Oversight 101: What Is Oversight?

Oversight Basics

What is correctional oversight?

An independent, external mechanism designed, at a minimum, to ensure the collection, dissemination, and use of unbiased, accurate, and first-hand information about correctional conditions of confinement and the treatment of incarcerated individuals, primarily through on-site access to the facilities. This information can help prevent an institution from drifting toward abuse, neglect, and other forms of unconstitutional treatment of people in custody, and can help in the identification and sharing of best correctional practices.

Prison hallway
Photo credit: John Howard Association (IL)
Sunlight is the best disinfectant quote with orange sun in background
Photo credit: iStock.com/Xurzon

What are the goals of oversight?

  • Improve transparency of our nation’s prisons and jails.
  • Increase accountability of agencies for ensuring the safe and humane treatment of people in custody.

We already have internal accountability mechanisms, so why do we need external oversight?

Effective prison management demands both internal accountability measures and external scrutiny. These distinct forms of oversight should not be in competition nor are they mutually exclusive; they are designed to meet entirely different—but complementary—needs. States and local jurisdictions can and should ensure that both exist. 

What are the essential functions of correctional oversight?

There are nine essential functions of effective correctional oversight, each contributing to the overall goals of improving correctional institutions and making them more transparent and accountable. However, no single entity can or should meaningfully serve every one of these functions. States and local jurisdictions should ensure that there is a multi-layered system of correctional oversight, so that each of these functions can be served through the work of various entities outside the correctional agency. The goal is for each function to be served as effectively as possible.

For more information about the various functions of effective oversight, see Distinguishing the Various Functions of Effective Prison Oversight. Also see the American Bar Association’s Key Requirements for the Effective Monitoring of Correctional and Detention Facilities, a guiding document in efforts to create oversight mechanisms around the country and a touchstone to assess the quality of existing oversight structures.

Should one oversight body handle all of these functions?

No. There should be a variety of separate mechanisms in place to serve each of these functions. While there are certainly examples of hybrid models combining two or three of these functions, it would be a mistake to seek to combine all these functions within one entity. No one entity can meaningfully serve every function, if for no reason other than the fact that there are different constituencies involved with regard to each function.

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Photo credit: iStock.com/D3Damon
Pima Detention Center with lightning in background
Photo credit: Photo originally published in Arizona Luminaria by Michael McKisson

Should oversight bodies be “enforcers”?

No. The power to address the problems of prisons and jails should remain with correctional leaders, legislators, and governors; the oversight entity should not become a supra-management body ultimately responsible for the cleanup of an agency, especially when the oversight body does not control the pursestrings.

Exception: regulatory bodies that assess compliance with minimum standards should have enforcement authority. See “regulation” function described above.

What challenges do oversight bodies often experience that limit their ability to perform these functions?

  • Inadequate staffing and funding
  • Lack of insulation from political pressure
  • Restricted access to the facilities they oversee
  • Recommendations are ignored

These are significant risks that should be addressed in the original enabling legislation, to the extent possible, or in future efforts to strengthen the authorizing statute.

Road sign that reads "Challenges Ahead"
Photo credit: iStock.com/amanalang

What should an independent external oversight body look like?

There is no single best way to structure a correctional oversight mechanism. A body’s structure will depend on the responsibilities assigned to it, on the culture and policies of the jurisdiction in which it is located, and on the systems already in place in that jurisdiction. It is less critical that all oversight mechanisms look alike or share the same name than it is that they have in place the essential elements for effectiveness as an oversight body.

Models of Oversight

Prison Oversight Models

Correctional oversight can take many different forms, and there is wide variation in how each oversight body is structured. Also, the existing bodies don’t always fall neatly into a particular category. Many oversight bodies are hybrids, combining features of one or more models. Moreover, the name of any given model doesn’t always correspond with what the oversight body actually does. When planning an oversight body, it is more important to consider what you want the oversight body to do and how you want it to be structured, rather than what you want it to be called. Here are some examples of prison oversight models and their typical functions, though this is not a comprehensive list.

Coming soon

Statewide Jail Oversight Models

Unlike prison oversight bodies, statewide jail oversight bodies are easily categorized as one of several different models, with little overlap. The vast majority of states with jail oversight bodies use one of the first two models described below. The first four models rely on a set of inspection standards, while the last two models have a more holistic approach to monitoring conditions in jail facilities.

  • State department of corrections charged with overseeing local jails not under their operational authority
  • Independent commission at the state level established to regulate the local jails
  • Professional association/sheriffs’ association with a voluntary peer-to-peer system of oversight
  • State department of health with a jail inspection unit
  • Ombudsman with inspection authority
  • Non-governmental oversight body responsible for all prisons and jails

What could oversight legislation look like?

Prison Oversight Legislation

Review a sample of legislation that states can adapt if they are interested in establishing a similar prison oversight body. Recent enabling legislation includes bills that were passed into law that established a correctional oversight body. While pending legislation includes bills that moved through the legislative process but were not, ultimately, passed into law, they are still worthy examples of oversight legislation. Also review examples of model legislation that provide a template for legislation that states can adapt to meet their needs. For a PDF version of the oversight legislation, click here.