Washington Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO)
$1,142,468 (FY 2021)
12 staff members
- The current OCO staffing complement includes the Director (Ombuds); two assistant ombuds and seven early resolution ombuds with a range of areas of focus; a policy advisor; and a customer service and office manager.
State Prison Profile
Washington has 12 state prison facilities subject to Office of the Corrections Ombuds oversight and incarcerates approximately 13,000 people in state prisons. The state prison system is run by the Washington Department of Corrections (WADOC). OCO also provides oversight of incidents involving Washington’s 12 reentry centers and individuals on partial home confinement.
Revised Code of Washington Chapter 43.06C
- Structure: OCO is housed within the Office of the Governor and reports directly to the Governor. It is independent of WADOC. The Director (Ombuds) is appointed by the Governor to serve a three-year term. (43.06C.030)
- Authorized Activities: OCO is tasked with receiving complaints and investigating concerns about the health, safety, welfare, and rehabilitation of people incarcerated in WADOC facilities. Investigations can be under OCO’s own initiative or prompted by a complaint. In most cases, complainants must have pursued WADOC’s internal grievance process before filing a complaint with OCO. OCO is also charged with maintaining a toll-free telephone line and providing support and technical guidance to incarcerated individuals and their loved ones and representatives. (43.06C.040)
- Access to facilities: OCO also has “reasonable access” to facilities for the purposes of providing incarcerated people information about individual rights and services available, monitoring compliance, inspecting areas which are used by incarcerated people, and meeting with incarcerated people. (43.06C.050)
- Access to information: OCO has the right to access and copy relevant WADOC information, records, or documents necessary for their investigations into complaints.
- Privacy: Correspondence and communication with OCO is confidential and privileged (43.06C.060)
The OCO investigates complaints made against WADOC as a neutral party and seeks to mediate and resolve disputes. The OCO also monitors and investigates systemic issues at WADOC facilities and makes recommendations for policy improvements.
- Investigating Complaints: OCO receives complaints and investigates possible violations of law or policy and conditions that may affect the health, safety, welfare, and rights of incarcerated people. In 2021, OCO received more than 700 requests for assistance through its hotline per month and investigated 1,535 cases. The largest category of complaints received by OCO are medical.
- Investigating Systemic Issues: OCO examines broad issues across WADOC facilities, including topics such as mental health access and services, extended administrative segregation, single cell restriction policy, and delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment. The OCO publishes these investigations as System-wide and Single-issue Reports and makes recommendations for improving WADOC practices.
- Facility Visits: OCO works to maintain a presence in WADOC facilities by proactively visiting prisons, including visits unrelated to specific investigations. When visiting facilities, OCO staff do not carry out formal inspections, but do have informal conversations with incarcerated people and staff. OCO is not required to give WADOC notice of its visits, but typically does.
An annual report to the Governor, the Legislature, and the Statewide Family Council; System-wide and single-issue reports; Monthly outcome reports; Informal surveys; Monitoring site visit reports: all publicly available here.
The Washington State Legislature passed a bill to create OCO in 2018, after nearly a decade of concerted lobbying for oversight of Washington prisons by a coalition of advocates and organizations. Prior to the creation of the OCO, WADOC did establish an internal ombuds position, but this position was not independent and only reported its findings within WADOC.