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Watching over corrections

Published (3/7/2008)
By Craig Green
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The Office of Ombudsman for the Department of Corrections was established in 1972. It was an independent agency assigned to represent the interests of the public and investigate complaints within the department. When appropriate, it would make recommendations to correct the situation.

In 2003, the office was abolished. The interest in having an ombudsman was not.

During the 2007 session, a law established a working group to study how the state addresses complaints, assaults and deaths in the prisons and jails.

The report was presented to the House Public Safety Finance Division Feb. 28 by Rep. Neva Walker (DFL-Mpls) and Velma Korbel, commissioner of the Department of Human Rights.

Korbel said there are policies in place, but procedures, data collection and incident reporting can vary among counties, depending upon available resources.

Information requested by advocacy organizations, such as race and disability data, is often not available from the Corrections Department, and rarely available from the county facilities, Korbel said.

The working group recommended that a uniform data collection process be established, that adequate funding be provided and that legislators have an orientation on department and county procedures and policies.

The group did not come to a consensus of whether an ombudsman office should be reestablished. If you take out the DOC and the jails, you have a recommendation. But with them, you dont, Walker said.

John Poupart, department ombudsman from 1983-92, said that when the position was created, there was a lot of fear and violence in the prison system. The position helped reduce these incidents, and because the system has grown so much since, its even more important to have the office.

Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul), chairman of the division, said he hopes the division could explore the idea of the DOC ombudsman being part of the Office of the Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. But hiring any new staff will depend on the economy next year, he said.

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