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Op-Ed: TYC Facilities Need Independent Oversight

Op-Ed: TYC Facilities Need Independent Oversight?

Michele Deitch?3-22-07

The scandal engulfing the Texas Youth Commission has thus far provoked governmental responses that involve temporary investigative measures. We have heard calls for the appointment of a conservator, a new TYC board, a czar, a team of auditors, and a special prosecutor. In addition, a special legislative investigative committee was created and a special master named. But each of these responses is premised on the notion of what one lawmaker called ?a one-time deal for this set of special circumstances.?

Notably absent from these discussions is any recognition that independent oversight is fundamental any time we are dealing with closed institutions responsible for the lives and well-being of citizens in custody. Transparency and accountability should be an ongoing commitment of government, not simply a means of defusing a crisis.

More than 30 years of experience in operating the prison and juvenile justice agencies under federal court orders should have taught us that abuse and mismanagement can thrive when institutions are cut off from public view. We should not wait until the problems happen to shine a light on these institutions. Rather, we should implement ongoing independent oversight measures that can help prevent abuse from occurring in the first place.

Last year, 100 of the world?s top experts gathered at the University of Texas to discuss what constitutes effective oversight of prisons and jails. The group, which included 20 percent of the nation?s corrections directors, as well as policy-makers, judges, and prisoner advocates, heard from representatives of U.S. and European oversight organizations. Their message was clear: independent oversight that includes routine monitoring of institutions is essential for the effective governance of institutions and for the protection of incarcerated individuals. The details of the oversight models vary, but they all include something beyond investigations of wrongdoing. Effective oversight needs to be forward-looking and preventative, as well as reactive and investigative.

Texas needs to create an independent agency responsible for conducting regular inspections of all facilities responsible for incarcerating juveniles and adults. ?Independent? means that it should not be a part of the agencies it is inspecting. It should not depend on those agencies for funding, staffing, or direction, and it should report directly to the public and to policy-makers.

An independent oversight agency should have a ?golden key? that gives it access to any institution at any time, without prior notice. Inspectors should be able to meet confidentially with juvenile and adult prisoners; interview employees; and examine official records. The knowledge that monitors can show up at any institution at any time helps keep staff on their toes and helps the institutions avoid complacency when things are going well.

Monitors should issue public reports of their findings and make recommendations to the inspected agency. Unlike a conservator or a director, inspectors have no management authority?they can?t order changes to be implemented. But they can provide agency leaders, policy-makers, and the public with the credible, independent information they need in order to improve institutional conditions, demand accountability, or feel confidence in agency operations.

Independent oversight is not a substitute for improving agency policies or developing internal accountability measures. But it is a means of informing lawmakers and the public objectively about routine practices in otherwise closed institutions, and a means of reassuring incarcerated juveniles and adults that someone on the outside is watching how they are being treated. When problems are identified and fixed at an early stage, it also reduces the chances of drawn-out and expensive litigation and court supervision.

We should insist on opening up the closed world of juvenile and adult prisons and shining a light inside those dim corridors. Transparency is a fundamental part of good government, and that will be as true after the TYC mess is cleaned up and the wrongdoers prosecuted as it is today. We need to stop thinking of the ?fix? as a ?one-time deal?; it should be a commitment to an effective and permanent system of independent oversight for all places of confinement.

Michele Deitch teaches criminal justice policy at UT?s LBJ School of Public Affairs. She researched independent prison oversight models as a Soros Senior Justice Fellow and previously served as a court-appointed monitor of the Texas prison system.

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