Prosecutors are responsible for the safety of everyone within their jurisdictions, including everyone who is incarcerated in, or employed by, a prison. Mindful of that, the Bronx district attorney’s Rikers Unit dedicates specialized training and resources to the investigation and prosecution of crimes by and against incarcerated people and employees alike within the jails of that infamous island. Other jurisdictions that contain jails and prisons should do the same.
Of course, the majority of people sentenced to prison serve their time in facilities far away from where their crime was committed. This distance from home, family, and community is part of what makes it so difficult to maintain the relationships necessary for success upon release. And part of reimagining prisons should include prioritizing proximity to home in order to facilitate the bonds that are vital to human thriving. While prosecutors often do not have jurisdiction over the places to which people who commit crimes in their communities are sent, they would nonetheless be well served to bear in mind that those people will usually go home to their jurisdictions. The conditions to which people are subjected, even outside the county lines in which they were prosecuted, should be of vital concern to the relevant prosecuting office.
That’s why prosecutors should create Civil Rights Enforcement Units, just as many have created Alternatives to Incarceration Units and Conviction Integrity Bureaus. Such units should focus on the development and maintenance of humane prison conditions, including advocating for the prisons on which they rely to implement trauma-informed training borrowed from medical and social-work institutions, designed to encourage prison staff to treat residents with dignity and to create a culture of mutual respect.
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Such units would serve as liaisons with departments of corrections, state attorneys general, and other relevant agencies to break down the silos that have enabled modern American prisons to damage their residents and employees alike for far too long, and thereby perpetuate the cycles of violence in our communities. These units could lobby state legislatures to reform conditions, assist in allocating resources to prison programs and education, and communicate with parole and probation departments. And, finally, they could do the important work of educating prosecutors about the realities of the prison system, so that every time a prosecutor recommends a jail or prison sentence, she does so with full knowledge of what that sentence is likely to entail.
Prosecutors are, of course, neither solely responsible for nor alone capable of solving the civil-rights crisis of mass incarceration. Judges, police officers, defense attorneys, corrections officers, community advocates, and others have all contributed to the steep increase in the number of people incarcerated and under correctional supervision in the United States during the latter part of the 20th century. Each of these groups must step up to identify solutions. And there will always be some people who cannot appropriately and safely remain in the community after committing an offense. But prison must not inflict undue suffering.