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Complaints & investigations

Complaint Review Process

Upon receipt of a complaint, OCO staff must evaluate it to first ensure that it falls within OCO jurisdiction. OCO jurisdiction first extends only to those persons who are in the physical custody of the Washington Department of Corrections, which includes any of its prisons and work release centers. OCO jurisdiction does not include community custody, although if the person is returned to DOC's physical custody, OCO could then review the complaint. OCO's jurisdiction also does not pertain to the family members of incarcerated persons, volunteers, DOC employees, or other persons who are not incarcerated. 

Second, OCO's jurisdiction pertains only to the actions of DOC. It does not extend to the actions of federal agencies.

Third, OCO can review complaints regarding negative impacts to an incarcerated person's health, safety, welfare, and rights

Fourth, prior to filing a complaint with OCO, a person must have reasonably pursued resolution of the complaint through the internal grievance, administrative, or appellate procedures with DOC. In practical terms, OCO requests that persons file a grievance and appeal to at least Level 1 for medical-related complaints and at least to Level 2 (Superintendent's review/response) for all other complaints. The only exceptions are for complaints related to threats of bodily harm, including but not limited to sexual or physical assaults, or the denial of medical treatment.

OCO’s goal is to provide a response to the incarcerated person/complainant within 30-45 days, which could include providing information or advice about applicable policies; information about the internal grievance, administrative, or appellate procedure; or referrals to other personnel or agencies, as appropriate.

If the complaint falls within OCO’s jurisdiction and it appears that DOC staff failed to follow policy, procedure, or law, OCO staff will contact DOC staff and attempt to work toward early resolution of the complaint. Please see OCO's Complaint Process for more information about how OCO handles a complaint. If early resolution is not effective or possible, the complaint will then be assigned to an Assistant Ombuds for review and potential investigation.

OCO Investigative Priorities

All complaints regarding the corrections system are important. However, due to limited resources, staff must prioritize which complaints result in investigations. OCO investigative priorities include:

  • Health, particularly emergent issues and denial of necessary medical care;
  • Safety, including safety from physical or sexual assault;
  • Rights of vulnerable or marginalized populations, including women, LGBTIQ individuals, and non-native speakers;
  • Systemic issues that impact a large number of incarcerated persons.

If resources permit, additional complaints that do not fall into one of the above buckets may also result in an investigation.

Investigations can include interviews of staff and incarcerated individuals, document review, and on-site observations, as needed. Upon the conclusion of an investigation, OCO must provide a public decision to both the incarcerated individual and DOC. Regardless of whether an investigation is conducted or not, incarcerated individuals should receive a letter from OCO indicating when a case has been closed and why.

OCO staff work to complete investigations as quickly and efficiently as possible. In most cases, the investigation should be completed within 90 days. However, depending on the complexity of the investigation and staff resources, additional time may be required. We appreciate your patience as we work toward resolving your concern.

OCO Systemic Reviews

In addition to official investigations, OCO staff also work on systemic reviews that often involve cases that were successfully closed without an investigation. Topics for systemic reviews are often based on issues that OCO staff identify as trends and/or they are selected with the participation and advice of community stakeholders. In August 2019, OCO held a strategic planning meeting with community stakeholders who identified five top priorities for OCO in 2020: (1) mattresses; (2) mental health; (3) disciplinary hearings/sanctions; (4) property; and (5) educational access.

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