July 8, 2020
On Monday, July 6, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Steve J. Martin entitled, "It's not just policing that needs reform. Prisons need it, too." According to the Post, Mr Martin "worked as a corrections expert for the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security and as a federal monitor in class-action lawsuits. He is the federal court monitor for litigation involving use of force at New York’s Rikers Island jails."
Mr. Martin's op-ed makes many important points about how brutality and excessive force are all too common in prison. Mr. Martin describes in vivid detail the kind of brutality and violence at the hands of corrections officers which is all too common in federal and state prisons and in local jails. Often the brutal methods that corrections officers employ result in serious injuries to inmates that sometimes that results in death.
Mr. Martin advocates that corrections officers must be held accountable for their actions. He writes that "Too few officers face sanctions, even for killing a detainee. Internal review too often fails to provide meaningful scrutiny. The testimony of inmate witnesses is discounted, and, as with the police, the “code of silence” among prison staffs helps protect abusive officers. Autopsies and death certificates often ignore the use of force that might have precipitated the death."
Basically, he says that brutality is the result of poor leadership and lack of political will. This is true in itself. Stronger and more enlightened leadership would help. But stronger and more enlightened leadership may not be sufficient. It may be difficult to identify and secure stronger and more enlightened leaders. There will always be stronger and weaker leaders in any system. There has to be a mechanism to provide accountability without relying exclusively on leadership.
The public knows about police brutality and the shooting unarmed civilians because of the widespread presence of cell phones. Prisoners are not allowed to have cell phones. Yet, prisons are full of security cameras recording all kinds of interactions. Getting access to the security camera video is often next to impossible. One way to shine light on prison brutality is for both prisoners and the public to have access to prison video footage.
Mr. Martin also advocates better training especially in de-escalating conflicts. Better training, however, will not end brutality in prisons. Just as the police need an oversight board with real investigative and enforcement power, so do correctional officers and their superiors need to be held accountable to an independent commission. This commission should be able to enter prisons without advance warning and be permitted to interview staff and inmates privately. The commission should have access to the video footage in the prison. The commission should have the power to discipline officers who violate the dignity and bodies of inmates.
The high prison walls not only keep people in; they also keep the rest of us out. It is time for the public to hold prison authorities accountable by means of an independent commission.