Cruel and Not Unusual: Can America’s Prisons and Jails Change, and, If So, How? 

Event Status

Program | Dedication | Speaker Bios | Recordings

The Prison and Jail Innovation Lab is hosted a symposium that brought together the country’s leading experts on prison and jail conditions to reflect on some of the most critical and challenging issues in our field. We discussed what can be done to address the seemingly intractable horrific conditions in certain correctional systems, and debated whether meaningful reform of America’s prisons and jails is truly possible. 

There were four main sessions:  the first focused on “The Depths of Deliberate Indifference,” with case studies of four different corrections agencies (Rikers, Alabama, Arizona, and Texas); the second examined “The Levers of Change,” and asked about the tools available to turn a prison or jail around, even after a win in the courts; the third presents some rare examples of innovations in prisons that seek to change institutional culture; and the fourth asks whether meaningful change is truly possible and whether there is hope for reforming America’s prisons and jails. We did not shy away from asking hard questions and critiquing our own efforts at reform. 

Speakers and audience participants included people with lived experience; journalists; litigators; oversight practitioners; advocates; corrections officials; academics; and more. The conference was chaired by Michele Deitch, Distinguished Senior Lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas. 



Opening Remarks & Session 1: “The Depths of Deliberate Indifference: Rikers, Alabama, Arizona, and Texas” 

Session 2: “The Levers of Change: What does it take to turn an institution around?” & Reports from Breakout Discussion Groups

Session 3: “Profiles of Culture Change in U.S. Prisons” & Closing Remarks

NOTE: For privacy purposes, we’re unable to share a recording of two Zoom panelists that joined us for Session 3, “Profiles of Culture Change in U.S. Prisons.” We’re also unable to share a recording of Session 4, “Is there hope for corrections?” Please contact with questions.


Program and Speakers 

Conference Program

Our list of speakers and facilitators included: 

  • Synøve Anderson, University of Oslo / Scandinavian Prison project
  • Prof. Andrea Armstrong, Loyola University New Orleans School of Law 
  • Prof. Sheila Bedi, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law/ MacArthur Justice Center
  • Cathleen Beltz, federal court-appointed monitor for Philadelphia Jail/ former Assistant Inspector General for Los Angeles Jail 
  • Keri Blakinger, The Marshall Project/ author, Corrections in Ink 
  • Reuven Blau, investigative reporter, The City/ author, Rikers; An Oral History 
  • Bill Collins, Correctional Law Reporter
  • Laura Cowall, Deputy Chief, U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section
  • Prof. Michele Deitch, LBJ School of Public Affairs/ Prison and Jail Innovation Lab 
  • John Fabricius, Arizonans for Transparency and Accountability in Corrections (ATAC)/ Dream formerly incarcerated in AZ prisons for 15 years 
  • David Fathi, ACLU National Prison Project
  • Molly Gill, FAMM
  • Prof. Jordan Hyatt, Drexel University/ Little Scandinavia Project (Pennsylvania)
  • Jimmy Jenkins, investigative reporter, Arizona Republic 
  • Corene Kendrick, ACLU National Prison Project 
  • Jamiles Lartey, The Marshall Project 
  • Ronald McKeithen, Alabama Appleseed/formerly incarcerated in AL prisons for 37 years 
  • Scott Medlock, attorney for Texas prisoners in heat class action litigation and COVID class action litigation 
  • Margot Mendelson, Prison Law Office
  • Alan Mills, Uptown People’s Law Center/ attorney for Illinois prisoners in class action litigation 
  • Prof. Michael Mushlin, Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University  
  • Dan Pacholke, former Secretary, Washington Dept. of Corrections
  • David Pitts, Urban Institute, Prison Research Innovation Initiative 
  • Jessica Sandoval, Unlock the Box Campaign
  • Terry Schuster, Ombudsman for New Jersey prison system
  • Beth Shelburne, investigative reporter, Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU of Alabama 
  • Don Specter, Prison Law Office
  • Hernandez Stroud, Brennan Center 
  • Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, Chicago Beyond/ former warden at Cook County Jail 
  • Sarena Townsend, former Deputy Commissioner overseeing investigations and staff discipline for the NYC Department of Corrections 
  • Jennifer Vollen-Katz, John Howard Association of Illinois
  • Alycia Welch, LBJ School of Public Affairs/ Prison and Jail Innovation Lab 
  • Prof. Brie Williams, UC San Francisco / Amend 
  • Dean Williams, former Secretary, Colorado Department of Corrections/ former Commissioner, Alaska Department of Corrections 
  • Amanda Woolford, Director of Women’s Services, Maine Department of Corrections

Event Co-Sponsors 

William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law, University of Texas School of Law 

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs 

Contact Information 

For more information, contact Conference Chair Michele Deitch:  

Date and Time
Feb. 3 to 4, 2023, All Day
In-person at University of Texas School of Law, Austin, Texas | Eidman Courtroom (no hybrid option available)
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