From fear to trust: How correctional facilities and ombudsmen can team up
A strong relationship between a correctional facility and an ombudsman is critical in the pursuit of excellence
Numerous times, as a corrections officer and later as a jail administrator, I was confronted by inmates declaring, “I’m going to call the ombudsman on this.”
To be honest, during my initial months on the job as a corrections officer, I had no clue who or what the ombudsman was. However, I quickly realized that the mention of the ombudsman and their authoritative office was a common threat inmates hurled in frustration, often accompanied by the ominous, “I’m gonna have your job!”
Upon transitioning to an administrative role, the ombudsman’s function became a focal point in my daily operations. I assumed the role of a liaison, serving as a channel of information and insight, aiding this legislative office in probing complaints against my officers and facility.
What is an ombudsman?
The term “ombudsman” has its roots in Swedish, translating to “representative.” In contemporary times, an ombudsman’s primary role is to delve into complaints directed at governmental agencies, striving to resolve these grievances. Additionally, the endeavors of an ombudsman can unearth and tackle systemic issues within agencies or address alleged governmental infringements on individual rights.
I took on the role of our facility’s liaison to the Ombudsman’s Office and soon realized that a robust relationship with this office was among the most valuable assets our facility could nurture. This relationship proves to be an indispensable tool as officers and the facility strive toward excellence.
Many sheriffs and jail administrators see the ombudsman as a hammer – identifying what a facility may be doing incorrectly. However, an ombudsman review or investigation should be seen as an opportunity for a fresh perspective to evaluate a facility’s proficiency in inmate care, security, safety, and adherence to inmate rights. The Ombudsman Office can function as a quality control audit for operations, offering a chance for improvement and refinement.
Moving to the dark side
While contemplating applying to the Ombudsman Office last May, I pondered over what I could contribute to the role. I realized that I could help foster a visible sense of trust in the relationship the ombudsman had cultivated with the jails and prisons across our state. The Ombudsman Office holds the belief that this trust embodies a mutual appreciation for the roles each entity plays in ensuring a safe, secure, and respectful partnership within the corrections realm. Through investigations, the ombudsman indeed serves as a reminder, holding jails and prisons accountable to their statutory mission, reinforcing the importance of adherence to established standards and protocols.
Upon hearing about my transition to the ombudsman post, several jail administrators and sheriffs reached out to me, humorously inquiring, “Are you going to the dark side?” Their playful jabs reflect a perception held by some of their counterparts who haven’t yet embraced the trust necessary for this role. They find it hard to believe that someone investigating claims against their office, officers, or facility could have their best interests at heart. The mere thought of receiving “the call” or “visit” from an ombudsman investigator is disconcerting to them. These officials have yet to realize the valuable role an ombudsman can play in their day-to-day operations, if only they’d allow them to.
The typical Ombudsman Office doesn’t wield a hammer of authority or possess statutory powers to enforce changes. Instead, an Ombudsman’s forte lies in carving out avenues to bring conflicting parties together, unlocking channels of communication, pinpointing the inherent challenges at hand, and sketching out opportunities or strategies to reconcile differences, remove barriers, and mediate solutions. Through this approach, the Ombudsman facilitates a conducive environment for dialogue and resolution, fostering a collaborative spirit rather than a confrontational one.
The role of an ombudsman
Brad Johnson, Director of Lancaster County Corrections in Lincoln, Nebraska, has a love-hate relationship with the Ombudsman Office. Johnson remarks, “I have no issue with the ombudsman checking into our officers or operations, as I believe we will shine. The Ombudsman Office knows the fog an inmate tries to create, masking the reality of our efforts.” Johnson adds, “What I do hate is the disparaging picture that is painted by an inmate’s allegations and how my officers can be impacted by those claims.”
“The time required to appropriately respond to each inmate claim to the Ombudsman is large,” states Lancaster County Corrections Health Services Administrator Alicia Renville, LPN, BSHA. “We see each complaint though as a teaching moment and an opportunity to recheck the inmate’s charts.”
This shared belief and value rooted in mutual trust highlight that both parties acknowledge having an ally in each other, supporting the work they undertake even in the most challenging situations. This trust also underscores a collective commitment from both parties to prioritize the rights, health, and security of the inmates under supervision. Through this lens of trust, the collaborative effort between the facilities and the Ombudsman Office not only addresses grievances but also fosters a conducive environment for upholding the standards of inmate care and rights.
Trust brings with it a degree of latitude offered with and during all interactions. The ombudsman knows the facility is not attempting to hide or manipulate a message and/or data, while the facility believes that the ombudsman is not pursuing an “I got you” moment.
This trust also builds an expectation of accountability.
“I expect the ombudsman to challenge us on policies or procedures that may be a bit off track,” Johnson offers. And to then address the issues and provide timely remedies – by refocusing policies or operational efforts – to prevent continual and expanded legal and liability threats.
Renville sees the ombudsman as another set of eyes watching her medical team. “We are human, and mistakes happen. These investigations cause us to check an inmate’s charts again and again and concur that the treatment regimen in place is appropriate.”
Lancaster County Corrections Lieutenant Joe Anderson sees an ombudsman complaint a bit differently: “I’ve usually known of the inmate’s complaint prior to the ombudsman call as I’ve already responded to their grievances. It seems as if the inmate tries to find someone new to air their displeasure with after we’ve already said no. When the ombudsman informs the inmate that we meet or surpass jail standards, it’s a sign our operation, protocols and policies are spot on.”
The trust fostered enables an honest and prompt identification of inherent chokepoints within a facility and systemic operational errors. For a facility and its staff to excel, there’s a continuous need to seek out and address areas of shortcomings proactively. A partner like the ombudsman acts as a valuable ally in identifying those vulnerabilities and ensuring they are rectified, restoring the facility’s standards to a level of excellence. Without such a partner to shed light on or question certain practices, a jail or prison might adopt protocols or policies that trigger a cascade of security, health, or safety decisions, potentially spiraling into a whirlpool of legal and liability threats. This collaborative relationship, therefore, is crucial in maintaining a high standard of operations while minimizing risks and fostering a culture of continuous improvement and accountability.
The ombudsman is that partner guiding, assessing and assisting all facilities, agency administrations and officers as they pursue excellence in the world of corrections.
Topics for discussion
The following questions aim to prompt a reflective and proactive dialogue among corrections leaders about leveraging the Ombudsman Office’s role as a constructive partner in enhancing the facility’s standards and operations.
1. Evaluation of current relationship with the Ombudsman Office: How would you characterize the current relationship between our facility and the Ombudsman Office? Are there areas of improvement to foster a more collaborative and trust-based relationship with the Ombudsman Office to ensure a more effective resolution of grievances and identification of systemic issues?
2. Assessment of internal processes and responsiveness: How are we currently handling inmate complaints internally before they reach the Ombudsman Office, and are there ways to improve our internal grievance resolution processes? Are we utilizing the feedback from the Ombudsman Office as a learning opportunity to improve our policies, procedures, and training programs?
3. Engagement and education: How are we educating our staff about the role and value of the Ombudsman Office in improving our facility’s operations and adherence to standards? Are there opportunities to engage more proactively with the Ombudsman Office to better understand and address the concerns of inmates, and to work together on initiatives that could enhance the safety, security, and rights of inmates under our supervision?
Enhancing the relationship between corrections officers and the ombudsman office is pivotal for fostering a culture of transparency, accountability and continuous improvement within correctional facilities. The following training scenarios are crafted to bridge understanding, improve communication and promote collaborative problem-solving between these two crucial entities, thereby paving the way for a more effective and constructive partnership in addressing inmate grievances and advancing operational excellence.
Scenario 1: Communication and understanding workshop
Objective: To foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other’s roles, responsibilities and challenges.
Description: Arrange a joint workshop where corrections officers and ombudsman representatives come together to share their daily experiences, challenges and expectations. Include presentations, Q&A sessions and interactive discussions to encourage open communication.
Outcome: Enhanced mutual understanding and communication that will lead to a more collaborative relationship.
Scenario 2: Joint case review exercise
Objective: To improve the process of addressing inmate grievances and complaints collaboratively.
Description: Organize a simulated exercise where a hypothetical case of inmate grievance is reviewed jointly by corrections officers and ombudsman representatives. The exercise should cover the entire process from the initial complaint to resolution, with both parties providing input and feedback at each stage.
Outcome: Improved joint problem-solving skills, better understanding of the grievance resolution process, and identification of areas for process improvement.
Scenario 3: Crisis management simulation
Objective: To enhance coordination and response strategies during crisis situations.
Description: Create a realistic crisis simulation within the correctional facility environment, such as a riot or a health crisis. The scenario should require coordinated responses from both corrections officers and the ombudsman’s office. This simulation should test communication channels, decision-making processes and the effectiveness of the established protocols in managing crises.
Outcome: Strengthened crisis response strategies, improved coordination, and a better understanding of each other’s roles during critical incidents.
Corrections1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.
A version of this article was originally published in American Jails Magazine