Correctional ombudsmen essential to fair prisons

Chandra Bozelko (Contributed photo)

The phrases “power differential” and “harassment” enter headlines every day now. We’ve become acquainted with the plight of someone who’s groped, harassed, and humiliated, with no outlet for complaint, at least not one without severe consequences for the victim.

 

This is nothing new for America’s prisoners, both male and female. It’s an atmosphere that they live in every day, with no hope to be believed when they speak out.

Except in Alaska.

Last month, a report revealed that male inmates at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward had been forced to strip in front of female officers before they were paraded around on dog leashes, still naked, and ridiculed. These incidents occurred in 2013 and inmates complained right thereafter.

It took four years for these complaints to be fully vetted. Originally, the same staff member who was present and supervised and authorized the illegal activities was the person assigned to investigate any potential wrongdoing. Naturally, he tried to justify this illegal behavior and the case was essentially dormant for a few years.

Only when the state of Alaska allowed the Ombudsman to look at the problem was a thorough and objective investigation conducted and found that the inmates had been telling the truth. The presence of an ombudsman made all the difference.

Given the seriousness of some recent claims of guard-sanctioned abuse in correctional facilities — “fight clubs” in juvenile facilities in Florida and inmates dehydrated to death in Wisconsin are just two examples — one might expect ombudsmen to be everywhere, but they’re not; surprisingly, correctional ombudsmen operate in only 10 states including Alaska.

The reason they’re not universal is that ombudsmen are supposed to have authority not just to scrutinize allegations of abuse but also remedy them.

In 2004, the American Bar Association listed essential characteristics of any ombudsperson: impartiality, confidentiality and independence. It’s from these qualities that the ombudsman derives his authority. Because he takes the side of what is right and best for everyone, a true ombudsman has the power to implement appropriate changes without interference.

If they truly fulfill their roles, correctional ombudsmen are a threat to the status quo in dishonest prisons. Keeping them out is essential to maintaining the corruption, activities that the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia University says ultimately compromise public safety.

Although Alaska might be at the forefront of corrections by having an ombudsman, the position is somewhat neutered in that it has no enforcement capabilities. All that Kate Burkhart could do was research the claims of abuse; her office had no power to terminate the offending employees after concluding that they were responsible. Ombudsperson Burkhart’s only power was to release her findings to the public and expose what had happened. The New York Times reported on the original abuse and Burkhart’s findings, yet only added questions about the Alaska Department of Corrections’ competence.

In any industry or agency, investigation is worthwhile only when the problems discovered can be remedied, and not only through embarrassment of public agencies. In this case, the delay in investigation provided enough time for the officers involved to move on to other positions and employers so they couldn’t have been terminated. They will face no accountability in this matter because of the delay in investigating it properly, through an ombudsman.

The first correctional ombudsman in the country — in Minnesota — didn’t need to go to the governor for approval for anything during the first five years of his tenure. The number of complaints in Minnesota waned even as prison populations remained stable and this was attributed to the ombudsman’s effectiveness of investigating and resolving issues on the first attempt. (The office was discontinued in 2003 for lack of funding, not of success.)

The entire point of an independent ombudsman is to eliminate the cozy relationship between the guards and those watching the guards. In the face of such serious abuse, the risk is too great and the stakes are simply too high not to introduce independent oversight at all correctional facilities — and empower those overseers to tackle the problems they find.


• Chandra Bozelko of Orange, Connecticut is a 2017 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Criminal Justice Reporting Fellow and writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @aprisondiary. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.


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