Convention members hear pitch for spending $42.5 million on new jail

LACONIA — Members of the Belknap County Convention reacted to a long-awaited presentation on a plans for a new county correctional facility with a mixture of skepticism about the willingness of voters to support the plan's $42.5 million price tag and the increase in staffing it would bring. Suggestions for alternatives, including outsourcing all the inmates to Strafford County. And one representative voiced support for the plan as the best thing for the county in the long run.
The comments came after a presentation by Ken Ricci and Laura Maiello of Ricci Greene Associates of New York, who worked with a Belknap County Jail Planning Committee to develop a plan for a new correctional facility.
Maiello said that a new facility would require 180 beds, plus five for inmates requiring medical care. Inmates would be profiled according to some 13 criteria, including gender, risk, offense, and special needs, and separated appropriately.
A third of the beds, divided between 44 for men and 16 for women, would be dedicated to the community corrections program, for inmates awaiting trial, on work release or electronic monitoring and undergoing intensive treatment. The other 120 beds, 88 for men and 32 for women, would be allotted to maximum, medium, and minimum security inmates as well as those with special needs. A handful of these beds would also be designated for receiving and discharge. The beds would be divided between five housing units, two for men — one with 36 beds and another with 52 beds — and one for women.
She said that a report by David Bennett, the consultant the commission hired to develop a strategy for the Corrections Department aimed at reducing the high rate of recidivism and the spiraling cost of incarceration makes the case for a community corrections approach in which county jails help inmates ''make a successful transition back to the community.".
She said that in addition to providing a safe, secure and compliant environment, that the new jail must also have space for substance abuse treatment, behavioral therapy, mental health services, educational programs and vocational training.
Ricci said the proposed a 94,450 square-foot, two-story facility would be built in an open field behind the current county complex, and would be about 350 long and 140 feet wide. It would utilize the food and laundry services the county already has at the nearby Belknap County Nursing Home.
The report projected that to operate the facility efficiently the staff, which currently numbers 28 full-time employees, would have to increase to 49 with correctional officers representing 13 of the 21 additional employees.
Personnel costs, including compensation, benefits and payroll taxes, are projected to rise by $2,728,800 over the next 30 years, up by $2,728,800 over the current $1,597,000.
Those numbers were of major concern for Rep. Bob Greemore (R-Meredith), who asked if the county was going to get the kind of payback in reduced crime and jail costs for all of its investment.
He also wondered if it would be more efficient to actually have two separate buildings, one for community corrections and the other for maximum, medium and minimum security inmates.
County Commissioner John Thomas expressed skepticism that two facilities would be less expensive because of the operational and maintenance costs.
County Commissioner Ed Philpot, who chairs the Jail Planning Committee, explained that the county began looking at a comprehensive facility plan over four years ago and the study determined that there were structural deficiencies with the jail that made it more costly to rehabilitate than to replace.
He said that new corrections strategies adopted by the County Jail in recent years have reduced recidivism and that he was certain that the improved programs for prisoners in a new facility would also lead to further reductions.
Representative Colette Worsman (R-Meredith), chair of the County Convention, suggested that the county look at outsourcing jail operations to Strafford County, saying that it would only cost $51 per day per prisoner.
Philpot said that was an idea which should be studied while Thomas said that it's a far different thing from a few prisoners placed in Strafford County to the entire jail population being placed there.
Ricci also cautioned against that approach, noting that one New York county with 200 prisoners was paying $8 million a year to send its prisoners to another county's jail.
Worsman also asked what guarantee the county had that after spending all the money a new facility would cost that taxpayers wouldn't be faced with the same problem 25 years down the road.
Ricci said that the proposed jail is designed for use for 70 years.
Rep, Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) wondered of the jail could be built in phases and if that would be more cost effective.
Maiello said that it would be difficult because the current design is for a mixed population and that such a strategy works best only when a prison serves a single kind of inmate, such as high security.
Rep. Dennis Fields (R-Sanbornton) said that he thinks the proposed plan is the best over the long run for the county and urged his fellow legislators to support it.