New Jersey

Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson (OCO)

Budget

$2,645,000 (FY 2024)

Staffing

26 staff members

State Prison Profile

New Jersey has 9 state prison facilities subject to OCO oversight and incarcerates approximately 13,000 people in state prisons. The state prison system is run by the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC).

Authority

P.L. 2019, c.288 (A3979 ACS 1R) (njleg.gov);

  • Structure: The OCO is an independent agency housed in the department of the Treasury. The Corrections Ombudsperson is appointed by the Governor and serves a five-year term. The Ombudsperson and their assistants, along with their spouses, cannot have any business or lobbying connection to the NJDOC.
  • Advisory Board: A citizens’ board appointed by the Governor, President of the Senate, and Speaker of the General Assembly helps advise the OCO; its nine members must include investigations, healthcare, sexual assault victims’ advocacy, social work, occupational safety, and research or data analysis experts. One advisory board member must be formerly incarcerated or a family member of someone who is incarcerated.
  • Authorized Activities: The OCO is responsible for receiving and responding to corrections-related complaints, including the maintenance of a toll-free phone line, and can investigate complaints at its discretion. After an investigation, the OCO can request a NJDOC update on actions taken in response to its recommendations, and is directed by statute to escalate significant issues to the Governor and Legislature. Connected to this complaint-receiving role, the OCO is charged with providing information to incarcerated individuals, their family, and advocates, and with providing support for self-advocacy. The OCO also has a monitoring role; it is responsible for monitoring prisons’ compliance with laws, rules, and regulations related to health, safety, welfare, and rehabilitation through regular scheduled or unannounced inspections. By statute, the OCO must also monitor and participate in corrections-related legislative and policy developments and gather stakeholder input into OCO activities.
  • Facility and Information Access: The OCO is granted broad access to correctional facilities and records, including facility access for unannounced inspections and a right to all relevant documents for investigations or inspections. The OCO has the authority to regularly and privately interview staff and incarcerated people and to subpoena witnesses and documents.
  • Privacy: Communication with the OCO is confidential and privileged like legal communication.

Activities

Prior to 2022, OCO primarily operated hotlines to collect corrections-related complaints and responded to those complaints by providing information and resources, making referrals to other entities, or advocating for corrective action on the person’s behalf. In 2020, OCO’s authority was significantly expanded and the organization was given a broad mandate to investigate and monitor correctional issues in New Jersey. Beginning in 2022, the new Corrections Ombudsperson began expanding the office’s work under those new investigative and inspection powers.

  • Complaints and Investigations: OCO runs three hotlines for corrections-related complaints; one for currently incarcerated individuals, one for people housed in residential community release program facilities, and one for families of incarcerated people and others in the community. OCO receives roughly 700-1,000 calls a month, most of which are handled either by providing the caller with information or by the OCO informally resolving the matter with NJDOC. OCO staff are also on-site in all NJDOC facilities several days a week to observe conditions and respond to complaints and inquiries. In 2020, OCO’s investigative authority was significantly expanded, and the office will likely increase its complaint response function to include reviewing some NJDOC investigations or independently investigating particularly serious incidents or recurring complaints.
  • Inspections and Research: Under its expanded authority, OCO plans to conduct regular inspections of NJDOC facility conditions and operations. OCO also plans to research systemic issues across the state through data analysis, surveys, audits, policy workgroups, and other tools.
  • Community Engagement: OCO is required to hold quarterly public meetings to gather community and stakeholder input into the priorities and activities of the office.

Reports

Annual Reports; Inspection Reports; Special Issue Reports. Publicly available here

  • Inspection Reports: describe the findings, recommendations, and NJDOC responses from announced and unannounced monitoring inspections of individual facilities.
  • Special Issue Reports: will be used to publicize topical reports on individual issue-based investigations conducted by the OCO under its new authority, e.g., reports about heat and cold temperatures, medical care, and visitation.

Organizational History

OCO was founded in 1972 to help identify and resolve complaints and issues of concern in New Jersey prisons. In 2005, OCO became part of the newly-established Department of the Public Advocate. In 2010, when the Department of the Public Advocate was abolished, OCO was transferred to the Office of the Governor, housed in – but not part of – the Department of the Treasury. In 2020, in response to public concern about violence and sexual victimization in the state’s prisons, lawmakers passed the Dignity Act, significantly expanding OCO’s authority, powers, and budget.