Department of Correction finally hires ombudsman
Advocates criticize selection of UMass Medical School
AFTER A DELAY of several months, the Department of Correction has entered into a contract with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to create an ombudsman’s office within the department. But critics – including prisoners’ rights advocates and some lawmakers – are raising concerns about the appointment process and worry that the ombudsman’s office will not be truly independent.
Rep. Mary Keefe and Sen. Jamie Eldridge, Democrats who co-chair the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, wrote in a letter to Correction Commissioner Carol Mici that the course of action DOC has taken “is antithetical to the intended purpose of the law” establishing the ombudsman’s post.
The fiscal 2021 budget bill signed in December 2020 included a provision creating a new, independent ombudsman’s office to monitor the Department of Correction and ensure the state’s prisons were complying with health and safety best practices during the pandemic. Lawmakers also required the ombudsman to look into practices regarding reducing prison populations during COVID. Lawmakers extended the ombudsman’s position through next June when they passed the fiscal 2022 budget.
But CommonWealth reported in early August that the Department of Correction still had not appointed the ombudsman, and there was a dispute between Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature over the scope of the ombudsman’s authority.
The memo from Mici said UMass Medical School will appoint a director and an estimated four support staff, and will be given approximately $1.5 million to fund the office through the end of fiscal 2022, which is June 30, 2022. “The Office will be impartial and have an independent infrastructure, function, and appearance as it works to investigate and monitor DOC for compliance with public health standards as they relate to the management of COVID-19,” the memo said.
According to the memo, UMass Medical School will assign the staff, help set up the office, and function as advisors, but it will not have supervisory authority. The office will report directly to the Legislature, submitting biweekly reports to the committees on the judiciary and public health. If the office determines the Department of Correction is not taking sufficient actions to mitigate COVID-19 infections, it can recommend that the Legislature summon the commissioner to testify at a public hearing about the department’s inaction and a remediation plan.
But some question whether the office will be truly independent – and why the Department of Correction appears to have changed the hiring process midstream.
According to a statement from a group of prisoners’ rights groups – Black and Pink Massachusetts, the Building Up People Not Prisons Coalition, the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, and Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts – epidemiologist Monik Jimenez was vetted for the position by the attorney general’s office and the Department of Public Health and put forward for the role in March. She was never hired, however, which the groups attribute to the Department of Correction not offering Jimenez the resources and hiring autonomy necessary to create an independent office.
Jimenez could not be reached Thursday.
The shift to instead hire UMass Medical School appears to stem from a change in the law creating the position. The fiscal 2021 budget bill established an ombudsman until the end of the state of emergency. The fiscal 2022 budget, which Baker signed in July, extended the ombudsman position through June of 2022 and funded it.
In an email to CommonWealth in August, a Department of Correction spokesperson indicated that the department understood the newly passed legislation to also revamp the appointment process to exclude the attorney general’s office and the Department of Public Health and allow the Department of Correction to hire the ombudsman.
“Given the recent reporting of the conditions in our state prisons, it is critical that this position be appointed by an independent entity, and not the DOC itself,” the lawmakers wrote. “The Legislature established the Attorney General as the appointing authority because a contract facilitated by the DOC will not ensure the independence that this position requires.”
Keefe and Eldridge wrote that it is unclear why Jimenez was not appointed. The Department of Correction, they wrote, “does not have the legal authority to countermand or undercut this independent appointment.”
In an interview, Eldridge said a recent Department of Justice report about problems with mental health care at state prisons and a recent Boston Globe series about excessive force at a maximum security prison are “crying out” for independent oversight of the Department of Correction. “At the end of the day, that’s best done by an independent entity like the attorney general’s office making the appointment,” Eldridge said.
While the lawmakers’ letter does not raise any concerns about UMass Medical School itself, the statement from Prisoners’ Legal Services and the other advocates raises questions about a conflict of interest, since UMass several years ago provided medical care to state inmates. “UMass is an excellent institution, but was the contracted medical provider for the DOC for many years under the name UMass Correctional Health. This prior relationship immediately raises concerns regarding the independence that the law requires,” the advocates’ statement says.
The advocates also worry that the agreement with UMass does not mention reducing the state prison population. The budget provision requires the ombudsman to look into efforts to release prisoners due to COVID. Baker vetoed that language, but the Legislature restored it over his veto.
“This critical omission is yet another example of the DOC thwarting legislative instruction and evading effective and independent oversight mechanisms, acting unilaterally and without community input,” the advocates wrote.In an interview, Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, expressed frustration that the Department of Correction ignored Jimenez’s vetting. “There’s no reason why all that energy and time expended in trying to get an ombudsman appointed should have been disregarded and started from scratch with a completely different vendor,” Matos said.