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Lack Of Oversight Apparent In COVID-19 Outbreak in Prisons, Jails

Pris­ons and jails are considered closed facil­it­ies. Few visit­ors gain access to them even though they house people for months, years, decades, and, some­times, entire life­times. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a 2015 opinion, “Pris­on­ers are shut away—out of sight, out of mind” while their condi­tions of confine­ment are “too easily ignored” by the public. One way to achieve the goals of trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity, while ensur­ing safe and humane condi­tions of confine­ment, is a formal and inde­pend­ent system of over­sight of jail and prison oper­a­tions, says the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University in a new report on oversight of correctional institutions. There are about 18 entit­ies over­see­ing pris­ons in the U.S., including the Correc­tional Asso­ci­ation of New York, the John Howard Asso­ci­ation in Illinois, and the Pennsylvania Prison Soci­ety. There are also independ­ent prison oversight agen­cies within the exec­ut­ive branch of state govern­ments, such as the Office of the Inspector General in Cali­for­nia. A hand­ful of inde­pend­ent entit­ies over­see local jails, such as the New York City Board of Correc­tions and the Texas Commis­sion on Jail Stand­ards. Most state pris­ons rely on monit­ors who work for the very state correc­tional agen­cies that manage these facil­it­ies. This patch­work of over­sight provides insuf­fi­cient cover­age, Brennan says. And the public health crisis result­ing from the highly conta­gious and deadly COVID-19 virus has shone a spot­light on the preval­ence of inhu­mane condi­tions of confine­ment in correc­tional facil­it­ies. At least 3,059 inmates and 308 correc­tional staff have died from COVID-19, and over 592,148 prisoners have contrac­ted the virus. The situ­ation has only been exacer­bated by the lack of trans­par­ency about the spread, toll, and manage­ment of COVID-19 across the thou­sands of correc­tional and deten­tion facil­it­ies. The Brennan report explores the land­scape of prison and jail over­sight reform since 2018.

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