Attorney General Brown: ‘Correctional system needs some significant oversight’
Some Maryland legislators and advocates are once again proposing the creation of a correctional ombudsman to provide oversight of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Although the legislation nearly passed unanimously in the Senate last year, it died in the House Rules Committee in the final days of session.
On Wednesday, Sen. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) presented this year’s version, Senate Bill 134, before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
“The need for independent oversight in the correctional facilities in Maryland is long overdue,” she said. “The current system of oversight and accountability within the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is insufficient to deal with the myriad of issues arising behind bars.”
Attorney General Anthony Brown (D) traveled to Annapolis to testify in support of the measure but proposed some amendments. Others in support of the legislation included Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue and Olinda Moyd, a professor at American University Washington College of Law.
A major change from last year’s bill would create an Office of the Correctional Ombudsman as an independent operation in state government, not house it within the attorney general’s office.
Several problems at Maryland’s prisons have become public in recent years. In May 2023, the attorney general’s office announced that 15 people had been indicted for smuggling fentanyl, methamphetamines and other items into the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
Two months later, the Board of Public Works voted to approve a $13 million settlement following allegations of unpaid wages for state correctional employees. The investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor started in 2018.
“The need for transparency and accountability [has] been well documented,” Brown said. “We’ve got a closed environment in our correctional system that needs some significant oversight if we’re going to improve conditions for those we incarcerate.”
Because the attorney general’s office serves as legal counsel to the Department of Correctional Services, as it does with all state agencies, Brown said it would present “an inherent conflict” for his office to supervise the ombudsman.
He said an ombudsman would be appointed by the governor with advice and consent from the state Senate.
According to a fiscal note analyzing the bill, the state’s Commission on Correctional Standards determines whether a correctional facility hasn’t met “minimum mandatory standards” such as food services, housing, sanitation and safety.
A House version of Hettleman’s legislation has been introduced by Del. Debra Davis (D-Charles). No hearing date has been set for her bill.
Several states, including Hawaii, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington, have created correctional ombudsman offices.
The state of Hawaii’s office is within its attorney general’s office, but used for “administrative purposes only…”
Terry Schuster, a correctional ombudsman in New Jersey, testified in Annapolis on Wednesday and said the office does unannounced inspections of the state’s nine prisons. He said the office conducted a recent inspection of four facilities to interview incarcerated individuals on their access to phone calls and visitation from loved ones.
He said the office, located within the state’s Treasury Department, has a staff of 20 people and a budget of about $2.5 million.
“But I don’t answer to the treasurer. I answer to the governor,” Schuster said. “If I need [human resources] support and I get that from Treasury and I need procurement, I get that from Treasury, when furniture, I get that from the Treasury.”
In neighboring Virginia, an Office of the Department of Corrections Ombudsman is within the Office of the State Inspector General.
According to a summary of Virginia’s legislation, the office can initiate investigations “upon its own initiative” of a complaint from someone incarcerated, a family member of that person, or a department employee or contractor. The office was approved last year after Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed a budget bill that provided it with $250,000.
A fiscal note for the proposed legislation in Maryland estimates that the creation of a correctional ombudsman could be at least $500,000. The money would include salaries and fringe benefits for two investigators, a correctional ombudsman, one assistant attorney general and one administrative aide.
In a letter dated Monday, Brown wrote that “immediate funding” for a correctional ombudsman office in Maryland would require a minimum of five staff members and the development of a complaint tracking system.
“As an independent agency, additional funding for office space, equipment, and other organizational costs may also be necessary,” he wrote. “But these additional funding requirements exist regardless of where the independent agency is placed with the organization of state government. The state should revisit this funding level each year to evaluate its continued sufficiency.”
Hettleman told Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, that a potential funding source has been identified.
“I’d be happy to talk about that with you offline,” she said.
When asked by a reporter about the possible funding source, Hettleman said, “I’m not prepared to tell you that now.”