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New Polling Finds Broad Support for Independent Prison Oversight

A first-ever national poll on the topic shows high approval for accountability in corrections — and continued bipartisan backing for criminal justice reform.

Protesters rally for criminal justice reform outside the U.S. Capitol in 2018. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

As prisons at the state and federal level continue to grapple with scandals, a new poll by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) finds that a broad bipartisan coalition supports robust, independent oversight of corrections facilities and systems.

The poll found an overwhelming 82% of respondents said they believe that states and the federal government should have a system of independent oversight for their prisons” — including 80% of Republicans, 79% of independents, and 85% of Democrats.

This is the first-ever national poll on the topic of prison oversight. 

FAMM’s poll found that 75% of respondents support reforming the nation’s criminal justice system — including 66% of Republicans, 66% of independents, and 84% of Democrats. 

It’s been said that sunlight is the best disinfectant — and our prisons and jails are the darkest places in the nation,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring in a press release. With no meaningful oversight, our prison systems are rife with waste, fraud and abuse. Incarcerated people and correctional officers are not safe, and our elected leaders are not even aware of the problems that need to be fixed. Our poll reveals that an overwhelming majority of the public — Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike — wants that to change.”

The poll also found:

  • Nearly 80% of respondents believe that prison oversight is independent if the inspections are performed by people who do not work in the prisons system.”

  • 68% of respondents do not trust government agencies to investigate their own problems and honestly report on them to the public and lawmakers.

  • 90% of respondents said it was important that the oversight body has full access to the prison system’s documents and facilities, and that the oversight body has the ability to talk to prison staff and prisoners freely and confidentially.

This first-of-its kind polling shows that Americans are united in their desire to ensure that problems affecting safety, health, and general conditions in prisons come to light and are addressed,” said Julie James, Arnold Ventures vice president of criminal justice for corrections. Prisons remain out of public view, allowing inhumane conditions to thrive, harming everyone involved — including those working in facilities and those incarcerated in them.”

These findings come as Colette Peters, the Oregon prison director, steps up to take the helm as head of the federal Bureau of Prisons. Peters developed a reputation as a reformer as she set out to reduce the use of solitary confinement and visited Norway to see first-hand a different, less cruel model of incarceration. 

Meanwhile, prisons across the nation continue to suffer from staffing challenges and cruel treatment of people behind bars. Earlier this month the Illinois Department of Corrections was held in contempt of a federal court’s order to improve health care services. A collapsing youth prison system has Texas lawmakers asking the governor to call a special session to address safety concerns. And a recent Senate investigation has found that federal prison officials were aware of misconduct, corruption and abuse within federal facilities — including common suicides and suicide attempts — and failed to properly address the growing crisis.