The Crisis of Conditions in America’s Jails and Prisons

The everyday horrors of life and death in jails and prisons are now national news.

In the Jackson County jail south of Indianapolis, a schizophrenic man named Joshua McLemore starved to death after being locked in a padded cell and left untended for 20 days.

In the Fulton County jail in Georgia, 35-year-old Lashawn Thompson was allegedly eaten alive by bugs in his filthy jail cell while awaiting trial for a misdemeanor simple battery charge.

The sheriff of the Noxubee County jail in Mississippi has been indicted and is being further investigated for running a jail where he allegedly beat his own staff, allowed systematic rape of women in custody, and then tried to cover it all up.

Those are just three recent stories that we know about. They have all left behind heartbroken families with dead or damaged loved ones — imperfect loved ones, yes, but held dear nonetheless.

America’s jails look and sound increasingly like dungeons from the Middle Ages and less like 21st-century facilities where people are rehabilitated and treated with dignity.

Our prisons aren’t faring much better. In red and blue states alike, prison systems are overcrowdedchronically understaffedprovide “plainly grossly inadequate” health care, and are rife with sexual assault and high rates of suicide.

Many problems contribute to the sorry state of America’s prisons and jails, but the most glaring one is that most prisons and jails lack any meaningful independent oversight.

Prisons and jails lack transparency and accountability. They are often located in rural areas and off-limits to the public and media. Prisons and jails operate as fiefdoms that answer to no one and can easily cover up wrongdoing. Incarcerated people, their families, and corrections staff are all too familiar with getting the run-around and having no recourse when those above them ignore their concerns.

Establishing independent oversight is essential to reforming our nation’s prisons and jails. Independent prison and jail oversight like the kind operating in Washington StateOhioPennsylvaniaNew JerseyIllinois, and Texas includes regular, unannounced inspections of facilities. This prevents prison officials from hiding problems before inspectors arrive.

Independent oversight can also include investigations of complaints from incarcerated people, families, and corrections staff when, for whatever reason, the internal grievance process breaks down or people have no safe place to take their concern.

Independent oversight costs less than one percent of most corrections system annual budgets, but that tiny investment can prevent small problems from turning into catastrophes, deaths, and law suits. Over time, independent oversight helps foster increased professionalism in corrections and better working and living conditions for everyone inside prisons and jails. Everyone tends to behave and perform a little bit better when someone is watching what they do.

For too long, our prison and jail systems have operated unchecked. To be effective, oversight must be independent. As recent headlines show, prisons and jails cannot be trusted to police themselves. When they do, we get stories of people dying from starvation and bugs. It really is this bad. And independent prison and jail oversight really is the least we could do to make things better.

Contact your lawmakers today and ask them to support independent prison oversight.

Molly Gill is FAMM’s Vice President of Policy.