On a given day, the roughly 15,000 people in Maryland prison facilities might encounter trouble in a variety of forms: shoddy medical care, fears of violence, confrontations with correctional officers or unhygienic food, to name a few examples.

And yet, while prisoners frequently file formal grievances with their facilities, they say those complaints are not always taken seriously.

Lawmakers and advocates are increasingly optimistic those prisoners will soon have somewhere else to turn: an ombudsman’s office, which would operate as an independent wing of the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, outside the confines of the prison system.

Support is coalescing behind legislation that would create the office, modeled in part after prison watchdogs in other states and in part on the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit already functioning under the attorney general’s office.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Similar legislation has been introduced in the last two sessions, but the upcoming year feels different for those who have made creating the ombudsman’s office their top priority.

Attorney General Anthony Brown, who took office this year, has been vocally supportive of the measure, a notable endorsement, especially considering that he leads the office in charge of defending the corrections department in legal matters. The corrections department has not formally opposed the bill in past legislative sessions, though it has not been enthusiastic about the measure.

Brown has, over the last several months and alongside Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue, visited barbershops, held town halls and created a working group to address issues around mass incarceration in Maryland, which has disproportionately affected the state’s Black population.

About 30% of the state population is Black, but Black people make up about 71% of the prison population — the starkest racial disparity in the country.

On his listening tours, formerly incarcerated people told Brown how the steep cost of phone calls and other expenses made it difficult to stay connected with their families while behind bars, and how the odds were stacked against them when they got out.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The attorney general told The Baltimore Banner the experiences of those in the prison system make clear that creating an ombudsman’s office is necessary. He said he hopes the office will take an evidence-based and trauma-informed approach to examining systemic issues in the Maryland prison system.

“If you really believe that incarceration is all about rehabilitation ... why shouldn’t we take a look at that?” Brown said.

Brown said he envisioned an office modeled after the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, which he said would be a “tremendous step forward.”

“There are others who would want the correctional ombudsman to go further than that,” he said.

Still taking shape

The ability of the ombudsman’s office to compel witnesses to testify, for example, is one potential sticking point.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In the last legislative session, Sen. Shelly Hettleman included subpoena power in the bill but it was taken out when it came out of the Senate. This upcoming session, the senator has put it back in. She anticipates it could be subject to debate.

New Jersey lawmakers gave the state’s correctional ombudsman’s office, after which the Maryland legislation was modeled, the power to subpoena witnesses in 2020, making it one of the strongest oversight models for prisons in the country.

“Barely a week goes by where we don’t read about something happening behind the bars that is of concern,” Hettleman told The Banner. “So I think we should have someone in this oversight role shining a light on what’s happening and ensuring that our correctional system is working as it should.”

The creation of prison oversight offices has taken hold across the country in recent years, including in Virginia, according to the National Resource Center for Correctional Oversight.

Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas and prison oversight expert, said correctional systems are in charge of peoples’ lives and well-being yet often lack basic checks and balances. Despite that, and despite the fact they are extraordinarily expensive to run, prison systems are notoriously opaque, Deitch added.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Imagine schools, nursing homes, banks, mines, all of these entities that have some kind of responsibility for either the care of people inside or the safety of our communities — they all get oversight,” Deitch said. “And, if they didn’t have oversight, we’d be appalled. So why don’t we think about prisons in this context?”

In addition to investigating individual complaints, the Maryland correctional ombudsman’s office would have the ability to probe systemic issues across facilities, recommending new policies that could reshape how the entire prison system operates.

Gaining momentum

In the mid-1980s, Olinda Moyd, a Baltimore native, returned home after going to Ohio State University for law school. In one of her first jobs as a lawyer, with the NAACP, Moyd answered prison mail.

In that role, Moyd began communicating with people serving life sentences at the Maryland State Penitentiary.

“What’s sad is that many of the men I met at that time,” Moyd said, “are some of the same men I’m working with now.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Moyd, who retired as a senior public defender before teaching at the Howard University School of Law and running its reentry clinic, now directs the decarceration and reentry clinic at the American University Washington College of Law. She’s also on the board of the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform, for which she drafted much of the language in the bill as its lead organizer.

Heading into the next session, Moyd said, she and other advocates are feeling “very confident.” She and other MAJR members have been contacting scores of state delegates and garnering help from currently and formerly incarcerated people, along with other advocacy groups. The Legislative Black Caucus, Moyd said, has signaled that it is making the bill a priority.

Moyd listed an array of deficiencies she hoped the ombudsman’s office would get a handle on.

Chief among them is health care. The state’s prison population is growing older and sicker, and prisoners frequently sue the private health care provider, which has been mired in controversy.

The second-highest priority for Moyd is the lack of educational and vocational programming, which several advocates said has fallen by the wayside since the coronavirus pandemic.

Behind the walls

Judith Lichtenberg, a professor emerita of philosophy at Georgetown University, has seen that degradation firsthand.

Lichtenberg has been teaching at Jessup Correctional Institution since 2016 and started teaching recently at Patuxent Institution, both maximum security facilities. Many of her students have been transferred from prisons with little or no drug treatment or mental health programs, let alone college classes.

“They are the most eager students I have ever had anywhere,” Lichtenberg said. “If you hand out readings for three classes from now, they’ll read them right away, because they’re hungry to learn.”

Beyond a lack of programming, some of the more disruptive prisoners end up in solitary confinement for extended stretches of time, according to Moyd, conditions that human rights advocates compare to torture.

Prisoners and staff alike endure some of the physical conditions: a lack of heat in the winter and a lack of air conditioning in the summer, Moyd said. She also cited rodent infestations and the decrepit physical conditions of some facilities.

Moyd, who has long specialized in providing services for people returning to their communities from prisons and jails, said that reentry aspect of the state system is also severely lacking. Prisoners are released without identification cards and with little support.

In other states with correctional ombudsman offices, the benefits have extended beyond prisoners housed in the facilities, said Philip T. Caroom, a retired Maryland Circuit Court judge who sits on the executive committee for the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform.

Caroom said 95% of state prisoners are released to their communities but often without the support of a well-paying job. About 30 to 40% of released prisoners return to incarceration within three years, he added. If that could be lowered, “both the size of our prisons and their cost to taxpayers could begin to shrink dramatically.”

An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the prison oversight office in Pennsylvania. It is not an ombudsman's office but a different type of oversight group.

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com

Ben Conarck is a criminal justice reporter focusing on law enforcement for The Baltimore Banner. Previously, he covered healthcare and investigations for the Miami Herald and criminal justice for the Florida Times-Union. 

More From The Banner