This story has been updated.
Connecticut’s prison oversight committee is recommending the appointment of Kenneth J. Krayeske, a civil rights attorney based in New Haven, to serve as the independent authority who would help oversee the Department of Correction.
The person chosen will ultimately have the power to conduct unscheduled site visits, review agency records and investigate complaints coming from the roughly 10,000 people behind bars.
The Correction Advisory Committee, the 11-member group responsible for selecting candidates for the correctional ombudsperson, arrived at its decision late Thursday night. It followed a lengthy public hearing that, in addition to Krayeske, featured input from two other finalists for the position: Hilary Carpenter, a veteran public defender, and Barbara Fair, a longtime prison reform advocate.
The final choice will be up to Gov. Ned Lamont.
The committee’s decision to recommend Krayeske, a former candidate for attorney general, marks a significant step toward establishing independent oversight of the DOC, which continues to face accusations of inhumane treatment by advocates and incarcerated people.
“Years ago, I realized that we can’t litigate our way out of this situation. We need visionary policy, teamwork and effective oversight of a bureaucracy that is very resistant to change and extremely suspicious of outsiders,” Krayeske said at the public hearing. “And I stand humbly before this committee on a body of work demonstrating that change is possible within the system. It requires patience, discipline and a strong independent mindset.”
A journalist turned activist turned lawyer, Krayeske has established a reputation for fiercely defending the rights of incarcerated people in the courtroom. The 51-year-old, who once made national headlines for his arrest at the inaugural parade of former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, has criticized the DOC for conditions that he believes amount to torture and condemned the attorney general’s office for routinely defending the actions of prison officials.
He was the lead attorney in a Hepatitis C class action lawsuit, which, after several years of bargaining, prompted the state to drastically overhaul how it tests and treats people in prison for the deadly liver disease. More recently, he sued the DOC in relation to the death of James Hill III, whose sister, Tanisha, testified earlier this week that she had to fight to receive information regarding his passing. She also blamed her brother’s premature death on medical neglect.
The final decision regarding the ombudsperson will rest in the hands of Gov. Ned Lamont, who, by law, will have 30 days from the time he receives the committee’s formal recommendation to consider its advice and appoint one of the three finalists. If Lamont doesn’t act within the statutory time frame, Krayeske will become the correctional ombudsperson. Fair was second in the committee’s ranking of the finalists, while Carpenter was third.
If Lamont, who often faces swift criticism for his perceived inaction on criminal justice reform, were to accept the committee’s advice, he would be appointing an individual who has been a part of a larger advocacy community, routinely calling on his administration to do more fighting for the rights of people in prison.
“Upon receiving the list of candidates, the Governor’s Office will conduct a thorough review and fulfill the statutory obligation of appointing someone to the position,” said David Bednarz, a spokesperson for Lamont, in a statement on Friday. “The governor thanks the committee for their evaluation of these candidates.”
The advisory committee’s choice to recommend Krayeske for the role was preceded by a sequence of delays dating back to the passage of the law that established the position in 2022.
Known as the PROTECT Act, for Promoting Responsible Oversight, Treatment, and Effective Correctional Transparency, the law increased the number of mandated hours that incarcerated people can spend outside of their cells, limited the DOC’s use of solitary confinement and established independent oversight of the agency.
It specifically mandated the appointment of a correctional ombudsperson in the state’s Office of Governmental Accountability who would hold the power to, among many other responsibilities, investigate prison conditions and complaints from incarcerated people. Nearly two years have passed since the bill was signed, yet the ombudsperson has not been appointed.
The law also required the creation of the Correction Advisory Committee, the group responsible for helping fill the post. The legislation required 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 the rest of the 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 of advocates, lawyers, healthcare professionals and correctional experts has also struggled to navigate state government, which much of the group found moved slower than anticipated. The members have expressed frustration with the lack of assistance from lawmakers. And they were disappointed in the funding allocated to launch the office — $800,000 over the next two fiscal years — which fell short of what was recommended by the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis.
“I just want to, before we begin, formally make this call for the Appropriations Committee, members of the Judiciary Committee, and others to do more in this upcoming short session to fully fund this office,” said attorney Tadhg Dooley, co-chair of the advisory committee, at the start of Thursday’s public hearing, alluding to the start of the legislative session in February.
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 on Thursday.
Public defender Hilary Carpenter listens to the Correction Advisory Committee as it commences a public hearing to help select an ombudsperson.
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Carpenter has been a public defender in the Division of Public Defender Services for well over a decade. In 2005, she joined and helped grow the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, where she served as president.
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.
In her first 90 days after being appointed, she 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,” Carpenter said. “But I am not afraid to speak truth to power, especially when it comes to my clients.”
Shahrzad Rasekh / CT Mirror
Fair, a licensed clinical social worker, leads Stop Solitary CT, a group that is dedicated to ending the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities across Connecticut. The decades-long advocate and her organization were largely responsible for the creation of and advocacy around the PROTECT Act. Most recently, she launched a campaign to end the use of routine strip searches.
Fair didn’t prepare an opening statement for the committee because “I feel like my work speaks for itself.” She said she decided to apply because much of the work she would do in the role mirrors the work she’s already done in her career: advocating for meaningful change, communicating back and forth with incarcerated people, and working with the department commissioner to solve problems. She worked with the DOC’s top official, Angel Quiros, on the PROTECT Act.
The opposition to her candidacy came mostly from the state’s correctional unions, which expressed their belief that she would bring her personal biases to the job. They said she’s demonstrated that she doesn’t respect their profession.
“I can understand why people on the inside, correctional staff, might have some concerns. And the only concern that they should have is, Can we work together? Can they hear the pain and suffering of incarcerated people?” said Fair, who received a good deal of written testimony from incarcerated people in support of her candidacy.
“Correctional staff have the state behind them. They have the union behind them,” she added. “They have people to support them. Incarcerated people have no one. And as a child, I always stuck up for the ones who were being bullied all the time.”
Krayeske, who also received an abundance of public testimony in support of his candidacy, testified last. Similar to the other two candidates, he spoke about establishing the office’s identity in the first 90 days through spreading public awareness and building relationships with stakeholders.
He said he believes the office should have reach outside of Connecticut, going as far as saying it should build rapport with the Department of Justice, which did extensive work investigating Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire. He was visibly emotional when speaking about a woman he represented who gave birth in prison and couldn’t get access to mental health care. He also said he would have no problem transitioning from the role of lawyer to one that centers more on mediation.
“I’m supposed to be a zealous advocate. I’m supposed to take something just shy of the reduction to the absurd and make my point. I’m supposed to fight as hard as I can for my client,” said Krayeske, who, similar to Fair, received some written testimony opposing his candidacy. “In the ombudsman role, I understand it’s a different job description.”
After deliberations, the committee publicly shared its decision to recommend Krayeske to serve as the ombudsperson, though the members mentioned that they could see both him and Fair “excelling” in the position. Ultimately, the committee left the public hearing impressed with the level of thought and detail that Krayeske put into his plan for his first year in office.
Lamont, however, will have the final say.
“We certainly hope he’ll give it some weight,” said Dooley, the co-chair, of the committee’s recommendation.
A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the facility investigated by the Justice Department. It is the Manson Youth Institution, not the Mansen Youth Institution.