Jack Beck Testifies on the National Stage

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In February, Prison Visiting Project Director Jack Beck and Executive Director Bob Gangi traveled to Los Angeles to attend hearings for the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a nationwide task force examining violence, abuse and harassment in prison. The Commission brought together correction officials, formerly incarcerated people, advocates and government leaders to testify about their experiences and findings. After receiving their testimony, the Commission will report its findings to policymakers and the public, making recommendations on how to make prisons safer for both incarcerated people and staff.

During the week of the hearings, Los Angeles jails were plagued by violence, in a sadly fitting testament to the importance of the Commission’s issues. Jack Beck testified about the CA’s role as a citizens’ prison monitoring organization and discussed the findings from some of the CA’s recent re- search. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.

What was the CA’s role in the Commission’s hearing?
JB: This hearing was specifically focused on prison monitoring. The task is to make the practices in prison more transparent to policymakers and the public and to hold the corrections system accountable when problems are detected. The CA submitted substantial written testimony, and then I participated in a panel discussion about various monitoring issues, including how other states might replicate an effective citizens’ oversight agency.

The CA has a unique legislative mandate to monitor New York’s prisons–how could other states replicate that?
Though it’s true that legislatures today would be unlikely to grant the kind of authority the CA secured in 1846, there are certainly elements of our work that could be replicated in other states—they could form private citizen groups or semi-autonomous government agencies that could monitor the prisons. What’s important is that, like the CA, any new prison monitoring organization report its results to the public. If they’re just providing an internal review for the corrections department, you don’t achieve transparency or foster change.

What have you learned from the CA’s research into safety and abuse issues?
We are in the process of preparing a report on our study of safety and violence in New York prisons, following visits to 12 prisons and obtaining more than 1,000 surveys from in- mates about their experiences at these institutions. We haven’t crunched all the numbers yet, but we do know that there’s a great variability between the levels of abuse at different prisons. In the prisons with the least tension, we found relatively open communication between staff and incarcerated individuals, leading to greater mutual respect. For example, although we heard some complaints about abuse at Sing Sing, incarcerated persons there can casually approach correction officers and executive staff to ask questions about programs or services, and we even heard some incarcerated individuals shouting greetings to staff as they passed in the hallway. This type of informal interaction would be out of the question at some prisons located further upstate.

At Attica, where incarcerated people reported much higher rates of physical confrontations with staff and verbal harassment, in- mates repeatedly told us that they are afraid to even speak with correction staff, and many stay in their cells as much as possible to avoid any interaction at all. It is clear that the ability to simply communicate on a human level diminishes tension and promotes more manageable prison environments.

How does race fit into the picture?
Not surprisingly, race makes a big difference: At facilities where the correction staff are almost all white and the incarcerated people are almost all people of color (which is common at many of the prisons in up- state New York, including Attica), there is more tension and more abuse, both between COs and incarcerated individuals and among incarcerated people themselves.

Do you think the Commission will be effective in producing change?
The Commission’s members are very concerned with how to make their recommendations a reality. They’ve made a point of including correction and government officials in the hearings, which will help. But some of the problems can’t be changed, even by well-meaning correction officials—it comes down to basic issues of funding, and a willingness to address the larger problems that put so many people in prison to begin with: harsh and ineffective drug laws, lack of resources for the mentally ill, and racial bias within the criminal justice system.

What’s important, though, is that we pierce the veil of secrecy that surrounds prisons. They’re closed institutions that people hardly know about. Transparency and accountability are crucial to making change, and these hearings are an important first step towards that.

Excerpt from the Testimony

“We urge the Commission to recommend increased outside scrutiny of prison systems, increased transparency and increased accountability for how incarcerated individuals are treated and for the state of conditions of confinement. Violence and abuse, along with a lack of programming and inadequate general conditions, hinder incarcerated persons’ ability to learn and grow while they are incarcerated—a reality that haunts society in the form of high recidivism rates and bloated prison budgets. In too many cases, we return individuals to society in far worse condition than when they entered. This is a lost opportunity. Reducing violence and increasing safety in our correctional facilities are not only moral imperatives, they are also fiscally responsible, critical steps in moving toward a more effective prison system.”