Ombudsman faults correctional procedures

Image in the public domain; accessed via Wikimedia Commons, Sept. 14, 2015.
Image in the public domain; accessed via Wikimedia Commons, Sept. 14, 2015.

In a report released earlier this month (Sept. 5), the state ombudsman says the Department of Corrections failed to follow the law in three separate cases involving inmates from both Palmer and Anchorage correctional facilities.  The Ombudsman’s opinion  indicates revisions are needed in how the department conducts certain disciplinary procedures.

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Linda Lord-Jenkins is the state ombudsman. She presides over a well-ordered office above a shopping complex in downtown Anchorage. Although Lord-Jenkins’ work is little known to the average Alaskan, the ombudsman keeps guard over the procedures of other governmental agencies.

“We look into complaints about government agencies. The complaints are filed by citizens who believe that they have been done wrong.”

And when she says ‘citizens’, that includes Alaskans in prison.

On September 5, the Ombudsman’s office released a report indicating that in three separate cases, the state Department of Corrections acted contrary to the law in dealing with disciplinary matters involving inmates in state correctional facilities.

The incidents ranged over time from August of 2013 to early this year. State Ombudsman Linda Lord-Jenkins says the three cases are lumped together in the report because they have a common theme. She says, in all three instances, the DOC took disciplinary action against inmates without allowing those inmates their due process at evidentiary hearings. Disciplinary actions for the inmates in all three cases ranged from losing commissary privileges to solitary confinement.

Lord-Jenkins asserts, what is particularly disturbing  to her agency, is that the DOC was not immediately cooperative in answering queries linked to the ombudsman’s investigation

“We had to subpoena information out of the institution for the investigation of the escape charges. And had some problems, Commissioner Schmidt had to step in and require his staff to give us the documents. Then the administration changed, and we drafted our preliminary findings which we served on Commissioner Taylor in April.”

DOC Commissioner Ronald Taylor has since responded, she says, although that communication came from the department  on Labor Day. Lord-Jenkins says her agency repeatedly contacted DOC about the investigation from the beginning of the ombudsman’s involvement, but DOC did not reciprocate.

“In the investigation involving the inmate who was in solitary confinement for 647 days, we never got a response from them on that, which was very disappointing.”

In that Anchorage case, a federal felon in custody in the Anchorage Correctional Complex was placed in solitary confinement for a year and a half, solely because of a US Marshall’s recommendation. The inmate in question says he had no chance to challenge Marshall’s recommendation. The The ombudsman’s report faults DOC for that, because there is no law requiring DOC to adhere to the Marshall’s request.

The three cases covered in the report go back two years. In May of 2014, seven inmates housed in the Palmer Correctional Complex were accused by a fellow inmate of hatching an escape plot, which included a plan to murder a corrections officer. Each of them underwent individual hearings by prison officials.

The hearings resulted in loss of commissary privileges, loss of “good time”, or reductions in sentence length based on good behavior, and in some cases, a month of solitary confinement.  Lord-Jenkins says the ombudsman report  is not faulting the corrections department for having the disciplinary hearings.  It is with the procedures during and after those hearings where DOC went astray.

“The concern that we had mostly out of Palmer was it appeared that nobody understood what they were supposed to be doing to document their findings, that they didn’t understand any of the due process requirements that their own policies and procedures had set out for them. And not only did the front line disciplinary hearing officers not appear to understand that, the Superintendent didn’t appear to understand those.”

In the case of the Palmer inmates, one solution recommended by the ombudsman was training for top prison officials in conducting disciplinary hearings. That suggestion was rejected, according to the report.

Palmer Correctional Complex Superintendent Tomie  Anderson, who was superintendent of the prison at the time, would not consent to an interview for this story.

DOC’s deputy Commissioner Remond Henderson said Fridaythat DOC intends to release a statement on the report this week.

But Lord-Jenkins says internal DOC emails have been coming into her office.

“Finally, we released the report, and on Labor Day, late in the afternoon, I received an email from the department, with a cover letter that explained some things and then internal department emails that indicated they had been working on it all along, they just weren’t telling us.”

Lord-Jenkins says the goal of her agency’s work is not to seek prosecution, nor to place blame, but to work to find abuses and seek solutions for them.

She says the ombudsman’s report is based on standards and regulations, and her agency has advised DOC to examine it’s disciplinary hearing procedures.

“Right now, we are looking at their responses and we will revise our findings in terms of how they [DOC] responded to our recommendations.”

The Ombudsman’s report comes at a time when state House and Senate committees are in discussions regarding revisions to the state correctional department’s practices in an effort to reduce prison costs.