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News Spotlight: Washington State Department of Corrections Retaliation Response

Published August 9, 2022


The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) appreciates the opportunity to address such an important topic, such as retaliation, which is an all-too-common occurrence in correctional settings. The department is working each day to change culture and visions within the department through staff training and educational opportunities, partnerships with outside organizations such as the Amend team through the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), and analyzing and improving our agency practices, procedures and policies which allow us the opportunity for growth and pro-social improvement.

In working with the Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO), DOC was able to identify several opportunities for implementing change that can strengthen the procedures surrounding retaliation within the department.

Recommendation and Response

OCO Recommendation: DOC Policy 550.100 should be updated to include the following language:

Retaliation or the communicated threat of retaliation against anyone for their good faith participation in the resolution program, filing a lawsuit, making a complaint, or other legally protected action or their involvement in any investigation or review is prohibited, and will result in disciplinary action if a staff person has been found to have:

  1. Engaged in retaliation
  2. Failed to report retaliation by another staff person
  3. Failed to take immediate steps to prevent retaliation

Allegations of retaliation should be made through the resolution program by first filing a Level 0 grievance. If a Resolution Specialist finds that the complaint has merit or could result in disciplinary action against the individual, they will elevate it to the relevant Appointing Authority and notify the involved incarcerated individual. The Appointing Authority/designee will take appropriate measures to investigate the allegation of retaliation. If additional investigation is pursued, the complaint will be removed from the resolution program and accepted as a staff conduct investigation.

Indicators of retaliation may include, but are not limited to:

  1. Disciplinary infractions
  2. Housing changes and reassignments, including administrative segregation placement
  3. Job or other program changes
  4. Behavioral Observation Entries (BOE)
  5. Healthcare changes or denials
  6. Staff mishandling of mail or property

If retaliation is substantiated through DOC investigation, the retaliatory action will be voided unless there is a separate, reasonable justification for the action that is not pretextual.

DOC Response: The department acknowledges and concurs with the recommendation that policy language should be updated to include more specificity around addressing the important issue of retaliation. The department also acknowledges the intent of the policy language the Ombuds has provided and will undertake a review of the involved policies through the policy update process. The process involves stakeholder input and will include protections from retaliation, a process by which to hold staff accountable for engaging in retaliation, failing to report retaliation and failure to take immediate steps to prevent retaliation. In the spirit of the process, the department will review applicable existing policy and, if needed, create new policies to address these issues contained within recommendation #1.

The department has updated its Resolution Program policies and it will update additionally as noted below:

DOC 550.100 Resolution Program – Directive – “Ensure the appointing authority/designee is notified when there is evidence of any negative employee conduct or retaliation, per the Resolution Program Manual.”

The Resolution Manual was also implemented on March 3, 2021. Please see page 15 example listed below.

“Employee Conduct If during the course of any review the Resolution Specialist finds the action(s) identified by the individual is found to have merit and could result in disciplinary action against the employee/contract staff, the Superintendent/Community Corrections Supervisor/Field Administrator will be notified and determine if an administrative review will be initiated. If this occurs, the Resolution Request will be administratively withdrawn. The formal response will state, “During this review, it was found that your concern may have merit. An administrative investigation is being conducted on this allegation outside of the Resolution Program. An administrative investigation is an approved formal review process. The Resolution Program does not review issues with established formal review processes. As a result, your concern has been administratively withdrawn.” The individual will be informed of an administrative investigation’s outcome (i.e., substantiated, unfounded, or unsubstantiated allegation) by correspondence. Specific information regarding the action taken, or to be taken, against an employee/contract staff is confidential and cannot be divulged. If during the Level 0 review it is determined an administrative investigation is in process on the issue or concern identified, the Resolution Request will not be accepted. If during the course of a review it is discovered that another administrative investigation is in progress on the issue or concern identified, the review will be ended and the Resolution Request will be administratively withdrawn. A formal response will be issued to inform the individual of this action”

OCO Recommendation #2: DOC should expand any existing training specific to recognizing and understanding retaliation, including addressing the topic within both CORE and annual in-service training, as well as create more in-depth training for persons who may be assigned to investigate retaliation. This training could mirror the OCO’s internal training on investigating retaliation.

DOC Response to Recommendation #2: The department will provide OCO’s investigator training to DOC investigators, human resources staff, and Appointing Authorities who work at or support prison facilities. Additionally, the department has developed a training that provides a comprehensive understanding of the resolution program requirements, what to do when you discover staff conduct concerns and also goes through writing an actual resolution review report and properly labeling the review outcome.

OCO Recommendation #3: DOC should create procedural safeguards to prevent staff from using retaliatory infractions, BOEs, or other negative actions against incarcerated individuals after a staff member becomes the subject of a complaint or lawsuit. This could include adding a step to current procedures that would allow incarcerated individuals to lift up a retaliation concern at the time of the negative action (such as during the disciplinary hearing) prior to completion of the negative action.

DOC Response to Recommendation #3: The department will facilitate and communicate increased education pertaining to retaliation and the appeal process in addition to the existing procedural safeguards of appeals processes. Currently, the department has the appeal tools posted in the resolution program manuals that address retaliation in the facilities. The department will also specifically address retaliation within its code of ethics of conduct. The resolution program team also has implemented a “2 can be true rule” which means that there may be findings that an incarcerated individual has done the action noted, but that doesn’t end the investigation and there may be instances where there was additional actions that were inappropriate to encourage the incarcerated individual to act as they did. In the past, the initial finding would stop the investigation, through implementation of this new rule it is giving a more thorough look of the whole situation.

The department understands that there are areas that we can continue to improve and grow as an agency and is grateful for the opportunity to continue collaborating with the OCO to review policies and procedures to identify steps that will shorten the distance towards creating a culture that has fully enveloped our agency values. The department agrees that there is work that can be achieved through continued efforts focused on the DOC resolution program and welcomes this as an avenue where both the DOC and OCO can continue proactive improvements together. The department again, appreciates the opportunity for progress presented by this report, and is committed to following through with these actions going forward.