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February 12, 2024

Lamont appoints Hilary Carpenter to DOC ombudsperson role

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Public defender Hilary Carpenter listens to the Correction Advisory Committee as it commences a public hearing to help select an ombudsperson.

Bypassing a committee’s recommendation, Gov. Ned Lamont is appointing Hilary Carpenter to serve as the independent authority responsible for investigating prison conditions inside the state Department of Correction.

Lamont’s decision to select Carpenter, who currently works in the Division of Public Defender Services, as the prison ombudsperson goes against the guidance of the Correction Advisory Committee, the group that interviewed and selected candidates for the governor to choose from for the position.

It also comes after the governor required the job finalists to meet with Department of Correction Commissioner Angel Quiros in recent weeks, though it is unclear what role Quiros played in the final decision.

After a public hearing last month, the advisory committee recommended the appointment of civil rights attorney Kenneth J. Krayeske. From the three finalists, which also included longtime activist Barbara Fair, the committee ranked Carpenter last, despite feeling that each of the candidates would be qualified for the job. 

“Ultimately, it’s the governor’s call,” said Carpenter, whose appointment now awaits confirmation by the legislature, in an interview on Friday. “I’m feeling very honored today and very excited to get started in this new position and to fulfill the mandate of the statute. I just cannot wait to get started.”

The ombudsperson, under the Office of Governmental Accountability, will be required to independently conduct site visits, communicate with incarcerated people, review agency records and draft a yearly report on the conditions of confinement.

David Bednarz, a spokesperson for Lamont, said the governor believes that Carpenter’s experience as a public defender and her previous work as an advocate against the death penalty would enable her “to be a strong advocate for the safety and rights of inmates and correction staff.”

The appointment marks the most significant step thus far in the process of establishing independent oversight of the DOC, which continues to face accusations of inhumane treatment by advocates and people in prison. 

“I don’t know how you explain why you jumped over the top two people. I don’t know how you explain meeting with the commissioner over whom you have to have oversight,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, of Lamont’s choice. “I’m sure the administration has an answer for it, and, like everybody else, I await their public explanation of it.”

Lamont’s office did not immediately respond to a question about the role Quiros played in the appointment. 

Tadhg Dooley, one of the chairs of the Correction Advisory Committee, said he was surprised by the decision because he hadn’t heard of any opposition to the panel’s ranking, but noted that it was the governor’s “prerogative” to select any of the three finalists.

“All three of the finalists we selected were excellent and I am confident that, if the Assembly approves her nomination, Hilary will fill the role with appropriate independence and zeal,” Dooley said.

At the public hearing, Carpenter told the committee that she devoted her life to advocating for incarcerated and indigent clients. She also said that she saw access to medical care, mental health treatment and adequate work programming as some of the biggest unaddressed needs plaguing jails and prisons.

“I’ve helped sentenced prisoners navigate the complicated DOC system with an emphasis on empowering them to advocate for themselves and intervening directly when necessary,” Carpenter said at the forum.

She also talked about her time helping grow the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty from a group of volunteers to a grassroots organization, which she said prepared her for the rigorous task of building an organization from the ground up.

In her first 90 days as the ombudsperson, Carpenter said she planned to use available research to effectively grow the office, develop a system to handle the influx of concerns coming from incarcerated people and build relationships with key stakeholders, including correctional personnel.

“I’ve maintained professional relationships with department personnel, knowing that burning bridges will not help with current and future clients,” she said. “But I am not afraid to speak truth to power, especially when it comes to my clients.”

The creation of the Office of the Correction Ombuds was required by a law passed roughly two years ago known as the PROTECT Act — for Promoting Responsible Oversight, Treatment, and Effective Correctional Transparency.

The law also required the creation of the Correction Advisory Committee, and it specified that within 30 days after passage on May 10, 2022, the governor and high-ranking lawmakers submit letters to designate their appointments to the committee.

But the officials missed the deadline, setting off several months of delays. Advocates had also raised concerns about the surprise appointments of two people with close ties to the DOC, which they felt would undermine the panel’s independence.

The committee said it received 30 applications for the ombudsperson position and conducted eight interviews. It narrowed the pool down to Krayeske, Fair and Carpenter, all of whom testified last month.

Lamont had 30 days from the time he received the committee’s formal recommendation to consider its advice and appoint one of the three finalists. If he had decided not to act within the statutory time frame, Krayeske would have become the ombudsperson.

“I am grateful to the members of the Correction Advisory Committee for their confidence in recommending me for this vital role. And I respect the Governor’s decision to appoint Hilary Carpenter,” Krayeske said in a statement. “She is a strong choice, and I am ready to support her and do anything I can to help her succeed.

“The need for oversight and reform within the prison system is what matters most,” added Krayeske, who was the lead attorney in a Hepatitis C class action lawsuit that prompted the state to drastically overhaul how it tests and treats people in prison for the deadly liver disease. “I will continue my efforts on behalf of our state’s prisoners and their families through my work at BBB Attorneys.”

Barbara Fair, one of the finalists and the leading organizer for Stop Solitary CT, a group dedicated to ending the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities across Connecticut, was not immediately available for comment. 

It is unclear when the legislature plans to vote on Carpenter’s appointment.

However, she said on Friday that she wants people in prison to know, “I can’t wait to get started.”

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