Retaliation for criticism of DOC backfires, with scathing ombuds report

Joanna Carns
Joanna Carns, WA DOC Ombuds

[Correction 2020-01-10. In the original article, we said “To his credit, Washington DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair approved a number of corrective recommendations by the OCO, including reversing the infractions, returning the complainant to work release, and instituting staff training in avoiding retaliation.” Per private communication with Amy Tate, who has publicly identified herself as the complainant here, the infractions were not reversed. Instead, DOC offered “in lieu of them reversing my 660 infraction they would be willing to reinstate 28 days of good time.” That is now corrected in the article.]

Officials at the Helen B. Ratcliff work release center in Seattle, WA retaliated against a resident for participating in a public forum on work release conditions, according to a recent report from the Washington Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO). The unnamed complainant, while speaking at the public meeting, had her residence searched, and was subsequently infracted with two violations, resulting in her return to prison and loss of good time. The OCO report found that staff were looking for excuses to infract, with emails saying “We have 2 offenders from our facility who attended the meeting, can you tell me what infraction you are using?” because the complainant was presenting a “PP presentation to bash DOC”. To retaliate against this participation, staff infracted the complainant for “using social media” and for finding an alternate way to receive cash owed her when the way offered by DOC failed and she could not get their assistance.

In investigating the incident, the OCO documented multiple incidents of misrepresentation by the work release staff, such as “the CCO was not accurate in her portrayal of the evidence,” and OCO found facts that were “contrary to what was alleged in the hearing process.” Ultimately it was clear that the infractions were intended as retaliation for attending the public meeting and reporting on conditions at the work release center. The report is a scathing rebuke of the retaliation attempt and subsequent coverup by staff.

To his credit, Washington DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair approved a number of corrective recommendations by the OCO, including reversing the infractions restoring 28 days of good time [correction 2020-01-10], returning the complainant to work release, and instituting staff training in avoiding retaliation.

Unfortunately retaliation against people who DOC perceives as critical is a common problem, according to multiple conversations that Prison Voice has had with friends and family of incarcerated individuals. Some (but by no means all) DOC staff have serious attitude problems toward prisoners and their families, and probably should not be involved with corrections. But even when multiple complaints against individual staff are sustained, the problematic staff continue in their positions of authority.

We call upon DOC to be more aggressive at identifying and removing staff with attitude problems. Misrepresenting facts about individuals in their custody should result in severe sanctions to the accused staff (but rarely does).

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s Clemencies

Former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (by Gage Skidmore)
Former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (by Gage Skidmore)

This week, outgoing Republican Governor Bevin of Kentucky issued 428 clemencies. Clemency is an issue very relevant to Prison Voice as the moment, as we are very close to releasing our own report on clemency in the state of Washington.

Initial news reports about these clemencies were almost universally negative and sensational:

US Today: Kentucky governor pardons convicted killer whose brother hosted campaign fundraiser for him.

WKYT: Former Kentucky governor pardons convicted child rapist.

WDRB: Bevin pardons convicted murderer, raising ire of Laurel County prosecutor

But later reports are starting to add some nuance to these reports. One particularly interesting commentary was in this oped: “In defense of pardons: It may be the only way to free an innocent person,” particularly this statement:

First and foremost, a pardon is often the only way to free an innocent person. This may sound incredible, but it’s true. Once a person is convicted of a crime, they likely will never again have the opportunity to argue their innocence in court. Appeals and post-conviction challenges are not decided based on guilt or innocence. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that “actual innocence” is not a valid claim to reverse a conviction.

The article continues to explain the justification for one of the more controversial clemencies:

Many of Gov. Bevin’s pardons, including that of “convicted killer” Delmar Partin, were based on the Governor’s belief that an innocent person was in prison. Since Mr. Partin’s pardon, the original prosecutor has expressed outrage, saying that Partin is absolutely guilty. Others, who know nothing about the evidence in the case, are also horrified that Gov. Bevin has freed a “murderer.”

We cannot know whether these claims of innocence are true are not. Maybe we need a category of “maybe innocent,” where if someone has served some fraction of their sentence, but had a less-than-obvious conviction, we give them the benefit of the doubt after awhile. This seems to be what Bevin is doing in many cases.

In our own state of Washington, the clemency process generally proceeds in a very slow but orderly fashion, with about 5 clemencies per year being issued, mostly for three-strikers. This pales in contrast to Bevin’s actions, who just granted over 400 clemencies, including several with murder convictions. In spite of several recommendations to Gov. Inslee for clemency by the state Clemency and Pardons board, in all cases Gov. Inslee has overturned the board and rejected clemency for those with murder convictions.

Fear of the negative headlines that we are now seeing in reponse to Bevin’s pardons is undoubtedly why Inslee has been so reticent to grant clemency to those with the most severe convictions.

Does it have to be this way? We call on the Democrat Inslee to show some of the courage that the Republican Bevin has showed in granting clemencies in controversial cases.