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Penal monitoring in the United States: lessons from the American experience and prospects for change

Abstract

While independent penal monitoring has a history as old as the prison itself, the United States has historically lacked a robust system of monitoring at the federal, state and local level. Studies of the protection of human rights in prisons, and growing experience with robust monitoring systems, like those promoted by the United Nations through the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) and the Council of Europe highlight the peril for the United States which is not a signatory to OPCAT and has largely failed to create adequate independent systems of monitoring. When practiced routinely monitoring creates conditions that make extreme turns in penal policy less likely and protect human rights in prisons when populist pressures do build. That peril has come to pass as mass incarceration policies have made overcrowding ubiquitous and undiscovered violations of human rights on a mass scale almost inevitable. Instead of routine independent monitoring, the US has relied almost exclusively on judicial decrees, some of which involve independent monitoring. Unfortunately, while courts have great power to order reforms, and have under some conditions produced systemic prison reforms, the adversarial nature of American legalism makes standards based on litigation subject to enforcement resistance by correctional systems. Even this path, however, has been largely foreclosed by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA) which largely cut off prisoner access to the federal courts just as prisons were entering the most perilous phase of overcrowding. Yet it is possible that today the growing human rights crisis in prison and the loss of confidence in correctional leadership to fix those problems is opening up space to place independent penal monitoring at the center of human rights protection in prisons. As the US carceral state enters profound crisis of legitimacy monitoring, in prisons and in analog form across the carceral state institutions, can play a crucial role in making correctional governance both more legitimate and more effective at promoting the human rights of prisoners.

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Notes

  1. This new model advances considerably on the first generation of international human rights chargers which set out aspirational standards for prison human rights but no mechanisms of encouragement including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.

  2. In a study now more than 10 years old but likely accurate on this point.

  3. http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/pdl/default.asp

  4. Even net of litigation California is one of the few states with a form of independent monitoring through the Inspector General. Although the incumbent of this office in recent years has been more active in publicizing the level of human rights failure, the office did little to call the attention of the legislature or the public to the systems descent into the conditions that provoked the Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata [32] 563 U.S. 493, 131 S.Ct. 1910 [7]. This suggests, among other things, that multiple layers of penal monitoring, such as envisioned in OPCAT may be essential to reaching a sufficient density of contact to produce normative change.

  5. As Feeley and Rubin [9] noted, the law did have the effect of largely ratifying the by then large body of judge made prison law and policy and can be seen as enhancing legitimacy of those court orders that do survive it’s exhaustion and other requirements.

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Cases

  1. Brown v. Plata. (2011). 563 U.S. 493, 131 S.Ct. 1910.

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Acknowledgements

The author is grateful for the comments of Anjuli Verma, Gaëtan Cliquennois, Sonja Snacken, Malcolm Feeley and my anonymous reviewers.

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Simon, J. Penal monitoring in the United States: lessons from the American experience and prospects for change. Crime Law Soc Change 70, 161–173 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-017-9724-0

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