New York State Assembly Passed ODonnell Bill Creating Independent Oversight of NYS Prisons

Bill Creates a New Office of the Correctional Ombudsman

Assembly bill A9939, sponsored by Assemblymember O'Donnell, passed the Assembly today. This bill would create an Office of the Correctional Ombudsman, an independent entity that would investigate complaints, grievances, and unusual incidents within the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). The goal of this legislation is to achieve transparency, impartiality, and accountability in our state correctional system.

An escape from Clinton Correctional Facility, subsequent allegations of abuse and violence within the prisons, and multiple deaths of inmates under questionable circumstances, led Assembly Member O'Donnell to hold a hearing in December 2015, on the effects of current oversight of DOCCS.

The December hearing included testimony from experts on New York's prison system, authorities on different types of autonomous corrections oversight models, and family members of inmates who have suffered abuse. The hearing made clear that a state agency offering independent oversight of the $3.5 billion prison system is necessary. In light of these findings, Assembly Member O'Donnell has been advocating for an Office of the Correctional Ombudsman.

Last week, the Inspector General released a comprehensive report highlighting systemic problems in DOCCS. A failure of management, training and vigilance resulted in a prison escape that led to a $23 million manhunt. The Inspector General also concluded that there is a need for an independent investigations unit to handle allegations of staff abuse of inmates. Assemblymember O'Donnell noted:

“We are seeing a pattern of oversight failures, largely fueled by biased internal investigations. The question is what do we do about it? I proposed creating an Office of the Correctional Ombudsman, bill A9939, which would have independent oversight of DOCCS. Clearly, we cannot continue to allow DOCCS to police itself. The ombudsman office is the best way to increase accountability and transparency in order to improve safety of correctional officers, staff and inmates. I commend the Inspector General's report for publicizing these problems and am confident it will lead to important legislative changes for New York State.”

Currently, DOCCS has its own investigative body, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which investigates grievances and unusual incidents. The state Inspector General and the Justice Center have very limited jurisdiction over the prisons, thus OSI is often the only body investigating institutional abuse. Assemblymember O'Donnell commented on the inherent conflict of interest of DOCCS staff investigating other correctional employees:

“DOCCS investigators, most of whom are former or current security staff, are not impartial or unbiased, nor is it reasonable to expect them to be so given the very polarized atmosphere of some prisons in which both inmates and staff feel unsafe. An independent oversight entity will increase accountability within state corrections and keep DOCCS and those in its custody safe. Not only will greater transparency lead to greater accountability and safety, but it will also lead to real action and reform.”

Passage of Assembly bill A9939 comes at a time when New York State's correctional facilities are under heightened scrutiny. This past April marked one year since the death of Samuel Harrell III at Fishkill Correctional Facility. In that same month, an inmate assaulted two correctional officers at Clinton Correctional Facility. And June 6th was the first anniversary of the escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from Clinton. Assembly Member O'Donnell believes that an agency with independent oversight of DOCCS would be better able to investigate and make recommendations to prevent these types of events:

“Clearly, current investigative practices are not working. With the escape from Clinton, and the numerous cases of abuse and brutality reported by the media and written about in the hundreds of letters I receive from inmates, it is clear that our prisons need public scrutiny. With the Office of the Correctional Ombudsman, my goal is to remove the mystery that often surrounds incidents of violence and abuse in our prisons, and ultimately to help prevent such incidents from occurring at all.”

A9939 accomplishes the goals of accountability and transparency by granting investigative powers to an outside, independent entity. The ombudsman will conduct contemporaneous investigations into incidents involving the safety of inmates, correctional officers and staff, refer criminal matters to law enforcement, monitor prisons, and investigate a wide variety of matters brought to his or her attention by inmates, employees and the public, among other responsibilities. The Office of the Correctional Ombudsman would not force DOCCS to stop investigating unusual incidents in its prisons; it would simply be an independent oversight agency designed to monitor the prisons, investigate complaints and report to the governor, the legislature, DOCCS and the public.

Other states in the U.S. have already implemented different types of independent monitoring and investigative agencies, including California, New Jersey, Indiana, Hawaii, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Alabama, Alaska and Washington. In Great Britain, the entire country has independent oversight of its correctional system. Senator Lanza is sponsoring the senate equivalent of the bill S8059. It is now in the Senate Rules Committee.