TDCJ Ombudsman Office a one-stop shopping place for public
As Ombudsman Coordinator Kathy Cleere explains it, her office functions much like a superstore -- where the public can shop for answers to their questions and concerns about the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“It’s really like a one-stop shopping place for people,” she said. “We answer questions and concerns from members of the public and legislative offices.”
State law requires agencies to have an office that serves as a central point of contact for the public. TDCJ established its then one-person Ombudsman Office in 1989. The office now employs 16 people 8 ombudsmen and 8 support staff - spread across four offices. In addition to the Coordinator’s Office, ombudsmen are assigned to agency divisions responsible for incarceration, parole and probation.
|Windham School District employees Marjie Haynes, left, and Connie Parker talk with a participant at the Fourth Annual PACT Conference in Huntsville on March 4.
Photos by Bambi Kiser
“The office has grown because the prison system has grown,” Cleere said. “When you’re dealing with 35,000 to 40,000 offenders, you don’t need that large a staff. Now we have more than 150,000 offenders, so there are going to be more people calling.”
But with the rise of the Internet, people don’t just phone or send in their inquiries through the regular mail anymore. During the last fiscal year, 8,179 of the 18,365 contacts logged by the Ombudsman offices were made online.
“We get contacts from all over the world now because we have Internet e-mail,” Cleere said.
Cleere said her office also aggressively publicizes its services. Posters can be found in prison visitation rooms, as well as in parole and probation offices. Ombudsman staff members regularly speak to offender family groups; they also sponsor a workshop for legislative aides before the start of each regular legislative session to educate them on how to process public inquires through TDCJ.
“Before there was an Ombudsman Office, people got the idea that if they would shotgun a complaint to a number of different offices, then somebody would look into it,” Cleere said. “So you may have had five different offices investigating the same thing, which was a duplication of work. If there’s one central point of contact for people, it saves all the way around.”
On average, Ombudsman staff members now handle about 1,200 inquires a month, the majority of which deal with prison and parole issues. Approximately 85 percent of the contacts come from offender family members.
But contacts don’t necessarily amount to complaints.
“A lot of people refer to us as the Complaint Department, but we’re not,” Cleere explained. “We’re more about customer service because we don’t always get complaints. We get a lot of questions about policies and procedures.”
For the past four years, the Ombudsman Office has sponsored the Public Awareness Corrections Today (PACT) Conference in Huntsville to educate offender family members and others about how the agency works.
|The Ombudsman Office has coordinated the PACT Conference in Huntsville the past four years. The conference helps friends and family members of offenders understand how TDCJ operates.
“It’s very frustrating, I’m sure, to have a loved one in a prison environment where you’re always concerned about their safety,” Cleere said. “What we try to do is educate them. That’s one of the main functions of the PACT Conference, to educate them about what goes on inside prisons, about our programs and procedures, so they become more familiar with what goes on.”
When a specific complaint is registered, the Ombudsman Office first acknowledges it and then asks the appropriate authorities to investigate. Ombudsmen attempt to pass on the findings of the investigation to the concerned party within 30 working days.
“There’s no way we can please everyone,” Cleere said. “What we try to do is let them know that there is a place that they can bring their concerns or their questions, and that they’re going to get a response back from a real person. We don’t have automated telephone lines or voice mail. When people call the office, they’re going to get a real person on the other end of the phone. They’re going to get someone who is going to take their concerns seriously, investigate them, and as much as we can within the realm of confidentiality and security, explain to them the outcome of the investigation.”
Besides responding to inquiries, the Ombudsman Office keeps a look out for patterns that might suggest potential problems.
“Our main function is to be the central point of contact for the public and to be responsive to the public on behalf of the agency,” Cleere said. “Our secondary function is to watch for any kind of problem areas. For instance, if we’re getting a lot of complaints about a particular area on specific units, then we need to bring that to the attention of the department administrator.”
Cleere said groups like the Texas Inmate Family Association and Texas CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) have been helpful in promoting the services of her office and often propose ideas meant to improve relations between TDCJ and offender family members.
“These groups have brought things to the table that we don’t always see from their perspective,” Cleere said.
Responding to more than 1,000 inquiries each month might seem like a tiring task. But for Cleere and her staff, the job is really more of an educational process, one that gives them insight into the entire workings of the agency. The job also brings them a level of satisfaction.
“The reward for me is in knowing that I might have been there to educate or help somebody with their experience through the criminal justice system, which is huge and can be overwhelming,” Cleere explained. “It’s rewarding for me to know that I could assist somebody as they go through this stressful period of their life.”