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Office of the Corrections Ombuds Annual Report 2019

This is the first year of operation for the new Office of the Corrections Ombuds, an oversight body dealing with Washington state's corrections system. I read this first annual report (which can be downloaded as a pdf here) with a great deal of interest. On the one hand, I firmly believe in oversight and enforcement of the policies that have been put in place in prisons to protect incarcerated people from the system. On the other hand, reformist efforts have always, repeatedly, failed to effect meaningful change or even ameliorate the effects of the incarceration system.

Prisons are abusive. Prisons are torture. Prisons condemn people to poor health, both physical and mental. This report, to its credit, does not flinch from the truth that Washington's prisons do harm at every step to the people in them, particularly to trans folks, people with addictions, people of color, and the poor. It is full of case studies that matter-of-factly lay out the ways in which the lives of real people have been completely derailed and even destroyed, from people denied visits with their mothers because a guard felt disrespected, to people with stage four cancer diagnoses who never received treatment due to pointless administrative delays.

Based on the over 2,000 complaints that OCO has received from November 1, 2018 to August 31, 2019, OCO makes the following recommendations for systemic reform to improve conditions of confinement and ensure that persons confined in DOC are treated humanely and released back to society with the greatest chance of success:
1. DOC should re-align itself toward the goal of equipping individuals for a successful reentry and improving public safety through reducing future crimes.
2. Understanding that family connections are a proven positive factor in reducing recidivism, DOC should proactively look to maximize family connections whenever possible and prohibit the complete restriction of family connections, except where there is a clear and present security concern presented.
3. DOC should significantly improve quality of, access to, and oversight of its health services, particularly medical care.
4. DOC should create better access to healthy food, including prioritizing fresh produce, less processed products, and quality protein, through greater utilization of incarcerated workers who can then gain skills for reentry success.
5. DOC should ensure incarcerated individuals with a mental health diagnosis receive special – and different – consideration when involved in the internal DOC disciplinary system.
6. DOC should ensure incarcerated individuals with disabilities have equal access to programs, services, and the grievance program.
7. DOC should apply a trauma informed and gender responsive lens to programs, services, staff training, and conditions of confinement, particularly for women and LGBTQI individuals across facilities.

The report contains practical, actionable ways to implement each recommendation, some of which might even happen. There are a lot of people in this system that mean well. Even if these recommendations were all implemented, of course, incarcerated people would still be in prison, which is irreparably harmful. But I am glad that we have this office now, and there is some hope of oversight and effective adjudication of complaints. Every little bit matters, until we all get free.


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