Iowa

The Iowa Office of the Ombudsman

Budget

$1,767,576 (FY 2021); as of 2022, corrections-related cases account for approximately 50% of office’s caseload

Staffing

1 dedicated staff member; most of the other 15 staff members work on corrections on an as-needed basis

  • The Assistant Ombudsman for Corrections is appointed by the Ombudsman and is responsible for investigating complaints relating to correctional agencies.
  • About half of complaints the Office of the Ombudsman receives are corrections-related; as a result, almost all staff end up handling corrections complaints at some point.

State Prison Profile

Iowa has 9 state prison facilities subject to Ombudsman oversight and incarcerates approximately 7,625 people in state prisons. The state prison system is run by the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC). The Ombudsman also has oversight responsibility for county jails.

Authority

Iowa Code Chapter 2C

  • Structure: The Office of the Ombudsman is an independent oversight office for all governmental agencies in Iowa, housed within the state Legislature. The Ombudsman is appointed to the Legislative Council, subject to approval by the Senate and House of Representative. The Ombudsman appoints the Assistant Ombudsman for Corrections who is primarily responsible for investigating complaints relating to correctional agencies. (2C.3 & 2C.6)
  • Authorized Activities: The Ombudsman has statutory authority to investigate most state and local government agencies including state prisons, local jails, and juvenile facilities. The Ombudsman’s office may investigate complaints received or initiate its own investigations.
  • Information and Facility Access: The Ombudsman is authorized to review all agency records relevant to an investigation and may observe agency proceedings and hearings. The Ombudsman may issue subpoenas for sworn testimony, documents, or evidence for the purposes of investigation, and can enter and inspect any IDOC facility. (2C.9)
  • Confidentiality: All letters sent between the Ombudsman and incarcerated people are confidential. (2C.9)

Activities

The Office of the Ombudsman investigates complaints about state and local government agencies and staff; complaints about correctional institutions make up a significant part of its work. The Office of the Ombudsman lacks sufficient resources and staff to allow it to conduct routine inspections of Iowa’s prison system, so most Ombudsman visits to correctional facilities are in response to complaints.

  • Complaint Investigation: Roughly half of the complaints received by the Office of the Ombudsman are about corrections, either in state prisons, local jails, or other settings like work camps and parole. Complaints are generally resolved informally. 

Reports

Investigative Reports, Special Reports, and Annual Reports; publicly available here. The vast majority of investigations do not generate publicly-available reports.

  • Investigative Reports: published when an investigation makes significant and critical findings about an agency.
  • Special Reports: published when an investigation’s findings are not critical of an agency but are still of significant interest to the public.
  • Annual Reports: summarize the Office of the Ombudsman’s activities over the past year. 
  • Iowa Code allows the Ombudsman to publish conclusions and recommendations following investigations, but if a report is critical of an agency, facility, or employee, the Office of the Ombudsman must notify the criticized party in advance of publication and attach the party’s unedited response in its report.

Organizational History

Iowa’s Ombudsman was originally established as a federal grant-funded pilot in 1970, by Governor Robert D. Ray. The Office was intended to create a process for receiving and analyzing individual grievances about government agencies, with the aim of improving leadership, performance, morale, and public confidence in these agencies over time. The Office was housed within the Governor’s Office until 1972, when it was established as a legislative agency by statute, per Iowa Code chapter 2C.