Gov. Jay Inslee plans an ombuds office where Washington Department of Corrections staffers can raise issues outside the prison system. And after years of legislation proposing the idea, DOC plans to establish its own ombuds to handle concerns from inmates and their families.

Share story

OLYMPIA — For years, proposals in the Washington Legislature have percolated to establish an ombuds office for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), somewhere inmates or their families could go with worries about medical care or prisoner transfers.

The point was greater accountability, a place outside the prison system that could investigate and resolve complaints.

Now the idea is in the spotlight for different reasons, as the office of Gov. Jay Inslee prepares to launch an ombuds office where corrections staffers can raise issues.

And after years of legislation proposing the idea, DOC now plans to establish its own ombuds to respond to family concerns.

Where DOC previously had no such office, it looks like it will soon have two.

The motivation for Inslee’s action is an investigative report he commissioned on the state’s yearslong, mistaken early release of prisoners.

Although the reason for the releases, a software-programming error, was discovered in 2012 and several people knew about it, DOC failed until this year — shortly after the situation was exposed — to fix the problem and stop the early releases.

Issued in February, the report detailed staffers’ handling of the problem, which the governor and investigators described as a “calamity of errors” and “inexplicable failure.” It suggested an ombudsman’s office as a place DOC staffers could raise issues within the agency.

“An ombudsman might help break down barriers to facilitate more open communications between lower level personnel and management,” the report concluded.

Details on how the office would work and whether it would be headquartered within DOC or outside the agency aren’t yet worked out, according to Nick Brown, Inslee’s general counsel.

Meanwhile, after years of hearing concerns from family members, DOC is establishing its own ombuds job to deal with those issues. The agency plans to hire for the position sometime soon, and the person hired will report directly to acting DOC Secretary Dick Morgan.

“We wanted to take a proactive stance this year, “ said Jody Becker-Green, deputy secretary for DOC.

With the moves, Washington will join at least eight other states that have ombuds offices dealing at least part of the time with corrections issues.

Around the country, those offices have detailed violations against prisoners’ legal protections, corrections staff who treated inmates improperly, and insufficient medical care in facilities.

News that DOC’s ombuds for families of prisoners would be housed inside the agency has disappointed those pushing for independent oversight. Like similar proposals, this year’s bill to create an independent ombuds office died in the Legislature.

“This position needs to be completely independent and in an objective place,” said Melody Simle, who, with a brother in prison, has been among those pushing for an ombuds office.

And questions remain over how independent the offices will be and how much of their work will become public.

“I think independence is critical,” said Kristie Hirschman, acting ombudsman for the State of Iowa Office of Ombudsman.

“If you as an internal ombudsman are afraid to criticize the entity that writes your paycheck,” said Hirschman, “that’s problematic.”

Years of complaints

In legislative hearings, advocates such as Simle have complained about conditions of confinement, unfair punishment for behavior in prison and inadequate medical care for offenders.

“Right now, if a prisoner or family member wants to make a complaint, they have to do it within the system,” said Melissa Lee, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services.

And inmates filing complaints through DOC’s grievance process “don’t often get relief through that system,” said Lee.

Former inmate Jeff Coats says he is one of them. In 1995, Coats was one of three minors convicted in connection with the kidnapping and robbery of a stockbroker in Tacoma. He spent more than 15 years in prison and says that on more than one occasion, DOC’s grievance process failed him.

Coats, now a real estate agent in Seattle, talks about two times he filed grievances in prison. One was in 1995, when he says he was wrongly put in solitary confinement. Another instance occurred in 2009, when he complained that air conditioning wasn’t working during a heat wave.

“I slept next to my toilet, because the coldness of the toilet bowl on my face allowed me to breathe,” said Coats.

DOC doesn’t keep records as far back as the mid-1990s, but a copy of Coats’ grievance filed in 2009 shows a corrections officer rejected it after reviewing the original complaint and repeal.

“We experienced extreme heat wave and people everywhere suffered including the staff working in the unit,” the officer wrote. “Staff went out of their way to try anything to reduce temperatures or move air during this incident.”

A spokesman for DOC said Coats never filed another appeal. Coats says they lost his later appeal and said his experiences justify the need for an independent ombuds office.

“If you’re trying to have DOC be held accountable,” he said, “you can’t have DOC doing the job.”

“The honest broker”

Improper use of solitary confinement, abuse by a corrections officer and an inmate not receiving proper medication are three examples of the Alaska Office of the Ombudsman finding prisoner complaints justified.

Alaska’s is a statewide office that reviews complaints from many state agencies.

But prison issues are a big part of the Alaska ombudsman’s work. Corrections complaints make up 25 to 40 percent of complaints received, said Linda Lord-Jenkins, Alaska’s ombudsman.

To have a complaint reviewed, inmates must go entirely through the internal grievance process, she said. And complaints that are reviewed aren’t always found to be justified.

“I think the value is that we don’t have a dog in either fight,” said Lord-Jenkins. “We are the honest broker, if you will.”

At the Indiana Department of Correction Ombudsman Bureau, offenders complain most often about medical care, according to Charlene Burkett, bureau director.

Burkett’s position is appointed by Indiana’s governor, and the bureau posts monthly reports.

The most recent report online, from December 2015, describes an assault by a corrections officer, a prison pharmacy briefly running out of a needed medicine and an offender’s family complaining about ineffective medication.

“We have been really successful in working … to bring matters to the attention of Department of Corrections that they may not have been aware of,” said Burkett.

Burkett said her bureau deals only with offenders’ complaints and another office handles issues brought by staff.

Officials in Washington haven’t yet determined whether reports will be published monthly or yearly, according to Andrew Garber, DOC spokesman.