Sen. Jon Ossoff’s bill to revamp federal prison oversight is a long time coming and much needed.

State lawmakers must also do much more to make it easier to keep an eye on Georgia prisons.

Ossoff is calling for inspection of all U.S. Bureau of Prisons facilities, followed by a full report to Congress. Most importantly, he is calling for transparency — releasing inspection reports to the public.

That is exactly what must happen in the state prison system as well.

In addition, the senator wants ongoing independent oversight, an ombudsman, who will keep an eye on prison safety, the well-being of both inmates and prison staff, guarding against abuses and corruption.

Georgia state prisons need similar independent oversight. The prison system cannot be relied upon to police itself. The fox cannot be in charge of the hen house.

No one thinks our state prisons should be a country club and they clearly are not.

While a prison should definitely not be the lap of luxury, it should also not be a death trap, a gang haven or a cesspool.

The most powerful and important tool for cleaning up the prison system is real transparency.

The people of Georgia have the right and need to know what is going on behind prison walls in our state. The lack of transparency and accountability in the state’s prison system is unacceptable and state lawmakers must take it more seriously.

There should be clear and unequivocal language in the Georgia Open Records Act requiring full and complete disclosure of all records including all information pertaining to inmate deaths or injuries, all complaints, prison personnel files and all documents related to disciplinary actions.

As it stands now, prison officials do not independently report deaths behind bars. It takes targeted requests for information to find out a death has even occurred.

Unless someone is asking the right questions, inmate deaths and injuries just go unreported and the public has no idea what is going on behind prison walls. Requiring all records to be public records, obviously, is not enough but it is an extremely important part of what must be done.

The state of Georgia must make regular, consistent public disclosure mandatory and easily accessible to the general public.

People die behind bars from many causes including poor health, suicide, homicide and nebulous “undetermined” reasons. Whatever the reasons, full public disclosure — in all cases — is an absolute must.

Without transparency there can be no real oversight.

Jim Zachary is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI’s director of newsroom training and development and president emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

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