Maryland prisons are dangerous and unhealthy places, both for staff and for the approximately 15,000 men and women detained behind bars. Now is the time for Maryland to step up to the plate and alter the culture so those who live in prison and who work there can do so in an environment conducive to rehabilitation and successful reentry.
Incarcerated people are often subjected to acts of violence and other abuse, sometimes by staff. They often have trouble obtaining adequate medical care for serious health needs; practicing their faith; receiving mail related to their incarceration, as well as other correspondence; and accessing reading materials, including legal research documents. Programs for rehabilitation are frequently difficult to access, if they exist at all.
Family members regularly face obstacles in visiting their loved ones, and scheduled visits are often abruptly canceled even after families confirm them and have traveled many miles to faraway facilities. Both incarcerated people and staff may face retaliation for reporting acts of misconduct, which can then become widespread and entrenched. Prisoners often face retaliation if they seek redress for their grievances.
Beyond these grave wrongs, there are plenty of mundane but nevertheless significant problems, like the poor quality of the food prisoners are served, the often unsanitary and repugnant conditions in the kitchens, and the exorbitant prices in the commissary — frequently the only option for individuals who need to supplement the food the prison provides (almost everyone). Correctional administrations are notoriously defensive and closed to outside review. Between 2008 and 2019, Maryland’s state correctional institutions endured at least six major criminal scandals. In 2020, three correctional officers in Maryland were indicted after an investigation revealed ongoing smuggling of drugs, cellphones and other contraband into the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore. There have been countless assault cases. In March 2021 three correctional officers in Maryland were indicted on assault and misconduct charges after placing a prisoner in an illegal chokehold.
What is needed is a completely independent oversight mechanism for Maryland’s correctional system. Approximately 18 states are reported to have various entities overseeing prisons. Maryland’s General Assembly is currently considering bills (House Bill 64, Senate Bill 87) to establish a correctional ombudsman; the Senate bill has bipartisan sponsorship.
The Office of the Correctional Ombudsman (OCO) would be an independent, impartial public office — not part of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services — serving Maryland by promoting positive changes in corrections. A 2022 poll sponsored by Families Against Mandatory Minimums found that 82% of Americans support independent prison oversight.
As outlined in the proposed bill, the OCO would have the authority to enter any facility, without prior notice or permission, at any time and talk to anyone as needed. This is an essential condition for an effective ombudsman. The office would be responsible for:
- Investigating complaints related to an incarcerated person’s health, safety, welfare and legal rights;
- Providing information to incarcerated persons and families regarding self-advocacy;
- Identifying and publicizing systemic problems;
- And monitoring and ensuring compliance of the DPSCS with relevant statutes, rules and policies regarding the treatment of incarcerated persons under its jurisdiction.
Correspondence and communication with the OCO would be confidential and privileged; penalties could be imposed if agencies or individuals interfere with the work of the ombudsman office.
Incarcerated people, volunteers, family members and staff all want safe, well-run institutions. Correctional management is interested in improving the quality of its prisons and jails, reducing deaths, injuries, illness, workplace grievances and lawsuits. That incarcerated people want and need better treatment goes without saying.
Independent oversight of Maryland’s prisons and jails would move us a few steps closer to creating a just and decent corrections environment. The bills to establish an Office of the Correctional Ombudsman in Maryland deserve our strong support. Now is the time to shine a light on what goes on behind the prison walls.
Judith Lichtenberg (email@example.com) is professor emerita of philosophy at Georgetown University and has taught at Jessup Correctional Institution since 2016. Olinda Moyd (firstname.lastname@example.org) directs the Re-Entry Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law. Both are members of the executive committee of the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform.