HB 2817 Ombuds testimony 2016

House Bill 2817, Relating to the Creation of an Office of the Corrections Ombuds

Public Safety Committee

February 2, 2016

Testimony by: Rachael Seevers, Attorney with Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities Prison Project, a program of Disability Rights Washington.

Mr. Chair and members of the committee, my name is Rachael Seevers and I am an attorney with the Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities project (AVID), a project of Disability Rights Washington that focuses on people with disabilities in our state prisons. I am testifying today in support of House Bill 2817. 

The type of independent oversight provided for in this bill is badly needed in our state prisons. I know this because for the past two years, AVID has been conducting outreach, monitoring, and advocacy in every prison in the state. We use our access authority to go behind the prison walls to speak with inmates directly about issues related to disability. We also take phone calls and letters from inmates and family members, providing information, assistance, and advocacy on a variety of disability related issues. AVID has also developed a collaborative relationship with the DOC, meeting quarterly to raise systemic issues. Through this collaboration, AVID and DOC have been able to make meaningful change in the treatment of inmates with personality disorders and the use of segregation in Washington state, accomplishments that many states have seen only after extended litigation. 

I am testifying here today because this sort of monitoring, advocacy and collaboration is similar to what is provided for in the proposed ombuds bill. Over the last two years, AVID has worked with inmates on issues ranging from access to mental health care, conditions of segregation, accommodations in programming, and release planning. AVID has also guided inmates through the DOC’s grievance system. We work with inmates to help them comply with the various restrictions and requirements of a process that is often confusing, particularly for inmates with disabilities. In fact, if you want an idea of how this grievance process actually works and how complicated it can be, I have included a chart with this testimony, mapping the process of a grievance in the DOC system. The grievance system is not sufficient to address and resolve problems and there is a need for independent oversight and assistance. 

House Bill 2817 provides for such assistance, creating an entity with independent monitoring and advocacy authority. It is precisely this sort of independent oversight that was recommended by the American Bar Association in a 2008 report, and again recently in a New York Times editorial. Both of those documents have been provided with this testimony. As the AVID project has demonstrated over the last two years, this sort of independent monitoring and advocacy in the correctional setting does not interfere with prison operations; in fact, it often gives rise to successful collaboration with DOC to address inmate and family concerns. 

While AVID is funded by a private grant, and our resources are limited to working with inmates with disabilities, the proposed ombuds bill would create a permanent, independent office that could provide assistance to all inmates, as well as family members, thereby giving a voice to inmates, improving the conditions in our state prisons, and avoiding potentially costly litigation.