When two inspectors showed up at a juvenile prison in north Texas late last year, they heard about kids beating each other up, recruiting for gangs and dismantling their cinder-block cells. One kid had begun extorting his peers so he could hoard basic hygiene supplies; another said he was so scared of getting robbed he’d started carrying around his shampoo.
But if that chaos is continuing at the Gainesville State School, there’s no real way to know: The state’s independent monitor for juvenile prisons has suspended its monthly visits because of COVID-19. So has the agency that oversees conditions in local jails in Texas.
In fact, oversight visits to prisons and jails across the country are already collateral damage in the global pandemic. State agencies, independent groups and court-appointed monitors work in facilities across the country, often those with a history of problems. But in New York and Illinois, independent oversight officials no longer have access to prisons, while their counterparts in Washington State voluntarily halted their inspections.
More informal oversight—the free-world connections that those behind bars can turn to with complaints and concerns—are also fading away as prisons restrict visits to stop the spread of the disease. In some states, family visits have been suspended, along with programs run by educators and religious volunteers—the people prisoners might confide in when they have problems.
“In some of these places we now have no idea what’s going on inside,” said Michele Deitch, a prison oversight expert and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. “There is little ability to flag the person who is not getting treatment for a serious medical condition or to investigate an allegation of brutality.”
Of course, another approach would be to let people out of jails and prisons. “The fewer people who are there, the better off we are—and the slower it’s going to spread,” said Alan Mills, a long-time prisoners’ right attorney and the current executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago.
But in the meantime, things could go very wrong without any outside oversight. A few days ago, I got a message from an incarcerated man who said officers smashed his hand into chicken wire and sliced off parts of two fingers. I’d hoped to verify that in person, by requesting an interview—but now I can’t because media visits are suspended.
For lawyers, the lack of access is even more frustrating. Without face-to-face, unrecorded meetings, attorneys say it’s hard to know that they’re getting the whole story, whether it’s about a criminal case or an allegation of abuse. And while many prisons are still allowing lawyers to see their clients, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is not. Neither, in most cases, is Georgia.
“Now there’s literally no way to verify pretty much anything, which is insane—and it’s super-concerning because they say 30 days but it’s essentially indefinite,” said Seana Holland, who handles federal cases in her role as the investigations director of the criminal and juvenile justice clinics at Georgetown Law in Washington, D.C.
In Texas, John Hummel, who was scheduled for execution Wednesday, filed an appeal questioning whether it was safe to convene witnesses for the execution and whether he’d be able to get in-person access to visitors in the days before his death.
Prison officials said he would, but the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, postponed the execution anyway, citing the “current health crisis and the enormous resources needed to address that emergency.”
That rare 60-day reprieve addresses only one of the death dates scheduled across the country in the coming weeks. All of them will probably face legal challenges, along with possible questions about whether reporters, family members, lawyers or even execution witnesses will be able to get into the prisons, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
To some oversight officials I talked to, visiting a prison doesn’t seem safe right now —for people being held behind bars. Inspectors are worried about unwittingly infecting a high-risk population with limited access to healthcare or basic disease prevention measures.
In these uncertain times, they’re struggling to adapt, and hoping technology will let them stay on top of what’s happening. Texas officials said late yesterday that the juvenile prison monitors will have access to footage from video cameras and body cams worn by staff.
“The real question is: How do you create transparency when oversight bodies can’t get into prisons?” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a non-partisan prison watchdog group in Illinois. “To be really honest with you, that’s what we’re brainstorming now.”
Some early ideas: More access to video visitation, free stamps, increased mailroom staff and better access to phones. Already some prisons are offering free call time to make up for the lack of family visits.
But that doesn’t solve the problem, since most calls are monitored by authorities and the phones are typically in common areas—spaces that may not be accessible if facilities go on lockdown.
“I think it’s only a matter of time until they stop letting people out on recreation yards,” said Jennifer Scaife, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, an oversight organization for the state’s prisons.
Anticipating that, the Brooklyn-based group has already mailed out 500 surveys to people over 60, asking about the agency's handling of basic sanitation and pandemic preparations. But that’s not a substitute for access.
“We will just know less and less about what’s happening,” she said. “That’s my concern because corrections already tends to be such a black box.”