Prison Ombudsman Nominee Faces Criticism from Advocates, Lawmakers

Ken Krayeske and Barbara Fair speak at a news conference on April 2, 2024, on the corrections ombudsman selection process (CT Examiner).


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HARTFORD — Advocates and lawmakers argue the ombudsman appointment process for the Department of Corrections has ignored the voices of incarcerated people and their families, and question the current nominee’s ability to represent inmates effectively.

In February, Gov. Ned Lamont passed over the Corrections Oversight Committee’s recommendations and appointed Hilary Carpenter as corrections ombuds, despite her being the group’s third choice. Lamont gave no explanation as to why he declined to nominate the first and second choices — civil rights attorney Ken Krayeske and Stop Solitary advocate Barbara Fair, respectively. 

“I really believe that the governor’s office needs to answer the question because the committee went through the tedious and arduous process of vetting three candidates, three nominees that they felt deserved to go before the governor. And they did that in the order of qualifications through that vetting system,” State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said. “It’s not a far-fetched question.” 

Dave Bednarz, a spokesperson for Lamont, praised Carpenter’s qualifications during a Tuesday news conference, but did not elaborate on why the governor did not choose Krayeske or Fair. 

“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,” he said. 

The governor’s selection was later passed to Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee members, many of whom expressed concern about the process. A March 12 meeting ended in a tie vote that would preclude the nomination from going forward.

But on March 26, State Rep. Dave Yaccarino, R-North Haven, asked that the committee reconsider the vote. Although many people had expressed concerns about Carpenter, he said, most expected that the nomination would have been allowed to be considered by the legislature. At that meeting, the vote to move Carpenter forward passed 15-2. 

Republicans Yaccarino, State Rep. David Rutigliano, R-Trumbull, State Rep. Tammy Nuccio R-Tolland, and State Sen. Henri Martin, R- Bristol, along with Democrat State Rep. James Sanchez, D-Hartford, changed their votes from “no” to “yes.”  

In a Tuesday statement to CT Examiner, Yaccarino said he and other Republicans initially raised concerns about staffing levels for the ombuds’ office but now expressed willingness to support Carpenter.

“Our hope was that our concerns would be addressed and that her nomination would be confirmed on a bipartisan basis on the House floor. Now, this nominee has given Republican committee members the confidence to support her going forward and we expect that our Democrat colleagues will join us,” the statement read. 

Sanchez told CT Examiner he was originally concerned that Carpenter would not be able to work with people in the Department of Correction, but that Carpenter alleviated those concerns. 

“She told me that she’s more than willing to work with the leadership as well as collaborate with them, and create programs that’ll both benefit the employees with working with the incarcerated,” Sanchez said.

‘Backdoor politics’

Advocates and lawmakers, however, said Lamont’s decision disregarded the voices and preferences of incarcerated individuals, many of whom submitted written testimony to the Corrections Advisory Committee supporting the appointment of Barbara Fair. 

Marisol Garcia, co-chair of the Corrections Advisory Committee, expressed frustration with the process and said no efforts were made to talk to members of the incarcerated community.

“I would rather we went back to the drawing board because … the backdoor politics doesn’t work for me,” Garcia said. 

During the news conference, Carpenter said several of her clients were pleased about her ombuds nomination, but later told CT Examiner she shared concerns about not hearing from incarcerated individuals regarding the position. 

Hartford resident Diane Lewis, whose son was formerly incarcerated, spoke in favor of Fair and doubted that Carpenter could understand what the family members of incarcerated people were going through. 

“Hilary Carpenter was not my choice because she will never know how it feels to watch your child at the mercy of the injustice system that was designed to bury him before he was born. She will never know how it feels to not be able to come to your child or touch your child when he needs it the most,” Lewis said. “But Barbara Fair knows. Barbara knows that even after our loved ones come home, that’s just the beginning. We will be dealing with the trauma of our broken children for the rest of our lives. We belong to the same club, Barbara and I.”

Fair said she initially didn’t want the job because of the emotional toll it would take to see “people in a cage.” But she understood that the ombuds had to be someone who deeply cared about those incarcerated.  

“I just cannot accept having somebody that’s not going to help them,” she said. “I have a son that I look at every day that was broken in that very system. A system that had an ombudsperson, but an ombuds person who really didn’t care enough to make sure that these people had the best of care.” 

Carpenter told CT Examiner she “has nothing but respect for [Lewis] and everything she’s been through,” adding that she’s spent 18 years working with incarcerated people or those at risk of being incarcerated. 

“That is what I do. That is what I do every single day. So I may not have experienced it myself,  but I have experienced it through my clients and I have helped them with it for almost two decades,” she said.

‘Real people suffering’ 

During Tuesday’s news conference, Krayeske said he also deserved an explanation for Lamont’s decision to deviate from the committee’s recommendation. 

“I am first. I have toiled for seven long years in the trenches of litigation against the Public Safety Division of the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Connecticut. And let’s be clear, this is bare-knuckle fighting,” he said. 

Krayeske added that he was frustrated with the selection process. 

“We know that there are real people suffering behind this. Any efforts to water down this position with political compromise destroy the integrity and the utility of this position,” he said. 

Legislators and advocates also worried that Carpenter’s position as a public defender would compromise her ability to independently represent incarcerated people. 

“For success, it takes someone that the community, the incarcerated community, and their families can trust. They can trust to give them information, and that information is not going to go back to the Department of Corrections,” Fair said. 

Carpenter acknowledged lawmakers’ concerns, which she said also arose during the initial meeting of the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee. She said she addressed these concerns with legislators afterward and also engaged with advocates following the public hearing.

“I would not have applied for this position if I did not care deeply about Connecticut’s justice-involved population and the families and communities that love them,” she said. “I recognize that this office is incredibly important to everyone here, and that it is vital that the ombuds be selected through a fair and transparent process.” 

Carpenter told CT Examiner that she hesitated at first to reach out to advocates following the hearing because she had not officially been offered the job. 

“I felt it would be presumptuous, maybe even arrogant,” she said. “People disagree with me on that. I totally respect that and I have taken steps accordingly.”  

State Rep. Anne Hughes, D-Easton, also underscored the need for an independent pair of eyes to examine problems within the Department of Correction. She noted that over 200 people had died in custody of the Department of Correction between 2019 and 2021. 

“Something is wrong, something is pervasive, and it’s happening on our watch with our state-sanctioned dollars and our state-sanctioned staff,” Hughes said. “And that is why this position of independent ombudsman is going to get into a hornet’s nest of opposition, quite frankly, because when you start to look real close at what’s happening … across the system, it’s going to be a heap of trouble.”

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.