Welcoming Remarks
Laurie L. Levenson — Loyola Law School Professor and Director of the Center for Ethical Advocacy
Hon. John J. Gibbons — Commission Co-Chair
Roderick Q. Hickman — Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Pernell Brown, Oregon — A former member of the Bloods street gang who now works with the Oregon Department of Corrections and with community-based organizations to reduce gang violence among adults returning to the community from prison. He served seven years in prison for a violent felony conviction.
Gary Johnson, Texas — A career employee of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — advancing from corrections officer to assistant warden to Executive Director. During that time the Texas system was under federal oversight.
Victoria Wright, California — Victoria Wright's husband of 33 years, Jay Wright, was convicted of a white collar crime and sentenced to three years in prison. He died three months later, in August 2005, while incarcerated in the High Desert correctional facility in Susanville, California. Victoria Wright testified that the department of corrections did not provide the medication her husband depended on, despite a documented history of heart trouble — including two prior heart attacks.
Addressing Violence: Gang Affiliation and Drugs
This panel explored the complicated reality of gang violence by looking at the breadth of the problem, the reasons prisoners join gangs and how they function within correctional facilities, and the links between prison gangs and gangs on the street. The panel also discussed some of the ways correctional agencies can preempt and respond to dangerous gang activity.
Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez, California — A former prisoner, Mr. Alejandrez is Executive Director of Barrios Unidos ("United Neighborhoods"), a national community-based peace movement headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, that addresses youth, violence, and gangs. He explained why prisoners join gangs and suggested how prison programming that promotes cultural and spiritual traditions and that supports families and communities can minimize the influence of gangs.
Dr. James M. Byrne, Massachusetts — A Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, he has conducted research on the causes, prevention, and control of institutional violence and disorder. He described the results of an initiative by the National Institute of Corrections to improve conditions in prison by changing staff culture and compared it with alternative reform strategies that focus on services to and programming for inmates.
Anthony M. Delgado, Ohio — Security Threat Group Investigation Coordinator at the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. He discussed an incentive-based program the department developed to reduce gang membership. This program is in its pilot phase and is designed to meet client needs inside and outside the facility.
Transparency in American Corrections
This panel explored the key components of transparency and whether America's jails and prisons are more or less transparent to the public than other U.S. government institutions and correctional agencies in other countries. Aspects of transparency which were explored include: the availability of data and records and the meaningfulness of that information; the openness of institutions to visits by citizens and nongovernmental organizations; and openness to the press.
Silvia Casale, Great Britain — President of the Counsel of Europe's Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). She discussed transparency as a means of protecting prisoners from abuse and ensuring safety; described the CPT's inspection and oversight regime and its virtues; and compared the CPT's work (and that of member states) with approaches to oversight in the United States.
Gwendolyn C. Chunn, North Carolina — President of the American Correctional Association and former Director of the North Carolina Division of Youth Services. She shared her view that transparency is a value that is widely embraced by corrections administrators and that must be further embraced by the public and their elected representatives so that prisons and jails can focus on rehabilitating people.
Walter Dickey, Wisconsin — Former Secretary of Corrections for the state of Wisconsin in the 1980s and now court-appointed monitor at Wisconsin's supermax facility and professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He argued that American correctional agencies are less transparent than their equivalents in other western democracies; discussed the kinds of information these agencies should provide — and what the public should demand; and explained why security is not a sufficient justification for withholding information.
Governmental Oversight of Prisons and Jails
This panel explored how governments aim to oversee correctional systems, commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of various models. These oversight models include: ombudsmen, inspectors general, offices of independent review, as well as oversight in the form of local criminal prosecution and the civil and criminal work of state attorneys general and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Matthew Cate, California — Inspector General of California responsible for investigating and auditing the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He described how California came to revamp its principal governmental oversight mechanism, the Office of the Inspector General. He explained how they developed a robust model grounded in statute and based on principles of transparency and independence. That independence flows from the office operating outside of the corrections department and insulated from the legislative and executive branches of government.
Michele Deitch, Texas — Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She provided an overview of the forms of governmental oversight, both within and outside departments of corrections. She also identified principles that should guide oversight structures — such as independence from corrections and from the executive and legislative branches, adequate resources, and separation from enforcement mechanisms — and offer examples of successful models.
William Yeomans, Washington, D.C. — Former supervisor of litigation at the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and presently Director of Programs at the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. He described how DOJ oversees state prisons and local jails through civil litigation and criminal prosecution — providing statistics on the number of complaints and allegations the department receives, the number investigated, and the number that result in litigation — and discussed both the importance and limits of this form of oversight. He recommended ways to strengthen these tools.
Thursday, February 9th
Collaborative Oversight of the Los Angeles County Jails
Jody Kent, California — Coordinator of the ACLU of Southern California's Jails Project in the Los Angeles County jails. She described the ways in which the ACLU's court-ordered presence within the jails benefits prisoners, corrections staff and managers, policymakers, and the courts.
Senator Gloria Romero, California — speaking on behalf of the Commission.
Creating the Conditions for Positive Change
This panel focused on developing consensus about what forms of fundamental change are necessary to make prisons and jails safer, more humane, and therefore more effective correctional institutions. It explored the underlying conditions necessary to make reform "stick," the political and social obstacles to meaningful reform, and how to overcome them. Ultimately, the witnesses broadened our sense of what is possible and how to achieve it.
Merrick Bobb, California — Court-appointed monitor for the past seven years of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the nation's largest jail system, and President of the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC).
Scott Harshbarger, Massachusetts — Former Massachusetts Attorney General and Chair of the Governor's Commission on Corrections Reform. He later led the Commonwealth's Department of Correction Advisory Council created to assure implementation of the Commission's main recommendations. He talked about his experience in both roles, describing progress and setbacks, and commented more broadly on the role of commissions, legislative action, and public opinion in achieving lasting reform.
Dora Schriro, Arizona — Director of Corrections in Arizona and former Director in Missouri. She described the fundamental ways in which America's approach to incarceration must change and how to foster that change. Specifically, she described her efforts to create a "parallel universe" where prison life models pro-social life in the community, and made a case for real partnerships among prisoners, correctional staff, crime victims, law makers, and the public in that public safety reform agenda.
How the Corrections Profession Creates Accountability
This panel explored how the corrections profession aims to hold itself accountable through good management; data collection, analysis and dissemination; internal auditing; and professional accreditation — highlighting best practices in internal accountability. Witnesses addressed the ways in which good management functions like oversight, the difference between "standard setting" and internal audits compared with external oversight, and whether best practices are followed in U.S. prisons and jails.
Michael J. Ashe, Jr., Massachusetts — Elected Sheriff of Hampden County, Massachusetts for 31 years. Sheriff Ashe described how he has sought to create accountability to the community by making the jail an abuse-free and productive environment for change: requiring inmates to engage in 40 hours a week of work and programming, offering incentives for early release and community supervision, and bringing community health care providers into the facility to assure the quality and continuity of care.
Harley G. Lappin, Washington, D.C. — Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). He described the extensive systems within the Bureau of Prisons that aim to achieve accountability at every level. In particular, he discussed how the BOP analyzes assaults and other safety concerns; evaluates the performance of correctional leaders, and assesses the effectiveness of grievance procedures for inmates.
A.T. Wall, Rhode Island — Director of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, where he runs both prisons and jails statewide. He described correctional institutions as self-contained societies where an imbalance of power pervades and explained why recognizing this reality is key to ensuring accountability. He discussed ways to balance the need for greater openness with the genuine security concerns openness can present.
Independent Governmental Oversight—A Model from Britain
Anne Owers, Great Britain — Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. She explained how the United Kingdom has come to embrace independent oversight of its prisons, where the Inspectorate remains separate from the correctional agency yet collaborates with it, and described the regular, detailed, unannounced inspections her agency undertakes and their basis in a set of "expectations," rather than minimal standards. She contrasted that approach with her observations of oversight in this country and elsewhere.
Litigation as Oversight
This panel explored the role of non-governmental litigation in prison and jail oversight — its strengths and limits. Witnesses addressed how courts weigh evidence of abuse and on what basis judges decide intervention is warranted. The panel also explored the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) and the impact of this far-reaching statute on the ability of federal courts to protect prisoners' rights and ensure that correctional systems comply with constitutional standards.
Alvin J. Bronstein, Washington, D.C. — Director Emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, which he founded in 1972. He described how litigation and court-ordered monitoring have been and, although somewhat diminished, continue to be the principal means of overseeing American jails and prisons — commenting on their effectiveness and limitations, especially in light of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
Stephen F. Hanlon, Washington, D.C. — A partner at the law firm of Holland & Knight and pro bono counsel in numerous class action lawsuits about unsafe and abusive conditions in prison. He focused on the effects of the PLRA: barring prisoners from the courts until they exhaust all administrative remedies, limiting compensation for attorneys, prohibiting lawsuits that seek damages for mental or emotional injuries absent a physical injury, and limiting the breadth and duration of court monitoring.
Judge Myron H. Thompson, Alabama — Judge Thompson serves on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama and has presided over cases involving severe overcrowding, gross medical neglect, and other unconstitutional conditions in prison. He argued that federal constitutional litigation is necessary to ensure that prisoners are protected from abusive prison and jail conditions. He also described the many legal rules that affect whether a prisoner may prevail in litigation, regardless of the merits of his or her claims.
Beyond Government Oversight
Oversight can come in many forms, not always through formal governmental mechanisms within or outside correctional agencies. This panel explored some of the ways that non-governmental organizations seek to hold correctional agencies accountable — from giving prisoners a voice with legislatures and the press to empowering families to advocate for their incarcerated loved ones to engaging citizens in visiting and reporting on prison and jail conditions. The panel also examined the ways in which non-governmental organizations and individual citizens can work collaboratively with correctional administrators.
Jack Beck, New York — Director of the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York and formerly a senior attorney at the Prisoners Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York. He described the Correctional Association, its activities, and its relationship with the Department of Correctional Services, the state legislature, and the public. He argued that the Association fills a gap in the state government's patchwork of oversight mechanisms and presented preliminary findings from an Association study about violence in New York prisons.
Katherine Hall-Martinez, California — Co-Executive Director of Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR). She described the public advocacy work of SPR, which is based on making the voices of people who have survived sexual assault in prison heard. She described the flow of information SPR receives and how these voices — otherwise largely unheard — form the basis of their efforts to assure that good statutes, regulations, and policies are established and that they are then fully implemented.
A. Sage Smith, Illinois — A former prisoner, he is an advisory board member of the John Howard Association, one of the oldest citizens groups monitoring prisons, and Director of Client Services at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. He described the work of citizens groups and their informal oversight function. Speaking from personal experience, Mr. Smith described the critical role outside groups play in reducing stress and decreasing violence in prisons and jails by bringing programming, education, and the hope for successful reentry.
Leslie Walker, Massachusetts — Executive Director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. She described the oversight functions the office undertakes, including the Rapid Response to Brutality Project, in which her office sends attorneys with cameras to immediately capture the results of staff violence against prisoners. She described how they use those photos and accounts of abuse to advocate for reform with the corrections department, the legislature, and through the press to the public.
Hon. John J. Gibbons — Commission Co-Chair
The Commission on Safety & Abuse in America's Prisons would like to thank the law firm of Heller Ehrman and its dedicated attorneys who contributed countless hours to the preparation of this hearing.
The Commission also thanks TSG Reporting, Inc. for its donation of transcription services.
Finally, the Commission is very grateful to Loyola Marymount University for both hosting the Commission hearing and giving so generously its time and resources to planning the event. Special thanks to Father Lawton, Trish Carlson, and the students of the Center for Service in Action.
Mark S. Fleisher, Director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University, and Malcolm Young, the Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, submitted written statements to the Commission in lieu of testifying in person. Use the links below to download their statements.
Learn about the Commission and the issues, and get a glimpse of some of the most moving testimony from the hearings in this short film.