HARTFORD — The Correction Advisory Committee has recommended New Haven-based civil rights attorney Ken Krayeske be appointed as the state’s correction ombudsman, a new position tasked with responding to incarcerated people’s complaints, visiting prisons and reviewing and evaluating the Department of Correction’s services and procedures.
At a Thursday hearing, committee members questioned the three finalists for the position — Krayeske, Stop Solitary Chair Barbara Fair and Assistant Public Defender Hilary Carpenter.
Krayeske, who has brought forward multiple lawsuits against the Department of Correction on behalf of current and former inmates, told the committee that he viewed the role as an opportunity to bring about changes in a new way.
“You get tired banging your head against a wall,” he said. “Litigation is a declaration of war. Building bridges is better than making war.”
Krayeske recently pursued a federal lawsuit against the state Department of Correction that ended in a settlement, requiring the state to spend millions of dollars to test and treat inmates for hepatitis C. He is also representing Taneisha Hill, whose brother, James Henderson Hill, died after the department allegedly failed to properly address his brain aneurysm.
The corrections ombudsman position was created in the PROTECT Act, a bill passed in 2022 designed to improve conditions in the state prison system by limiting the amount of time inmates can be kept in solitary confinement, the amount of time they are able to be held in restraints, and creating an ombuds position in the state Office of Governmental Accountability.
Krayeske told the committee that his first action would be to ask the Appropriations Committee for additional funding for the office.
Committee Chair Tadhg Dooley noted that the legislative budget had set aside $400,000 for the ombuds office, less than two-thirds of what the Office of Legislative Affairs determined would be necessary to run the office. At the hearing, he openly called on the Appropriations Committee to fully fund the office in the upcoming session.
Appropriations Chair Cathy Osten told CT Examiner that the group would evaluate the budget in the upcoming session. She also noted they were already halfway through this fiscal year, and that any money that hasn’t been spent would be carried forward.
“We’re not going to short anybody out of the important work they’re doing,” Osten said.
Krayeske also said the office should partner with the U.S. Department of Justice, which in 2021 discovered during an investigation that the Manson Youth Institute failed to provide mental health and special education services to young people, thereby violating their constitutional rights. Within the first 90 days on the job, Krayeske said he planned to review records of how former ombuds operated the office, send introductory letters to inmates and speak to the Department of Administrative Services about adding staff.
“I want an investigator who did time. I want somebody who’s done time, who can go back into prison and talk to people about what they’ve seen. I want an investigator who has credibility with the incarcerated population,” he said. “I also want really strong clerical staff, and I also want a lawyer. I want a lawyer who’s smarter than me and better than me.”
When asked about the challenge of providing effective mental health care to inmates, Krayeske was moved to tears.
“I think that’s the hardest piece of this entire puzzle,” he said. “I think many, many, many, many people that I have talked to are already traumatized when they go into prison, and prison does nothing but exacerbate trauma.”
Krayeske recalled a woman he represented who had given birth in a prison cell, and said he was unable to get mental health care for her.
“How do you give mental health to a 16-year-old who did nine months in solitary? How do we answer that question? I don’t have the answer for it. I need to bring in people who know more than me,” he said.
Krayeske also suggested the ombuds could help corrections officers who have filed workers compensation claims after being involved in fights in the prisons, only to be denied by the Office of the Attorney General.
“To strengthen the relationship between the ombudsman and correctional workers is to say, ‘Look, we want you to go home safe at night too,’” he said.
Fair, who was the committee’s second choice after Krayeske, received overwhelming support from inmates who sent written testimony to the committee. Much of the testimony came from inmates of York Correctional Institution, where Fair had volunteered with the Rikers Debate Project.
Many of the women at York also described abuses they suffered at the prison. One woman said that, despite being a high-risk cardiac patient, she had been unable to see a cardiologist for 14 months. Another said she was kicked in the temple by a department employee and placed in solitary for 10 days without medical help. She later discovered she had a concussion.
Others complained about the generally poor conditions of the prisons.
“Every day I’m exposed to unsafe, unsanitary and undignified conditions. I’ve been harassed and targeted for trying to advocate for prisoners’ rights, set up for not accepting sexual advances by staff, and degraded by continual and unnecessary strip searches,” one woman wrote anonymously. “I know without a doubt that if I’d had a strong advocate like Barbara Fair to investigate these issues, the outcomes of these egregious affronts would have been very different.”
A Department of Corrections spokesperson said it was difficult to comment without more information about the incidents, but that the department generally “does not condone the type of behaviors described by these women.” They added that the woman describing sexual advances was “strongly urged” to file a complaint under the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Fair’s nomination, while highly endorsed by inmates, was opposed by all three of the Correction Officers Unions, who claimed Fair was not supportive of correction officers.
“To read Ms. Fair’s comments, one would think that staff is demonic,” said Brian Witthington, vice president of corrections for Local 1565. “Our staff have a tough enough job without an ombudsman who regularly vilifies staff.”
In response to questions from the committee about the connection between the wellness of corrections officers and inmates, Fair said the original PROTECT Act included a section dedicated to the wellness of correction officers. While focused on improving the situation for incarcerated people, she said she also recognized the need for corrections officers to work in a healthy environment.
“It doesn’t mean because I’m standing for the rights of incarcerated people that I don’t care about correctional staff or I think correctional staff is all bad,” Fair said. “There’s so many good people that get into corrections that want to make a difference, and many of them get out because they said the culture is so bad they could not treat people the way they treat them and then go home at night.”
Krayeske also received multiple endorsements from the public.
Activist and BLM 860 leader Ivelisse Correa, who said she would have supported Fair if Krayeske had not been a finalist, told the committee that Krayeske was the only person who showed interest in her after her father was sent to prison on a marijuana possession charge. When she attended Long Lane School, a former juvenile prison in Middletown, she wrote an article for a youth newspaper that Krayeske founded, called Echoes from the Street, about the conditions at the facility.
“We were throwaways. No one cared about our conditions except for Ken,” she said.
Years later, she said she found out the article had been widely read and that people were outraged on her behalf.
“He’s always spoken up, and he’s told others to speak up. He gave me my voice. Before I even knew that people actually cared and that this was published all over the place, he gave me my voice as a child,” she said.
Carlos Diaz said he had also met Krayeske while working on Echoes from the Street, as a 13-year-old orphan from the south side of Hartford.
“Ken taught me a lot about accountability. Not just as a man, but as a community member. And how much was on my shoulders and the burden of representing not only myself, but my family and those that love me,” he said.
He strongly endorsed Krayeske for the position and praised his sense of justice.
“I used to think, ‘Why does this crazy white man care?’” Diaz recalled. “He just cares about what’s right. Not about color. Not about position. Not about authority. About what’s right as human beings.”