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).

7 Comments

  1. My loved ones and I have been victims of retaliation from DOC for years. I applaud your work and I hope we can beat the drum loud enough to invoke change in the DOC. Unfortunately some offenders are using these infractions to their advantage. It will get worse if not exposed and put to an end. Thanks for watching our backs!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments. Avoiding retaliation is a really important issue to improve prison conditions. In the example here, the retaliation was against someone complaining about conditions. In the Clallam Bay food strike, while Asst Secy Herzog claimed in hearings that there are plenty of avenues to bring up issues, in fact they retaliated against those who were the chief complainers.

      What do you mean by “some offenders are using these infractions to their advantage”?

  2. This is not accurate. She was not returned to work release and DOC only returned some of the sanction time it imposed as punishment.

  3. There is an extreme error in this report that needs correction.

    “Kent James….I am the “complainant” in referenced report. I truly appreciate the coverage as I believe, due to first hand experience, that this deserves a light shined on it. However, Mr. Steve Sinclair did not take the recommendations of the Ombuds office. My infractions were not reversed & I was not returned to work release. I sat in prison, unjustly, from 8/1/19 to 11/18/19. I was scheduled to be there until 12/24/19. DOC refused, although they agreed it was retaliation, to reverse the infractions. It is my belief that they refused this knowing that if they reversed it would come with financial ramifications. My sanctions were only modified when the “threat” of publicity prior to their response was at hand. I would be more than happy to speak with you one on one regarding this. Thank you!”

  4. I’m wondering why, after much conversation and the rebuttal of truth in giving Steve Sinclair credit where no credit is due, this article has not been corrected?

    This is dismissive and unfortunate for the person to whom DOCs actions and lies harmed.

    Thanks!

    1. Sorry it took so long to approve your post. The vast majority of comments that are made are spam that has to be removed, so I don’t process these daily, particularly during vacations. Moderation is in place to eliminate spam, not criticism.

      As to answer your comments: as far as I can tell, the complaints about the post concerned this line:

      “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.”

      There was one error here: I interpreted from the original report “DOC reinstated 28 days of good time” as “reversing the infractions”, which was not correct, the infractions were not reversed. This is hardly a “critical error” that requires me to drop everything during Christmas break with my family, and try to correct this. Also, the people most involved (Joanna Carns and Amy Cate) expressed to me that they were overall happy with the report.

      Really the complaint was that the report did not sufficiently express the rage that Amy felt at the way she was treated. To report on that rage, I needed a direct response from Amy. She was also busy with Christmas and could not write this immediately, but I now have something and hope to generate a followup report soon based on her input.

      Also, does Sinclair “deserve credit” for anything? DOC could choose to completely ignore the OCO reports, which contacts in other states tells me is common. As far as I can tell, DOC is trying to engage with the issues in their own ponderous way, at least as I read the reports from the OCO. This news report was a summary of the material from the OCO office, and that report did not overtly complain about the actions of DOC. Now I have some overt complaints that I hope to report about – but that does not invalidate the original report, other than one minor error concerning infractions.

  5. This is I believe is endemic throughout the entire corrections systems. In my journey through the MDOC (Michigan) when I would assist less literate guys with grievances staff would “direct” me to leave things alone or I would “get some diesel therapy “ (arbitrary punitive transfers to less desirable prisons often as far from where I was loved as possible). I was be no means unique in this. This is also but one example.
    There are some staff that just have an institutional hatred of inmates or are simply not emotionally equipped to handle the job. I will make clear that there are also many who simple want to earn a paycheck and try their best to follow the rules and don’t let their opinions cloud their performance .

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