Michigan

Legislative Corrections Ombudsman (LCO)

Budget

$1.022 million (FY 2021-22)

Staffing

9 staff members

  • As of 2022, the Legislative Corrections Ombudsman’s office employed the Ombudsman, seven analysts, and one executive assistant. Keith Barber has been the Ombudsman since LCO funding was reinstated in 2008. 

State Prison Profile

Michigan has 27 state prison facilities subject to LCO oversight and incarcerates approximately 32,000 people in state prisons. The state prison system is run by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). 

Authority

Michigan Compiled Laws sections 4.351-4.364 (Public Act 46 of 1975)

  • Structure: The LCO exists within the Michigan Legislative Council, which approves LCO staffing and budget. The Ombudsman serves at the pleasure of the Council (Sections 4.352, 4.353).
  • Authorized Activities: The LCO can carry out investigations when law or MDOC policy may have been violated or when significant health and safety concerns exist. The LCO can investigate either situation under its own initiative, but complaints to the LCO can prompt investigations only into possible violations of law or policy. (Section 4.354).
  • Facility and Information Access: The LCO has “golden key” access to any MDOC facility at any time and broad access to documents and records for investigations (Section 4.355)
  • Privacy: LCO communications with incarcerated people are privileged (Section 4.359). 

Activities

The LCO works to inform the Michigan Legislature about the operations of the MDOC. This role is distinct from the public-information or transparency function of some other oversight bodies. To keep the Legislature informed and flag possible concerns about MDOC, the LCO investigates complaints and visits facilities regularly, reporting findings that meet statutory requirements to the Legislative Council.

  • Investigating complaints: The LCO investigates approximately 2,000 complaints a year, primarily about medical and mental health care issues. LCO investigations use access to MDOC records, including direct access to MDOC policy databases, and often involve physically visiting facilities. Complainants must first exhaust their administrative remedies before contacting the LCO. Roughly 15% of complaints received by the LCO are found to have merit to pursue investigations, with many others having failed to exhaust administrative remedies or matching the subject of a recently completed investigation. 
  • Facility visits: LCO staff attempt to visit each MDOC facility once a month, though limited staffing and state geography make this schedule challenging to maintain. When visiting facilities, LCO staff meet with the warden or deputy warden and speak confidentially with elected bodies of incarcerated individuals from each housing unit (known as Warden Forums).

Reports

Annual reports; Reports on systemic issues. Reports given to the Legislature/Legislative Council. Annual reports are publicly available but are not accessible online. 

  • LCO investigative reports from individual complaints are generally not made public.

Organizational History

The LCO was established in 1975 by Michigan Public Act 46 amid growing concern about prison riots. Those concerns led the Legislature to create a nonpartisan agency that could investigate issues in MDOC facilities and make recommendations for improved practices. The LCO was not funded in 2003 as the state faced budget pressures and, though its enacting statute remained in force, remained closed until 2008, when funding was reinstated. Over the next decade, even as the number of Michigan prison facilities fell, LCO funding and staffing more than doubled, reflecting the continued significance of the agency.