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House jails committee approves bill creating ombudsman to investigate jail complaints

CHARLESTON — The House of Delegates is advancing a bill that would create an ombudsman program in the state’s Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

According to HB 5358, the ombudsman would work in the Office of the Inspector General in DCR and review complaints against a state agency or correctional facility.

The staff attorney for the House Jails and Prison Committee told committee meetings Thursday the agency currently has an assistant commissioner that reviews grievances. The bill would create a further review option.

“This would be an independent person that would look at grievances if they are requested to look at them outside the inmate grievance process, looking for patterns, looking for policy failures,” the attorney said.

The legislature created the Office of the Inspector General last year to review inmate complaints. Former lawmaker Mike Honaker holds the position and told lawmakers last week he’s been in several facilities over the last few months.

“I personally am going to every prison and every jail in the state of West Virginia to conduct a comprehensive inspection,” Honaker told members of the House Jails and Prisons Committee last week.

The jails committee did amend the bill Thursday to make the ombudsman a mandatory reporter. The amendment was offered by Del. Hollis Lewis, D-Kanawha.

“I don’t want to make this person an advocate or anything to that effect, it’s just if something rolls across his desk that someone is being physically harmed or sexually abused in a facility it should be reported,” Lewis said.

GOALS program

The jails committee also passed a bill, HB 5363, that would require the Commissioner of Corrections and Rehabilitation to continue the GOALS Program in regional jails.

GOALS is an addiction recovery program for inmates.

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said he’s witnessed how well the GOALS works.

“I think it’s a good idea to put it in code so it can’t be changed,” Pushkin said. “It’s something that’s working. We need to keep doing it and expand it.”

Both of the bills passed Thursday and next head to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.