The Minnesota Office of the Ombudsman for Corrections was created in the 1970s after the deadly riot at the prison in Attica, N.Y. The office killed in 2003, a casualty of partisan politics, budget and staff cuts, and dismal public awareness over its function, role and impact, says St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario. Several states have such an entity, and their numbers have grown as the U.S. prison population has swelled to unprecedented numbers. Government agencies, civic groups, and journalists have become de facto ombudsmen, receiving hundreds of letters from inmates and their families worried about getting a fair shake with their concerns.
Last year, the state legislature created a working group to make recommendations about how the state deals with inmate complaints, assaults and deaths in county jails, workhouses and prisons, as well as whether the need exists to re-establish a corrections ombudsman. Last week, the group advocated better record-keeping – particularly inmate race and disability data. It also underscored the need for “additional mental health resources and services in Minnesota’s corrections system.” On the ombudsman issue, its report said: “While the group could not reach consensus on this specific recommendation, members strongly supported the need for a ‘bridge’ between the corrections systems and the public.” Besides helping to reduce tensions in prisons, another critical role for an ombudsman is to “monitor county jails to ensure that they follow procedures relative to inmate safety,” said Rep. Michael Paymar, chairman of the House Public Safety panel. “There have been a number of individuals in our county jails that should not have died.”