Will more oversight fix Washington's Department of Corrections?

Corrections guard Tom Lovell at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff Photographer
Corrections guard Tom Lovell at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy. Dean J. Koepfler / Staff Photographer

The days of the state prison system policing itself are over.

Last month Gov. Jay Inslee announced the newly created Office of Correctional Ombuds, whose job it is to field inmate complaints inside the Washington Department of Corrections.

The idea for impartial oversight of the DOC is not new. For years, legislators have crafted bills calling for an independent agency to monitor the prison system. It took a public shaming to bring it to fruition.

Rewind the tape to 2002 when a software problem in the DOC’s information technology department led to the mistaken release of thousands of incarcerated individuals before they completed their sentences.

The early release persisted 13 years before coming to Inslee’s attention in December 2015. Two ex-cons were charged with homicides committed when they should have been locked up. Others were busy rebuilding their lives only to be rounded up once the mistake was discovered.

Lower-level DOC employees discovered the underlying software problem in 2012, but the alert traveled slowly up the chain of command only to be minimized by leadership, including former prison chief Bernie Warner.

For politicians in an election year, a mistake like this is about as welcome as a chunk of coal in a punch bowl. Inslee called for an external investigation of the DOC led by two retired federal prosecutors. Republican legislators, in turn, ordered a separate inquiry, led by Sen. Mike Padden of Spokane and Sen. Steve O’Ban of Tacoma.

To no one’s surprise, the need for increased scrutiny was the conclusion of both of those 2016 reports. So now, two years later, there will be a pair of oversight offices where once there was none.

Curiously, however, neither office does what investigators of the early-release scandal recommended: Creating a new way for DOC employees to share concerns about the agency without fear of retaliation. Instead, it focuses on inmate-driven complaints.

The DOC started an internal program to hear from inmates in August 2016. Ombuds Carlos Lugo, who works independently of the DOC chief, says his office has received more than 350 requests for help since the program began. Poor medical attention and alleged staff misconduct top the list of complaints.

Lugo pays frequent visits to all 12 state prisons, where he says his main goal is making incarcerated individuals and stakeholders aware they have another avenue of recourse if they come away unsatisfied with the DOC’s standard grievance process.

On top of that, the governor will now manage the Office of the Corrections Ombuds, where inmates can bring complaints outside the prison system bureaucracy. It will monitor DOC’s compliance with federal, state and local laws; update the governor and Legislature every year; and advocate for policy changes.

What it won’t do is open an independent channel of communication with prison workers and other DOC staff. That understandably gives some legislators pause, since the early-release scandal resulted from a communication failure with employees, not inmates.

“I can’t tell you how many credible complaints we received during the course of our Senate investigation from very knowledgeable employees afraid of retaliation,” O’Ban said in an email. He said the ombuds office should take employee complaints and should be separate from the governor’s office.

It’s fair to question whether the state could do more to encourage corrections employees to come forward, beyond the whistleblower program in the state auditor’s office.

Nonetheless, O’Ban set aside those concerns and joined a unanimous vote in the Senate to create the governor’s ombuds office. The hope is that by giving inmates and families another way to press for healthy conditions and fair treatment, it will cut down on costly lawsuits.

Having dual oversight offices might be an over-correction of the Department of Corrections. But who can blame state leaders for wanting to double down on reinforcements?