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Theatrice Williams, the state’s original corrections ombudsman, chats with Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, after a March 6 committee hearing. Latz is carrying a bill to revive the ombudsman, which has been defunct since its budget was eliminated in 2003. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Corrections ombudsman survives panels

Think of it as a complaints department for prisoners—with teeth.

A pair of companion bills that would revive the corrections ombudsman’s office, defunct since its budget was eliminated 16 years ago, were heard recently by both House and Senate committees.

Lawmakers hope that, if revived, the office could help reduce tensions in Minnesota’s prisons by allowing inmates to take their complaints to an independent third party for impartial investigation.

“There are times when there is a little bit of a group-think by inmates and frustrations grow,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chair of Senate Judiciary, who worked as a corrections officer in the early 1980s. “It becomes an us-versus-them mentality.”

When they arise, those frustrations need to be vented, and not just through the Corrections Department’s internal processes, Limmer said. “You need to have communication with a neutral source that can instruct the administration and the line officers about what might trigger violence,” Limmer said.

If Limmer seems supportive of a bill that has two DFL lead authors, there’s a reason. He said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, only authored Senate File 1090 because Latz beat Limmer to the punch. The chair had been thinking of introducing it himself.

As currently outlined, the office would have relatively broad powers, reaching not only into state prisons but into all Minnesota lock-ups, including county jails and local workhouses. Among its powers:

  • The ombudsman would determine how complaints are made, reviewed and acted upon. The office would also decide the scope and manner of investigations.
  • The office would then conduct those investigations, with full access to any information or facility needed to do a thorough job.
  • It would have subpoena power to compel witnesses to appear, give testimony or produce any evidence relevant to an inquiry.
  • It would have power to bring actions in the appropriate state courts. The bill also gives the office permission to obtain pro bono counsel for the inmates through the Legal Assistance for Minnesota Prisoners clinic at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

The bill directs the office to focus on law violations, agency actions regarded as “unreasonable, unfair, oppressive or inconsistent with any policy or judgment,” and actions deemed arbitrary, inadequately explained or insufficiently performed.

The ombudsman also would have latitude to examine and recommend ways to strengthen the Corrections Department’s practices and those of local county sheriff’s departments or other relevant agencies.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell is among the measure’s supporters, based partially on his conversations with inmates who have asked him to support it. “I think having an ombudsperson could make a difference,” he said.

Latz brought the bill after receiving a letter from a Minnesota inmate appealing to him to address a grievance—a move Latz said is virtually doomed to failure. “None of us are going to step in to deal with these kinds of individual situations,” he said.

But last year, a corrections officer was murdered, allegedly at the hands of a prisoner who Limmer said might have harbored some kind of grievance against corrections officers. Given that, he said, some kind of action seems necessary.

Against that backdrop, Latz moved to revive the ombudsman. Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, brought the bill in the House. He is the House Corrections subcommittee chair.

“The idea is one of fairness to the inmates, who don’t have any real recourse for what may or may not be legitimate complaints,” Latz said. “Importantly, for prison safety if for no other reason, they ought to feel like their complaints are being heard and investigated. And where verified or validated, addressed.”

Post-Attica reform

Theatrice “T.” Williams was the state’s original corrections ombudsman from 1972 to 1983. He was appointed by former Gov. Wendell Anderson after deadly rioting in New York’s Attica state prison in September 1971, left 33 inmates and 10 corrections officers dead.

Williams, a long-time civil rights advocate, testified in both House Corrections and Senate Judiciary supporting the bill. He said it essentially is identical to the one that created his office as the first of its kind in the nation.

“The rationale for an ombudsman seems to be obvious to me,” Williams told Corrections subcommittee members on Feb. 20. “In a system that has the potential to be as oppressive as prison, it should have some external checks and balances.”

Williams led an office with eight staff members back when the state’s prisons held about one-tenth its current population. A fiscal note to the Senate bill projects costs of the new office at $1.074 million over the biennium. But it contemplates an office with just four employees. Williams thinks it would be better to start off with about six.

Testifying on March 6, Williams urged legislators not to think of the ombudsman as a prisoners’ advocate. For one thing, it can be used by corrections officers as well as inmates to air grievances, he said.

More importantly, he said, it needs the credibility that can only come if it is an independent actor that allows facts to determine outcomes. For that reason, it should not be funded out of Corrections, he said, but instead some other executive agency—perhaps the Administration Department or Human Rights.

Gina Evans, vice president for the Second Chance Coalition, described how the ombudsman’s office helped her when she was incarcerated in the Shakopee women’s prison almost two decades ago.

While serving time on a drug conviction in 2000, Evans got in trouble for repeatedly failing to sign in and out of a prison facility—a mistake she blamed on forgetfulness that stems from her ADHD. She was penalized with six days in segregation—an outcome she felt was unfair because she was not violent and brought no contraband into the facility.

Evans appealed to the ombudsman. The office reviewed her case, made inquiries and tried to keep her out of isolation. It didn’t work—she served the six days. But she came away without the smoldering resentment that might have metastasized into something worse.

“I felt heard,” Evans said. “I felt like somebody came in, looked at my situation, looked at the rules in the prison and advocated for me. And that made me feel better.”

The bill got verbal Senate GOP support from Limmer and from Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township, on March 6. Limmer, however, struck a note of caution. With the recent economic forecast, which trimmed the state’s projected budget surplus by about half a billion dollars, the economics for a relaunch might not be favorable.

“It will threaten this in addition to a whole lot more,” Limmer said in an interview.

He said that much will depend on Gov. Tim Walz, who has suggested he would scale back some of his budget priorities to reflect the reduced forecast but who has yet to outline any cuts. The governor also proposed some revenue increases, including a 20-cent gas tax hike that Republicans firmly oppose.

“If he is a realist,” Limmer said, “he may just sharpen his pencil and get a little closer to where he might want to end up.”

Over in the House, more direct skepticism was expressed about the bill itself. Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, said she is hesitant to give the office subpoena power. She also doubts the office’s mandate should reach beyond state prisons. Considine pledged to work on those concerns as the legislation moves through negotiations.

In both the House and Senate committee, the bill was laid aside for inclusion in their respective public safety and judiciary omnibus bills. Neither was put to a vote.

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