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Commission to Study U.S. Prison Conditions

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page A07

A high-level commission yesterday began a year-long examination of violence, sexual abuse, overcrowding and inhumane treatment in U.S. prisons, in an investigation provoked in part by reports of misconduct by U.S. corrections officers assigned to serve in military detention centers overseas.

The privately organized commission, which has attracted interest in its work from the Justice Department and key lawmakers, is headed by former attorney general Nicholas deB. Katzenbach and John J. Gibbons, a former federal appeals court judge. Its aim is to recommend prison reforms from local to federal levels after holding at least four public hearings around the country.

Statistics cited by the commission chart growing problems in U.S. prisons, where the inmate population has quadrupled in the past two decades to more than 2 million: More than 34,000 assaults were committed by prisoners against other inmates in a 12-month period covering parts of 1999 and 2000; the number of prisoner assaults against staff in that period was 27 percent higher than the previous 12 months.

More than a million people were sexually assaulted in prisons over the past two decades, the commission said. Eleven inmates died in restraint chairs in the 1990s. The commission also said corrections officers have reduced life expectancies and higher rates of alcoholism than other law enforcement officers.

Only three states -- New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois -- have independent commissions charged with reporting on prison conditions, and they lack authority to impose reforms, the commission said. No mandatory national standards exist for prisons, many of which are now run by private contractors.

"We seem to have a gap between our cherished ideals about justice and the realities of the prison environment," said Katzenbach, who served under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. "Despite these numbers and some compelling evidence of abuse and safety failures . . . there is little public knowledge about the nature and extent of the problems and how to solve them."

The 21-member commission includes psychiatrists, criminologists and law professors; a former U.S. attorney and Tennessee sheriff; a former death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence; a former mayor of New Orleans; a senior California lawmaker; former FBI director William S. Sessions, and the head of the NAACP's Washington office. It was organized by a New York group, the Vera Institute of Justice.

Its staff director is Alexander Busansky, a former counsel to Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Justice Department attorney handling excessive-force cases involving corrections officers. Its financing comes from the Open Society Institute, three law firms and a philanthropic group, the JEHT Foundation.

"We look forward to reviewing the commission's study of this important area," said R. Alexander Acosta, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

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