Beyond the Badge

Diversity is a priority for Eric Joe

Eric Joe wearing jacket and tie.
Eric Joe, Ombudsman and GARE Steering Committee member.

Ombudsman, GARE Committee member discusses career

Eric Joe began his career with CDCR/CCHCS in 2008 after leaving the California Department of Public Health. During his 14 years, he has held various positions with responsibility over such areas as Recruitment, Health and Disability Benefits, Succession Management Planning, Revenue Recovery and Position Control, Training, and Health Care Appeals.

In his current role as an Ombudsman, he identifies systemic issues impacting our Department and recommending changes to address them.

He also serves as a CDCR steering committee member for the Governmental Alliance on Race & Equity (GARE), through which information and resources are shared to assist government agencies to advance racial equity in their departments and the communities they serve..

In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, engaging in community service, officiating football and basketball games, and being around family and friends.

Eric Joe on link between Ombudsman, GARE committee

As an Ombudsman, what is your role and why is it important to CDCR?

Let me start by answering the question most asked: what is an Ombudsman? As history would describe it, Ombudsman is a gender-neutral term with Swedish origins. It is a word meaning representative or agent. Those who are familiar with an Ombudsman have encountered them as an independent advocate for patients, consumers, or employees. An Ombudsman investigates, reports on, and helps settle complaints within a health care or organizational setting.

Within CDCR, I have a slightly different role, working independently as an intermediary. I offer individuals a confidential avenue to address complaints and resolve issues at the lowest level. Most see me as an advocate for the incarcerated population. However, the reality is I am one of six Ombudsmen who listens to issues or complaints from the population, their families, and other stakeholders.

We also answer questions related to CDCR programs, policies, and procedures; provide situational analysis; make policy and procedural recommendations; and ultimately advocate for the fairness of a process as opposed to advocating for an individual.

Ombudsman basic job description

I am a high-level buffer, reporting to the Chief Ombudsman, who reports to the Undersecretary. I maintain institutional caseload assignments encompassing prisons housing the most vulnerable and highest medical-risk individuals.

Typically I travel to my assigned institutions three weeks out of every month, spending three to four days and sometimes the weekend addressing issues involving:

  • appeals
  • visiting
  • health care
  • classification
  • discipline
  • use of force

Along with the Director, Associate Directors, and Wardens, I work to mitigate risk and solve problems that could potentially harm the Department or result in litigation.

As an example, think of a trucker traveling down a mountain passage with a fully loaded trailer. The truck uses a pneumatic (air) braking system to power the brakes and control downhill speed. In order for the brakes to effectively work, there needs to be proper air pressure and flow throughout the system. An air control valve helps manage air pressure within the system and keep things functioning. I am one of six air control valves for the Department.

As a member of the GARE Steering Committee, what is your role and why is it important to CDCR?

I believe that achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace is one of the largest issues we face today. As a member of the GARE Steering Committee, it is my responsibility to provide the Department with tools and strategies for building an inclusive and culturally diverse workforce while leading the effort and increasing representation at all levels.

I like sports so let’s take women’s soccer as an example. Prior to 2018, the U.S. women’s national team was paid on average 40% less than their male counterparts. Things finally came to a head and these professional female athletes demanding economic equality took to the media. They staged protests, and persistently attacked the status quo. They were able to reach a deal with the U.S. Soccer Federation and finally leveled the gap in compensation.

Other sports examples include:

  • the NFL’s longstanding issues with racial equality and the lack of black head coaches
  • the IAAF barring female athletes from competing in women’s track and field events due to elevated testosterone levels
  • the virtual absence of women in executive leadership positions across all sports, just to name a few.

As some already know, the Department has efforts in place to improve diversity in recruiting and hiring for underrepresented groups. The question is: Are we doing enough? In the above examples there are efforts in place to address the issues; however, the organizations have struggled to implement, maintain, or be accountable to them. It is my role to answer that question and ensure the GARE Steering Committee puts forth achievable initiatives that are implemented, and the Department is accountable to.

How do your roles as Ombudsman and with GARE complement each other?

I would say the roles are comparable to soap and water. On one hand, as someone who is inside 3-4 institutions each month, it is conceivable for me to tour every institution within the Department over the course of a year. With a caseload assignment, we understand that is not likely. However, when I am in the field, a large portion of my responsibility as an Ombudsman is to develop relationships with staff at all levels and in every area of the institution. On the other hand, as a GARE Steering Committee member, I am tasked with raising understanding and awareness throughout the Department of race and gender equity.

It is the perfect match. I am boots on the ground within the institutions walking and talking to staff each day. I have the opportunity to be empowering by creating and maintaining working relationships in which individuals are respected, engage in continuous learning, and have equal opportunities for personal and career development regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, or religion. Through conversations, I am also able to bring awareness to issues, available resources, and upcoming initiatives, while at the same time see what is already in place. It serves a dual purpose as I will be able to answer questions and provide feedback to the GARE Steering Committee that can assist us in driving the Path Forward.

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