A new initiative seeking to rethink incarceration in the United States is focused on Texas, where problems in prisons and jails have been well-documented, from allegations of excessive heat to suits over how spiritual advisors can interact with prisoners set to be executed.
Professor Michele Deitch is founder of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. She told Texas Standard that the project’s goals include improving correctional oversight and transforming the way people in prisons and jails are treated.
“The concept of a lab is that we want to try things,” Deitch said. “We don’t know if everything is going to work, but we want to use the best available research and best practices to see if we can reduce harm inside prisons and jails and help transform them into safe places that respect human dignity.”
Deitch says the innovation lab will take on a variety of projects aimed at helping solve criminal justice-related problems around the country. Its work will include providing research, advice and guidance to policymakers and advocates for change in the criminal justice system.
Deitch says there is a need for initiatives that rely on research to determine what will and will not work to improve conditions in jails and prisons.
“Conditions in prisons and jails are really an overlooked area of criminal justice reform,” she said. “And these are such closed environments that are lacking in transparency and accountability.”
In addition to an academic background, Deitch has worked more directly in the criminal justice system, including as a federal court-appointed monitor of conditions in the Texas prison system.
“I was in and out of prisons on a daily basis for several years,” she said.
Addressing the needs of people who are incarcerated, rather than focusing primarily on punishment, Deitch says, has worked in other countries. She argues taking a less punitive approach will ultimately have beneficial effects on public safety.