Why we need the DOC ombudsman now more than ever

A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change

In the summer of 1967, President Johnson’s administration made a nationwide call for the formation of urban coalitions to produce solutions to unstable race relations in America. Known for its progressive policies, Minnesota gained international and national attention in 1972 for becoming the first state to institute an ombudsman for corrections.

The decision grew out of concern from the Attica Uprising in New York in which incarcerated men took control of the Attica prison to demand and negotiate that changes in treatment be made to guarantee basic human decency to the incarcerated men. Ultimately, the State intervened with the end result of the deaths of 42 civilians, correction officers and inmates.

While some progress was being made in granting access and rights to some marginalized members of society, incarcerated men and women were largely ignored. With a new governor and commissioner of corrections in January 1971, Minnesota was in a unique position to set the stage for bringing on an ombudsman.

David Fogel, the new commissioner of corrections, had argued that what had happened in Attica could happen in any one of the correctional facilities in Minnesota as incarcerated people grew frustrated with poor prison conditions. On a smaller scale than New York, Minnesota had seen prison riots at the Stillwater and St. Cloud correctional facilities in the early and late 1960s.

I was fortunate and grateful to meet recently with the first ombudsman for corrections, Theatrice “T” Williams, and hear his reflections on the role of the ombudsman and why it was, and still is, needed.

“Attica was so very preventable,” said Williams. “The kinds of stuff they were doing to the prisoners… They would issue, at the beginning of the month, one roll of toilet paper. If you had run out? Tough. Showers were limited, as well as visitation. Everything was controlled, like access to medical care…

“The people who ran the facilities didn’t believe that anyone was physically or mentally ill, they just were malingerers and you don’t show any positive response to that,” said Williams. “So things got out of control, and instead of responding to their demands, the State clamped down and bang! the place exploded. You could file a complaint there, but it went right to the person you were complaining about.”

In 1972, Governor Wendell Anderson released an executive order calling for the creation of the ombudsman for the Department of Corrections (DOC). Modelled after the Scandinavian version, the ombudsman was an impartial third party who worked with the incarcerated and the DOC to mitigate tensions and disputes.

  1. Williams was the ombudsman for about 11 years, 1972-1983. During the height of his tenure, the ombudsman helped to reduce the number of federal lawsuits between incarcerated members and the State. He also served as an intermediary who would investigate claims of injustices with impartiality.

During my conversation with T. Williams, he stressed that the ombudsman had no authority to force anyone, prisoners and/or the DOC, to do anything. The ombudsman could only make recommendations based on information provided by both parties during the investigation of any claim.

This role was necessary in establishing trust with incarcerated members who viewed the ombudsman as being a part of the State. It also helped to alleviate tension within the DOC, which felt that the ombudsman would set out to undermine the authority of corrections officers.

Despite the value the ombudsman brought to the corrections system and to those within its control, in 2003, after a series of budget cuts, the ombudsman was removed from the DOC and has disappeared from Minnesota.

Today, more than ever, we need to reinstate the ombudsman for the DOC. The incarcerated population in Minnesota has more than tripled since 1971, leading to overcrowding, lack of resources available to most inmates, and an increase in the pressure on corrections officers to maintain a safe environment, sometimes at the expense of inmates’ rights.

The rise in incarceration rates disproportionately affects men and women from communities of color. Today, about 35 percent of incarcerated men and women are Black, although Blacks only account for six percent of the population in Minnesota.

Similarly, Native Americans comprise about nine percent of the prison population in Minnesota but only make up 1.1 percent of the total state population. Given today’s level of public distrust around the unsanctioned harassment, assault, killing and injustice of Black and Brown men and women, the need for change is not just in Minnesota’s police departments, which are increasingly being held accountable by communities who witness police violence.

The DOC is not immune from the oppressive and discretionary practices that we are seeing in other institutions, like schools, policing and immigration. An ombudsman offers a release from the frustration and pressure by humanizing and legitimizing the multiple perspectives from inside prisons, including of incarcerated people.

Bringing back the ombudsman will offer some accountability in our prison system — something that our communities need to see.

 

Octavia Smith is a student at the Humphrey School for Public Affairs and an intern at Voices for Racial Justice. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.