You will find interactive maps that show where correctional oversight bodies exist across the U.S. and that provide detailed profiles of each entity. There are separate maps for oversight of prisons, oversight of jails at a statewide level, oversight of jails at a local level and court-ordered correctional oversight. Learn more about the differences among these types of oversight and why they matter before accessing the maps.
States with oversight bodies are shaded blue. Click on a state to read a profile about the structure, function, and organization of that state’s correctional oversight body. Review multiple states’ profiles to learn more about differences in how they are structured, what authority they have, what resources they have, and what they do. Identify the elements that you like best in each model, as you seek to adapt these ideas for your jurisdiction.
Differences Between Prison and Jail Oversight
While the distinctions between prisons and jails aren’t always clear to the public, there are important structural and operational differences between the two types of correctional agencies/facilities that lead to significant differences in what their oversight mechanisms look like.*
Prisons are run by the state, and hold people convicted of felony offenses who have sentences of longer than one year.
When it comes to prison oversight:
- A single agency is being subjected to oversight. It is the same level of government involved in this exercise of external scrutiny.
- There is a clear, single line of authority in the prison agency. All prisons in the state answer to a single leader, and they operate under a single agency-wide set of policies and procedures and a single budget. Accordingly, there is a clear, single line of authority in the prison agency when it comes to responsibility for addressing any shortcomings in any of these facilities. Thus, if any operational changes are ordered, they should (at least theoretically) be put in place system-wide.
- All prisons in the state are subject to oversight. Oversight bodies are established to address issues in all facilities, though naturally some institutions receive more attention than others due to their size, the nature of the population, or the perceived level of problems that exist.
Jails, on the other hand, are typically operated and funded by counties or local government, often under the leadership of an elected Sheriff. They hold a wide mix of individuals, many of whom are pretrial, and the remainder are usually those serving short sentences for misdemeanor offenses. Jail oversight can involve either oversight of all jails in the state (“statewide jail oversight”), or oversight of just a single facility or a couple of facilities operated by the same local jurisdiction (“local jail oversight”).
With statewide jail oversight:
- The state is seeking to scrutinize what is typically a county-level function. Most jails are operated by sheriffs, who are independently elected and autonomous government officials, and jail operations are funded by the county legislative branch rather than by the state legislature. Whenever the state inserts itself into local government, there is bound to be tension among the various players, if the state can even assert this level of oversight over what happens in these locally-run institutions. Usually, the jail authorities have to consent to this kind of regulation by the state.
- The oversight entity needs to take account of huge variation among facilities. Because each jail in the state answers to a different authority, there is tremendous variation in conditions and practices from jail to jail, since they vary widely in available resources and come in all sizes and designs. Moreover, fixing a problem in one jail only affects that facility, not other facilities in the state.
- Statewide jail oversight tends to focus on compliance with minimum standards. To address the huge variations among facilities, oversight bodies are usually established to set minimum standards that apply to all jails across the state, in order to certify them to operate. The oversight body usually also has authority to assess each jail’s compliance with those standards. Compliance inspections tend to be more of an audit than a holistic review, with inspectors limited to focusing on issues covered by the standards. There is a great deal of similarity among statewide jail oversight bodies, since their regulatory functions are so similar.
With local jail oversight mechanisms:
- The county (as opposed to the state) is exercising oversight over a county-level agency. Since county officials hold the purse strings for the sheriff’s department as well as the ultimate financial liability for any lawsuits, local leaders can insist on some structure for ensuring more public transparency about conditions and the treatment of incarcerated people.
- One agency is subject to the oversight activities. As with prison oversight, one agency is the subject of local jail oversight activities.
- There is huge variation among local jail oversight models. Because the needs, resources, size, and governance structure of each local jurisdiction are so different, the jail oversight bodies they have established vary tremendously in design, scope of work, and activities.
* Of course, there is some variation among states, both in what they call their local jails and who may be housed in these facilities. There are also a handful of states with unified systems where a single state agency operates both prisons and jails.
Court oversight sometimes follows a successful lawsuit over unconstitutional conditions in a prison or jail. In order to assess an agency’s ongoing compliance with court orders to improve conditions, the judge can appoint a monitor, special master, or expert to monitor conditions in the facility (or multiple facilities) and report to the court about implementation of the remedial orders. Such oversight is intended to be temporary, lasting only as long as needed to ensure the correctional agency’s substantial compliance with the court’s ruling.
Because the courts continue to be essential as a backstop against the worst prison and jail conditions, we also developed a map to track active cases with court monitors and special masters. But there are several key differences between court oversight and other forms of prison and jail oversight that make court oversight insufficient to promote transparency and accountability—the twin goals of independent correctional oversight.
Court oversight differs from the examples of prison and jail oversight highlighted on our other maps, and thus warrants its own map, for the following reasons:
- Court oversight is time-limited, lasting only as long as it takes to remedy the problem, even though conditions can (and do) often backslide after the court’s supervision ends. In contrast, the prison and jail oversight models featured on the other maps are intended as permanent entities.
- Court oversight may apply to prisons or jails, and to a single facility or to all facilities in the state. Courts can exercise oversight authority over any facilities subjected to their orders, whether that is a single jail, a single prison, multiple prisons, or all the prisons in a state. But any other facilities in the state or local jurisdiction fall outside their control, even if operated by the same agency. In contrast, the prison and jail oversight models featured on the other maps exercise oversight over all the facilities within the relevant jurisdiction.
- Issues being scrutinized are extremely limited. Court monitors may assess only those conditions relevant to the court’s order and cannot go beyond that scope, regardless of any other issues they notice in the course of their activities. Most court orders are focused on a single issue, such as the delivery of medical care. In contrast, most prison and jail oversight models can address any issues that affect the treatment of people who are incarcerated, though statewide jail oversight bodies are typically limited to the range of issues covered by the standards, which can be wide-ranging but not comprehensive.
- The goal of court oversight is limited to constitutional standards. The objective of court oversight is to raise institutional conditions to constitutional minima, not to help the agency implement best practices, or work towards a more humane culture. The courts continue to be essential as a backstop against the worst punitive excesses, but we fool ourselves if we think they can fundamentally change prison culture and transform prisons and jails into places that respect human dignity.
- Court oversight is reactive, not preventive. Courts exercise oversight only after conditions have hit constitutional rock bottom and a lawsuit has been successfully pursued; it is not intended to identify or prevent those problems in the first place, unlike most of the prison and jail oversight bodies on the other maps.
To identify oversight bodies, we revisited our research on each of the organizations included in the 50-State Inventory and the updated inventory in But Who Oversees the Overseers. Read these publications to learn more about our methodology.
Then, we scoured media reports and organizational websites to find information on any changes to existing bodies or the creation of any new bodies. We also talked with local advocates, correctional administrators, legislative staff, government officials, and other relevant stakeholders to learn more about their efforts to create new oversight bodies or strengthen existing oversight bodies in their states or local jurisdictions.
We included entities on the maps that:
- Are fully independent from the correctional agency they oversee;
- Monitor conditions of confinement, prevent ill-treatment, or investigate complaints of incarcerated people;
- Have a formal or informal right of access into correctional facilities to accomplish that function;
- Are a permanent body;
- Focus on the conditions experienced by prisoners, health and safety issues, or the quality of services provided to people in custody;
- Are responsive to issues affecting all people in custody in each facility, rather than sub-populations;
- Seek to increase public transparency about what is happening in the prisons; and
- Are actively engaged in this work.
It is important to note the kind of oversight bodies that are excluded from these maps based on our criteria identified above. We did not include:
- Bodies focused solely on population management or prison construction issues;
- Legislative committees that are statutorily responsible for overseeing state prisons but that only make occasional informational visits to those facilities;
- Ombuds, internal affairs offices, or compliance offices with staff that are employed by and report to prison authorities, even if they are exempt from the regular institutional hierarchy.
- General government auditing bodies that conduct infrequent performance audits of prisons, those that do not prioritize conditions of confinement issues, and those that focus primarily on prison or jail management issues and financial information;
- Protection and Advocacy (P&A) organizations, which have federal statutory authority to ensure the protection of people with physical or mental disabilities, including those in prisons and jails.
Note: We are also developing profiles about statewide jail oversight bodies, local jail oversight bodies, and court-appointed monitors, and those profiles will be posted at a later date.
The profile summaries provided about each oversight entity across the country were researched and written by the PJIL research team and were then vetted by the oversight organization to ensure accuracy. However, any mistakes that remain are ours alone, and we request that readers bring mistakes to our attention so they can be fixed.
- We conducted extensive research. We did statutory research to identify the extent of an entity’s authority to conduct oversight; we reviewed an entity’s website; we reviewed reports written by the oversight body; we read news coverage about the oversight body; and we talked with local advocates, correctional administrators, legislative staff, government officials, and other relevant stakeholders to learn more about the entity’s oversight activities.
- We interviewed oversight bodies. After gathering and reviewing all the information we could find from those sources, we conducted in-depth interviews with representatives of each oversight entity.
- We drafted profile summaries of each body. We drafted detailed descriptions of each oversight agency’s authority, history, activities, staffing, budget, accomplishments, and challenges. We sent a draft of the profile summary to the oversight body to review for accuracy and to suggest any substantive changes.
- Each profile is accurate of the date indicated. Organizations change, and we realize that the information on the profile can quickly become outdated. Please note the date the profile was written. We will be providing updated profiles as we identify important changes to any organization.