Assembly Speaker Carl E. Heastie, Corrections Committee Chair Daniel J. O'Donnell and Codes Committee Chair Joseph R. Lentol announced the passage of legislation to create the Office of the Correctional Ombudsman which would independently monitor the correctional facilities operated by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and investigate complaints of abuse and illegal activity occurring within the state's prison system.
"Independent oversight has been sorely lacking in the state's correction system for far too long," said Speaker Heastie. "The Office of the Correctional Ombudsman, which would be separate from DOCCS, will allow for impartial investigations that will get to the bottom of such troubling allegations of retaliation against prisoners, violent assaults and inmates being denied medical attention so we can take corrective actions that will ensure the safe, just and effective operation of the state's correctional facilities."
"Within the past few years we have witnessed a shift in the conversation on ending the systemic culture of violence and misconduct within our prisons," said O'Donnell the bills' sponsor. "Current oversight mechanisms have often made it difficult to get a clear picture about what goes on behind prison walls. The veil of secrecy and misinformation surrounding prisons must end. To address these growing concerns by inmates, correctional officers, security staff, and the general public, we need greater independent oversight. Increased transparency and accountability are necessary to improve safety for all individuals within DOCCS."
"Our correctional system is doomed to more reports of disturbing behavior and illegal activity without a truly independent way to investigate DOCCS," said Lentol. "The recent state Inspector General's report on last June's prison escape at the Clinton Correctional Facility and also the series of other allegations about the growing level of violence and the increased incidences of inmates being beaten and guards attacked by prisoners requires us to enact this legislation."
The Assembly legislation (A.9939 / S.8059) would establish the Office of the Correctional Ombudsman (OCO), which would be headed by an ombudsman to serve in a full-time capacity for a six-year term at a salary of $136,000 per year. Selecting the correctional ombudsman would be the responsibility of the Correctional Oversight Board (COB), which also is established by the bill.
The board's 12 members would be comprised of two appointments each from the Assembly and Senate, subject to the Executive's approval. Among the governor's seven appointments, two must be members who represent non-profit organizations that are focused on prisoner advocacy and the remaining five must include a mental health professional from the Justice Center, a former DOCCS employee, a state bar association member, a former inmate and a medical professional. The state Inspector General also would serve as an ex officio member of the board.
COB members would be appointed to serve three-year terms with no compensation, other than for travel expenses and would be required to meet twice a year. Additional COB meetings could be called by the ombudsman or any five members of the board.
The measure would require the OCO to publicly disclose the findings of its investigations to the Legislature, Governor, public and DOCCS. To ensure objectivity and impartiality in the investigations conducted by the OCO, the bill includes provisions that would:
Heastie, O'Donnell and Lentol believe the Office of the Correctional Ombudsman is needed to address the issues uncovered by the increased scrutiny of DOCCS in recent years that involve investigations into the death of inmates, patterns of harassment, misconduct by guards, reports of rising violence and assaults against prison staff, and the escape of two prisoners from a the maximum correctional facility in Dannemora last June.
Among the other states in the nation that have established independent correctional ombudsmen offices or correctional investigators are Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, New Jersey, Washington and California.