WA state delays watchdog reports on prisons, concerning advocates

Washington's prison oversight agency shelved half a dozen reports that were underway when its inaugural director departed last November.

A photo of Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington.

In this Jan. 28, 2016, file photo, a man does maintenance work between razor wire-topped fences at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Wash. The Washington state Office of Corrections Ombuds has shelved half a dozen reports amid a leadership change that detail conditions inside state prisons. They examined issues like deaths in prisons due to COVID-19, instances of retaliation by prison workers, mail policy, health care and other issues. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

By the time a Washington corrections staffer improperly gave Daniel Perez an infraction for contacting the state’s prison oversight agency, he had already been through a lot of turmoil.

Prison staffers in 2019 had forced the inmate at Monroe Correctional Complex to take medication against his will. When Perez appealed to stop the forced medication, corrections staffers altered his medical documents and request, according to a report drafted by the state Office of Corrections Ombuds.

“The individual grieved multiple issues related to his hearing and appeal, which brought to light that his medical documents and appeal request were intentionally altered by unit staff before being submitted to the hearing,” according to the report. “These changes directly impacted his continued involuntary medication.”

But the report detailing Perez’s troubles between 2019 and 2021, as well as other instances of retaliation in the prisons, has never been released to the public. Crosscut obtained a copy through a public records request.

In fact, the state Office of Corrections Ombuds has also shelved – temporarily or permanently – six other reports that had been underway when its inaugural director, Joanna Carns, departed last November.

The office on Monday did release a slimmed-down version of the report on retaliation in the prisons. That version omits the stories of Perez — whose experience has been substantiated – and other incarcerated individuals that appeared in the original version.

In a phone interview Wednesday morning from Monroe Correctional Complex, Perez, 35, said he was disappointed to see his story disappear from the report. 

“They didn’t give any real examples of real retaliation,” Perez said, of the version that was released publicly.

The absence of new reviews marks a striking drought for an office that between March 2019 and November 2021 published 52 investigative reports.

Those documents have included broad systemic reviews looking at access to mental health care for incarcerated people, suicide in the prisons and the treatment of transgender people.

Ombuds reports have outlined delays in cancer treatment for those inside and detailed the state’s flawed response to containing COVID-19 in the prisons.

Like any independent oversight agency, the investigations have generated tough media coverage about problems in state government, from stories in Crosscut and The Seattle Times, to coverage by Northwest News Network, The Everett Herald and the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

The delay in releasing reports appears to have begun with Gov. Jay Inslee’s appointment last December of one of his own senior staffers to temporarily lead the Office of Corrections Ombuds while a search was made to replace Carns. Inslee in June appointed Caitlin Robertson, who worked as an investigator in the ombuds office, as the new director.

In interviews last month, the Inslee staffer, senior policy adviser Sonja Hallum, and Robertson contended that they inherited an office too disorganized to properly track and speedily resolve complaints from incarcerated people about health care issues, retaliation and other concerns. And Robertson pointed to an error found in the unreleased draft of the retaliation report.

Prisoners and their advocates worry the report delays mean the office has stepped back from its mission in a significant way. While Hallum and Robertson said the delays were needed to get the office reorganized, they also said they felt the office could be more responsive to incarcerated people by focusing on individual complaints and through negotiations with prison officials. 

Hallum said she alone decided not to release the reports during her acting tenure, and didn’t consult with others in the governor’s office or Inslee himself. 

“My goal was to try to ensure that the office was being as effective as possible,” Hallum said, for incarcerated people and their families. “There were just a lot of barriers to doing that; there wasn't the processes in place.”

In an email, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said Inslee gave no direction to Hallum or Robertson regarding the reports that had been underway during Carns’ tenure.

“The governor, to my knowledge, has never weighed in on whether they release reports or not,” Faulk wrote in an email. “The governor’s interest is for the OCO to be able to do what it needs to ensure the health, safety and welfare of incarcerated individuals. The agency was created to improve the whole system. It’s up to the OCO to determine the most effective means of ensuring the health, safety and welfare of incarcerated individuals.”

Asked about the delayed reports, a key state lawmaker in each political party praised the work by Carns and encouraged the office to continue publishing investigations.

“Did this change happen because it wasn't good publicity for the administration, or what was the reason?” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. 

A former chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee who has long critiqued the Inslee administration’s management of the prisons, Padden said Carns “did a very credible job and had a good staff, and did what we hoped the ombuds office would do.”

"It almost sounds like they did too good of a job," Padden added.

Rep. Roger Goodman said he sympathizes with the difficulties that corrections officials must navigate, like outdated buildings and obstacles to delivering health care, but he thought that the agency and Carns had worked well together.

“I do think it's important to have that transparency,” said Goodman, a Democrat from Kirkland who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, adding: “I would encourage the office to produce the same types of reports as it has in the past.”

Independent oversight

Prison advocates – who are often family members of those inside, or formerly incarcerated people – pushed the governor and Legislature for years to create an oversight office.

The goal isn’t just to improve conditions for those incarcerated, but to reduce the Department of Corrections’ exposure to lawsuits and monetary payouts for problems inside the prisons, according to the bill that established the office.

Passed in 2018, House Bill 1889 requires that the office among other things, “Monitor department compliance with applicable federal, state, and local laws, rules, regulations, and policies as related to the health, safety, welfare, and rehabilitation of inmates.”

That work is to include “identifying system issues and responses for the governor and the Legislature to act upon; and ensuring compliance with relevant statutes, rules, and policies pertaining to corrections facilities, services, and treatment of inmates under the jurisdiction of the DOC,” according to a final legislative analysis of the bill.

The law directs the ombuds office to maintain a hotline for incarcerated people to call, and to track complaints, and to resolve those complaints at the lowest possible level.

The office is required by statute to provide a public accounting of every case it closes, which generally happens in a different type of report that is released monthly. 

In addition to reorganizing the office, Hallum during her acting tenure restructured the hours of the office’s hotline so that incarcerated individuals had an easier time connecting to make complaints.

“Quite honestly, the other reports just needed to wait, that's the bottom line,” said Hallum.

At the same time, Hallum and Robertson both emphasized the need to focus on the complaints received by incarcerated people. Had she stayed in the role of director, Hallum said, she would work to identify issues and then “sit down with DOC leadership, negotiate an agreement.”

Robertson said she also has been focused on catching up on what are called the monthly outcome reports. Those documents list a brief summary of complaints received, as well as whether and how they were resolved. Since starting as director in early June, Robertson said she had been able to release three months of those reports.

As an example of how the office has improved in recent months, Robertson cited a complaint where a person in prison needed compression socks for medical reasons, and asked for them just before a long weekend. He wasn’t able to get the socks, according to Robertson, and contacted the ombuds office.

In the past, complaints might not be tracked properly or addressed quickly, Robertson said. But under the new process, the office’s investigators quickly elevated the complaint to Robertson, and the office made sure the incarcerated person got compression socks before the long weekend.

“Our job is to alert and get DOC to make it right,” she said.

Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Federal Way, said she was aware families were concerned about the delay in reports and acknowledged that systemic reports are part of the office's responsibility. But Wilson also said she wanted to let Robertson have more time on the job, and defended recent changes to the office’s operations.

"They're really doing an inside look at case management and improving efficiency and really increasing the number of things they're able to resolve," said Wilson, who chairs the Senate Human Services, Reentry & Rehabilitation Committee, which oversees the prisons.

Prison advocates skeptical

But skeptics include incarcerated people like Jojo Ejonga, who said he worried that the office has stopped regularly publishing reports.

In a phone interview from Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Ejonga said he had a good relationship with the office and respected its workers. But the broad investigation reports were the most powerful part of the office, he said, and in the absence of those reports, he is “close to losing faith in the office.”

"I don't know if it's pressure from the governor, I don't know if it's pressure from the union, I don't know if it's pressure from the new boss," Ejonga added.

Consternation also erupted in a late June public meeting of the Office of Corrections Ombuds, where family members and a formerly incarcerated person sharply questioned Robertson about the delay in releasing investigation reports.

In that public meeting, Melody Simle, an advocate who pushed the Legislature to create the oversight office and then worked in the office for a stint, claimed that Hallum told her she didn’t want to write “shaming” reports.

"They stopped when Sonja Hallum came in, and she told me directly that she wasn't going to write shaming reports against DOC anymore,” Simle said, adding later: “This is starting to feel more like sweeping stuff under the rug so the governor’s office doesn’t get embarrassed.”

Hallum confirmed that she and Simle spoke, but disputed Simle’s account of the conversation.

“What I told her is what I believe, which is that the office has a responsibility to try to resolve those issues,” Hallum said. “If you look at all of these reports, you've got an OCO report and a DOC response. If our obligation is to resolve issues, it’s to do better than that.”

In that public meeting, Jim Chambers, who was released from prison in 2021, also spoke up. In the meeting and in an interview, he praised the ombuds office for helping him in the past, but said he was concerned about the lack of recent investigative reports.

“The only power you have is the power of the pen,” Chambers told Robertson in the meeting. “Public reports matter, I’m a formerly incarcerated person who used to read the reports.”

“Doing things behind closed doors does not work, for people inside and the people outside,” he added.

Status of the reports

Crosscut obtained copies of two reports – the retaliation report and another on mail policy in the prisons – after requesting all copies of systemic reports held by the office that had been drafted but not released.

It remains to be seen whether the other five reports will be released in future installments of records.

The other unreleased reports include: an investigation into the use of emergency restraints on incarcerated individuals; an evaluation of health care services; a review of use of force; another on disciplinary programs; and a report on COVID-19 deaths in prison.

In her July interview, Robertson said she intended to release an updated version of the mail-policy report sometime in August. 

That draft report recommended the Department of Corrections conduct a review to determine why incarcerated people have both snail mail and electronic mail rejected, according to the report obtained by Crosscut. It also urged the agency to allow people inside to fix minor issues related to mail leaving the prisons, rather than just confiscating those items outright. 

She had also vowed to release a version of the retaliation report. And on Monday, the office did release a version of it, though it was stripped of the detailed stories of Perez and other incarcerated individuals.

In place of the narratives of Perez and others, the new report lists the number of ombuds investigations into allegations of retaliation conducted in the past two years and the top three facilities for such allegations each year. And it lists the oversight office’s recommendations, as well as the improvements pledged by the Department of Corrections.

In phone interviews from Monroe Correctional Complex, Perez said he wanted the original report that told his story to be released, since it documented and substantiated specific ways in which corrections workers can be “pretty blatant” in retaliating against those in prison.

“For me, it puts a light out there that those of us who want to use the OCO's office are under pressure not to use their office,” said Perez, referring to his infraction for reaching out to the watchdog agency, which was later overturned. “Retaliation is real.”

The original report gave a detailed narrative based on video and written evidence documenting the situations that led to Perez was retaliated against.

For example, when the ombuds office asked the Department of Corrections to review the allegations of retaliation, it was found that that a staffer at Monroe Correctional Complex called Perez “an issue for unit staff” and that she would “give you anything to just get you off the unit” due to him “asking about issues in the unit to get fixed which … creates too much work for her.”

The report also acknowledged the reversal of his infraction a corrections staffer gave him for “giving false information to the Ombuds” and “The Superintendent dismissed the infraction, when no evidence existed that the individual had lied to the Ombuds.”

Robertson said she had qualms with the original report partly because an error had been found in a draft of one of the four narratives of incarcerated people – which wasn’t in Perez’s instance.

As for the other unpublished reports, Robertson wouldn’t commit to finishing the review of COVID-19 deaths in prison: “Each individual death is not systemic, because each one of them was a different interaction.”

That report would have come in the wake of several reviews of the pandemic’s impact on incarcerated people, including a November 2020 review of COVID deaths at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center and another report later that month that examined that facility’s outbreak.

Likewise, Robertson said she didn’t intend to move forward with the report on the use of emergency restraints in the prisons, the data of which she said is now outdated: “Not at this time, with the limited resources that we have.”

Robertson expressed reluctance at publishing the review of use of force in the prisons, at least the way the existing report is written: “I'm not sure that the initial description of how that report would be drafted is the direction I want to move as a director.”

She’d rather sit down with corrections officials and negotiate on such issues, Robertson said, and “then we can publicize that, rather than just a list of concerns with no deliverables.”

The ombuds office might finish the unpublished report on disciplinary programs, and Robertson said that she intends to release the report on health services in the prisons at some point.

Simle, the prison advocate, criticized Robertson’s removal of the stories of incarcerated people in the retaliation report, saying “She's taken away the human element.”

More broadly, “I just don't want everything watered down, brushed under the rug, for the sake of having a good relationship with DOC,” Simle said.

“I hope our oversight office doesn't end up needing oversight, is all I can say."

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