The Maryland Department of Public Services and Correctional Services continues to have a lack of oversight when it comes to looking after the welfare of inmates.
That’s Del’s opinion. Debra Davis (D-Charles) and other advocates of legislation she sponsors to establish a correctional ombudsman in the attorney general’s office to oversee the department that manages a dozen state prisons and one correctional facility on the East Coast.
“Our citizens lack transparency and accountability about what happens behind the walls of our state correctional facilities,” Davis told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “As policy makers, it is our responsibility to have access to this information. We cannot legislate what we cannot see.”
The bill will also be assigned to the House Health and Government Operations Committee. Del. Lesley Lopez (D-Montgomery), a member of that panel, asked one of the more than a dozen supporters who testified why an ombudsman position was necessary.
“Everyone needs supervision. We don’t judge ourselves,” said Vanita M. Taylor, department head at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
One of the most recent high-profile cases of inhuman treatment in a correctional facility involves Jazmin Valentine, who was being held in the Washington County Jail in July 2021 when she went into labor. According to a lawsuit filed last year, Valentine was denied medical attention while she worked more than six hours before giving birth to her first child alone in a cell.
“This law does not directly address local prisons statewide, [but] It will surely be a catalyst for establishing a proper standard of care around the world [prison and jail] system,” Davis said Tuesday.
Under the legislation, the Attorney General, with the advice and approval of the Senate, would appoint an Ombudsman for a five-year term. The Ombudsman has experience in auditing, dispute resolution, government relations, investigations, law or social work.
The Ombudsman would have authority to review the agency’s policies on a variety of issues, including the use of restrictive housing, plans to close or refurbish facilities, the adequacy of mental health care and educational or vocational training programs, and more.
In addition, an ombudsman may subpoena a person to either testify under oath or provide documentary evidence in investigating a complaint.
“If the Ombudsman determines that an employee or agency of a government agency has acted in a manner that warrants criminal charges or disciplinary proceedings, the Ombudsman will escalate the matter to the appropriate authorities,” the law states.
After completing an investigation, the Ombudsman would have approximately 30 days to provide a written report. If the report requires a response from a correctional facility official, a response is required within 30 days of receipt of the report.
The Ombudsman would submit an annual report to the Governor and the General Assembly detailing the investigations conducted.
The legislation will be tabled in the Senate and will be co-sponsored by Sens. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) and Chris West (R-Baltimore County). The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing on Feb. 8.
The salary for an ombudsman would be “equal” to that of a district judge, which is just over $171,300.
In an interview ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, Davis said the attorney general’s office gave her a key goal for the legislature: “just” to fund the position.
Three officials from the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services testified on Tuesday about the department’s current policy and answered questions from lawmakers, but did not speak out for or against the legislation.
Cleveland Friday, acting deputy commissioner for the department’s eastern region, said after an inmate files a complaint with a warden, it is not reviewed by a corrections officer for more than 45 days.
If an inmate wishes to appeal the commissioner’s decision, that person has up to 45 days. If the appeal is not overturned by the commissioner, an inmate can appeal through a grievance process, and the grievance will be heard by a state administrative judge, Friday said.
He said the state’s Intelligence and Investigative Division has carte blanche to make unannounced visits to state prisons, including checking on inmates’ living conditions or well-being.
“We have mechanisms in place to make unannounced visits to any facility,” he said.
David Greene, a warden who oversees Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup, Baltimore City Correctional Center and Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville, approves the formal process for resolving inmate grievances called the Administrative Appeals Process, also known as the ARP.
“When I see that there are two or three complaints, I know where to direct additional resources and how to respond to them. If we’re wrong, we’re wrong,” he said. “We attempt to resolve any concerns that come to our attention as quickly as possible at the lowest possible level.”
Gordon Pack, who served 42 years in prison after being charged with rape, kidnapping and armed robbery when he was 15, said an ombudsman would help inmates and prison staff.
He said some case managers are overworked, preventing detainees from receiving appropriate medical treatment and other needs.
“There’s a need everywhere,” said Pack, 59, of Baltimore City, who was released about 2 1/2 months ago. “I support an ombudsman. It helps everyone.”