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.Meanwhile, our pals Cate Graziani and Doug Smith have an op ed in the Houston Chronicle titled, "Better state jail oversight can prevent suicides," That article concludes:
The monitor should be empowered to examine and report on all aspects of a facility’s operations that affect inmates, including, for example: medical and mental health care; use of force; inmate violence; conditions of confinement; staffing practices; inmate discipline and use of solitary confinement; substance abuse treatment; educational and rehabilitative programming; and re-entry planning.
There also should be an independent investigatory body that reviews complaints and allegations of wrongdoing, including inmate grievances, abuse claims, denial of access to health care and inmate deaths.
At the same time, the prison system should enhance its own internal accountability measures, such as its decision to electronically log complaints to monitor accusations of staff misconduct.
But in light of recent events, the public is unlikely to be satisfied with a prison agency’s pronouncements that everything is fine or trust the vindications of staff members accused of abusive behavior. Only independent monitoring and investigations can provide that level of public accountability.
The costs of this oversight would pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars paid out in lawsuits stemming from unconstitutional practices and the untold costs associated with ineffective programs and unnecessary use of solitary confinement.
Designed correctly, an oversight body can provide an early warning system about patterns of complaints against certain prison employees, assess the appropriateness of discipline meted out to staff members, address concerns about inadequate health care or protocols for dealing with mentally ill inmates, highlight programs that are ineffective, point to areas for improved staff training, and identify policies that need to be adjusted. A monitor could also identify practices worth replicating at other prisons.
The awareness by prison staff that a monitor could show up at any time would check employee misbehavior. The culture of a prison changes when outsiders shine a light on its operations and conditions.
high suicide rates cannot be attributed solely to mental health disorders. The units in TDCJ with the highest rates of suicides and suicide attempts are also some of the most populous and dangerous in the system: Darrington, Robertson and Clements have higher incidents of use of force, sexual assault, solitary confinement and violence. Furthermore, data reveal that units housing women, who represent approximately 12,000 individuals in TDCJ and the fastest-growing prison population, had some of the highest suicide rates in the entire system.
Why should the public care whether prison conditions are safe or lead to hopelessness? The vast majority of people sentenced to prison will return to the community. Hostile and traumatic conditions interfere with rehabilitation, which is a serious, long-term public safety concern. Further, the same environment that creates drastically high rates of suicide and suicide attempts also fuels high turnover rates for correctional officers. In 2013, TDCJ reported a 20.6 percent turnover rate across all positions, while correctional officers had an even higher turnover rate - 24 percent. Staffing shortages, like those experienced by the McConnell and Connelly units in South Texas, contribute to more violent environments and can inhibit suicide prevention efforts.
All too frequently, we have seen what happens when public institutions, from state agencies to public schools, lack independent, external oversight. They fail to achieve the efficiency that comes from increased transparency, and often identify abuses far too late. Texas has implemented external oversight for the state's juvenile correctional system, but TDCJ continues to operate the largest prison system of any state without independent oversight.
Texas must acknowledge its duty to protect the rights and well being of those under the supervision of its state agencies. Implementing external oversight of the adult corrections system will help policymakers and agency staff create safe environments for those who live and work in prisons and state jails, with benefits to units, Texas communities and families.