Unfortunately, recent efforts to improve accountability in our state’s prison system aren’t working.

There is good reason to have concerns about the Office of Corrections Ombuds established by the Legislature to deal with complaints from inmates, their families and prisoner advocates. ​A big mistake was made when this office was placed under the control of the governor. 

As first reported in Crosscut, seven reports were shelved last year detailing major problems at the Department of Corrections, after the office’s inaugural director, Joanna Carns, left her job and was replaced on an interim basis by a policy staffer for Gov. Jay Inslee, Sonja Hallum. Only one of those reports has seen the light of day, a report about retaliation by the agency against prisoners who dared to file complaints.  

Prisoner advocates say they are losing faith. “This is starting to feel more like sweeping stuff under the rug so the governor’s office doesn’t get embarrassed,” said Melody Simle, a prisoner advocate.

This is precisely what ​was warned about when the bill to create the office was debated in the state Legislature in 2017 and 2018.

At first, the Office of Corrections Ombuds exceeded our expectations. It issued 52 reports through November 2021, many critical, some groundbreaking. But this office has been disappointing since then.


The issue of independent oversight has been raised in numerous ways since 2016. A major scandal at the Department of Corrections was one of the top stories of that year’s legislative session. Due to an error in computer programming, DOC had been releasing inmates convicted of crimes involving sexual violence and other aggravating factors as much as two years early. In all, about 3,000 offenders were released early, many going on to commit new crimes when they should have been behind bars.

When the story broke, the governor announced he was hiring consultants to conduct what he called an “independent” investigation. But the governor’s office set the parameters. I ​chaired the Senate Law and Justice Committee at the time, and we noticed a curious omission. The governor’s investigation was focused entirely on front-line workers and middle managers, and there would be no examination of the role played by upper management and the staff in the governor’s office who are supposed to oversee them.

In the Legislature, we understand the buck never stops in the middle. The Senate Law and Justice Committee launched an investigation of its own, this one truly independent. After an exhaustive investigation with dozens of witness interviews, review of thousands of documents and public hearings conducted under oath, we uncovered a remarkably different story. The agency made development of a new computer system its top priority, and it postponed other projects — like the software fix — without full consideration of their importance. Top managers ignored red flags and displayed a singular lack of curiosity about problems on the front line. The governor’s office wasn’t paying attention.

Not only did this incident call attention to the need for independent review, it also led us to many recommendations for corrections reform. In 2017, I sponsored the original bill — Second Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5294 — for creation of the Office of Corrections Ombuds. We wanted an independent office. We also wanted it to serve DOC employees, who frequently complain of retaliation from supervisors when they use official channels to raise concerns about management policies. Most of our reform proposals were defeated. To get the bill passed in 2018, we had to cut out the employees and give the governor control. 

There clearly needs to be an independent ombuds office. ​The original proposal for an independent ombuds office will be introduced for debate in the 2023 legislative session.

​It’s time for Washington’s prison system to have true accountability.