FAQs about the Corrections Ombuds
What is an Ombuds?
- An independent, impartial public official appointed to receive and investigate citizen complaints against administrative acts of government.
- An Ombuds is NOT an incarcerated person (or staff) advocate, but working to ensure the system as a whole is fair, safe, and rehabilitative.
Why have an Ombuds?
- To strengthen procedures and practices that lessen the possibility of actions occurring within the DOC that would negatively impact the health, safety, welfare, and rehabilitation of incarcerated persons, and reduce the exposure of the DOC to litigation.
What can the Ombuds do?
- Provide information to incarcerated persons, family members, and others regarding the rights of incarcerated persons and promote self-advocacy;
- Receive, investigate, and resolve complaints related to the health, safety, welfare, and rights of incarcerated persons;
- Monitor DOC compliance with federal, state, and local laws as related to the health, safety, welfare, and rights of incarcerated persons.
What can the Ombuds NOT do?
- Investigate an incarcerated person's underlying criminal conviction;
- Investigate a complaint from a DOC employee that relates to the employee’s employment relationship, unless the complaint is related to the health, safety, welfare, and rights of incarcerated persons;
- Sue DOC (or any other entity).
What will the Ombuds investigate?
- Abuse or neglect;
- Department decisions or administrative actions;
- Inactions or omissions;
- Policies, rules, or procedures; or
- Alleged violations of the law by DOC that may adversely affect the health, safety, welfare, and rights of incarcerated persons.
How can incarcerated persons contact the Ombuds?
- Calling the statutorily required statewide toll free telephone number (will be established in November and advertised in the units)
- Writing directly to the office – P.O. Box 43113, Olympia, WA 98504
When should an incarcerated person make a complaint to the Ombuds?
- Prior to filing a complaint, a person must have reasonably pursued resolution of the complaint through the internal grievance procedure or appeal, as applicable. For issues that do not impact immediate health and safety, OCO generally asks that the incarcerated person grieve the matter to Level II (Superintendent's level) and receive a response before OCO will review the case.
- There are no time requirements for a complaint, but complaints involving current issues will receive priority.
What will the Ombuds do once she has received a complaint?
- Review the complaint to ensure it falls within the Ombuds’ jurisdiction;
- Ensure that a complainant has already filed a grievance;
- Provide information or refer to another entity if appropriate;
- Attempt to immediately resolve at the lowest level by contacting DOC staff and working toward a solution.
How will the Ombuds conduct an investigation?
- Depending on the allegations in the complaint, the Ombuds has the authority to interview relevant staff and incarcerated person, review any relevant documents, and conduct site visits.
What will the Ombuds do once an investigation is completed?
- OCO will send written communication (generally a letter) to the complainant.
- A summary of every case investigated and the resolution is produced in a monthly outcome report published on OCO's reports and publications webpage.
- Depending on the findings, the Ombuds can make recommendations and request that the DOC inform the Ombuds about any action taken on the recommendations or the reasons for not complying with the recommendations.
- If, based on the investigation, there appears to be a significant health, safety, welfare, or rehabilitation issue, the Ombuds must report the finding to the Governor and appropriate legislative committees.
- Before announcing a conclusion or recommendation that criticizes a person or the DOC, the Ombuds must consult with that person or DOC.
What other public reports will the Ombuds make?
- An annual report to the Governor, the Legislature, and the Statewide Family Council by November 1st of each year.
- Systemic reports
- Informal surveys
- Monitoring site visit reports
- **All public reports are available on OCO's Reports and Publications webpage**
Does OCO have enforcement authority? What if DOC does not do what OCO recommends?
- Unfortunately, OCO does not have enforcement authority, which would have to be stated in its statutory authority. By law, OCO has the power to make public reports with recommendations and by law, DOC is responsible for responding with whether it agrees with the recommendation or not, and if not, why not. If DOC declines, that will be included in one of OCO's public reports for consideration by the Governor and the legislature. Further, OCO can consider whether the issue is systemic/critical and can continue to work on the issue through additional investigations/reports.
Is communication with the Ombuds confidential?
- Yes, per RCW 43.06C.060, correspondence and communication with the office is confidential and must be protected as privileged correspondence in the same manner as legal correspondence or communication. This includes communication between the office and incarcerated individuals, as well as communication between the office and DOC.