In a surprise, Gov. Ned Lamont passed over the top two choices recommended for Correction Ombuds on Friday, selecting instead Hilary Carpenter, a long-time public defender, for the new position overseeing conditions in the state prisons.
The decision left legislators and advocates to question why Lamont rejected Ken Krayeske, a civil rights lawyer, and Barbara Fair, a justice reform advocate, the top candidates recommended by the legislature’s appointed Correction Advisory Committee.
The Correction Advisory Committee was formed after the passage of the PROTECT Act in 2022, a bill requiring changes to improve conditions in the state’s prisons. The ombuds position, which will be housed in the Office of Governmental Accountability, is tasked with responding to complaints in the prisons, and with reviewing and evaluating Department of Correction services and procedures.
Lamont spokesman David Bednarz told CT Examiner in a statement that the governor’s decision was based on Carpenter’s experience, noting that Carpenter had been chosen as one of three finalists out of dozens of applications given to the Committee.
“The governor agrees with the committee that Hilary’s years of experience as a public defender advocating on behalf of those accused of crimes, as well as her leading role in the movement to abolish the death penalty, will enable her to be a strong advocate for the safety and rights of inmates and correction staff,” said Bednarz.
Bednarz did not respond to a further question from CT Examiner about why he chose not to appoint Krayeske or Fair.
Carpenter told CT Examiner by phone that she was surprised to hear she’d been chosen for the position.
“There were two other really great candidates, so I think it was definitely anybody’s guess as to who would get it,” she said, adding that the governor had not explained any reasons for his choice.
Asked by CT Examiner whether she felt, as a long-time state employee, she could push back against the state if the ombuds role required it, she replied that challenging the state was already something she did on a daily basis.
“I push back against the state every day in my job. I may be a state employee, but I actually fight the state every day in the capacity as public defender. So that’s not a new thing to me,” said Carpenter.
Carpenter said she couldn’t wait to get to work building up an office to begin to tackle the new role.
A senior assistant public defender in Hartford, Carpenter told the Correction Advisory Committee in January that she saw the ombuds position as one focused around evaluating services provided in prisons.
“All of us have the same opinion on that. The answer to that is no, they’re not. So we have to figure out where they’re, they’re falling short and why,” Carpenter told the Committee.
Of particular concern, Carpenter said, is the lack of mental health services. She pointed out 95 percent of the prison population has been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
“I’ve noticed that among my clientele, there are problems with access to appropriate mental health care treatment,” said Carpenter. “Mental health is not just one thing. It’s a huge spectrum of conditions that need to be addressed in a meaningful way. And I don’t think that DOC is currently set up to meet those needs, as diverse and intricate as they are.”
Carpenter said during her testimony that she has built positive professional relationships over time with people in the Department of Correction which would be helpful in her work as ombuds.
She also discussed the need to collect data, to make information available to the public and to set up a system to address any complaints that might come in.
“What I think are the most important issues is not important. It’s what the incarcerated population thinks are the most important issues. I might have my own biased view of what those issues are based on my clientele, but that doesn’t mean that they are the most important issues by any stretch of the imagination,” said Carpenter.
The chair of the Correction Advisory Committee, Tadhg Dooley, told CT Examiner the governor did not give the committee any explanation for why he departed from their recommendation.
“While I was surprised the governor did not follow our recommendation … I think all three of our finalists were excellent and I am confident Hilary will fulfill the ambitious goals of the office if she is confirmed,” said Dooley.
As a lawyer, Krayeske has filed a number of lawsuits against the Department of Correction on behalf of current and former inmates, including a federal lawsuit that cost the state Department of Correction millions of dollars to test and treat inmates for hepatitis C. He declined to speak with CT Examiner on the record. In a statement, he thanked the committee for their recommendation and pledged to help Carpenter in any way he could.
“I am grateful to the members of the Correctional Advisory Committee for their confidence in recommending me for this vital role. And I respect the Governor’s decision to appoint Hilary Carpenter. She is a strong choice and I am ready to support her and do anything I can to help her succeed,” said Krayeske. “The need for oversight and reform within the prison system is what matters most – and I will continue my efforts on behalf of our state’s prisoners and their families through my work at Bbb attorneys.”
Barbara Fair, the chair of Stop Solitary Connecticut and one of the chief advocates for the 2022 PROTECT Act, told CT Examiner by phone that the governor’s decision was “predictable.”
“Most of us in my circle, who care about incarcerated people, predicted from day one, when she got chosen as the third person — we knew it was going to be her,” said Fair. “She’s the least threat to the system because she’s already part of the system.”
Fair said she wasn’t disappointed by the outcome – she plans to continue advocating for incarcerated people in the same way she has in the past.
State Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, told CT Examiner that he had expected Krayeske to be appointed to the position in light of the committee’s recommendations. He said that he strongly supported Krayeske and had hoped that Krayeske would be appointed.
“I know he has a passion for this work, for this advocacy, and would certainly have been a very dedicated ombudsman,” said Looney.
Alex Taubes, a civil rights attorney in New Haven who attended a press conference with Fair in January calling for greater transparency from the Department of Correction, told CT Examiner that while he found it “highly questionable” that Fair and Krayeske were not chosen, he was “withholding judgment” until he saw how Carpenter approached her new position.
Taubes said that regardless of who is in the role, he believes that the first thing the person appointed needs to do is ask for additional funds. He also said he wanted to see “immediate transparency” from the Department of Correction around deaths in custody and other issues.
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, told CT Examiner that he had no complaints about Carpenter, but that he was concerned about the way the decision was made.
“My thoughts are about the way this plays out in the mind of the public. You have a process. The candidates are looked at by a committee. They do deliberations. They rank the candidates. Skip the first two and you go with the third … It feels very much like what we intended to do is not what we did here,” said Winfield.
Winfield said that he worried the way the decision played out would diminish people’s trust in the office.
“My worry is that people don’t have strong faith in what we put together. And the whole point of this was to give people a sense that if something goes wrong, you have someone who’s independent — who can go in and look at what’s happened and if it’s necessary to fight, fight,” said Winfield.
State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, praised Carpenter’s knowledge and her ability to work with many different groups.
“She’s been a public defender for over 15 years. It appears she spent a lot of time in our various correction facilities,” said Somers. “She is very well versed in all the issues facing the D. O. C. and she appears to really have the right temperament to be able to work with all sides to reach a successful resolution to whatever those issues are, which I think is a really important part of that position.”
But she also said Krayeske would have been a terrific ombudsman.
“I think he’s been a ferocious advocate. Maybe that’s tough — to be a ferocious advocate and then go to the institution that you’ve been advocating against,” she said.
Ultimately, she said, the decision rested with Lamont.
This story has been updated to include comment from Carpenter