Go to jail: The Daily Sun takes you inside Belknap County facility

LACONIA — Although Dan Ward, superintendent of the Belknap County Jail and House of Corrections, is not especially proud of his facility, he relishes the opportunity to usher visitors through its confines, impressing on them the achievements of his staff under what he believes are difficult conditions.

Jail time begins at the "sallyport", an enclosed garage where police officers and sheriff's deputies deliver those who have been arrested to the facility. The sallyport opens in to the "reception and diagnostic" area of the jail. Here new inmates are booked, searched, photographed and fingerprinted before being placed in one of three small holding cells, one of which is equipped for conducting video arraignments, for up to 72 hours while awaiting a court appearance.

Those not released on bail then pass to one of three standard six-foot by eight-foot cells, fitted with a bench, shelf, sink and toilet, where they are evaluated to determine if they have medical conditions or other requirements needing special attention as well as to classify them as maximum, medium or minimum security inmates. Maximum security inmates wear orange, medium security inmates and those awaiting trial green and minimum security inmates blue. From here they are assigned to an appropriate housing unit.

Without windows and lit constantly, there is no day and night in the reception and diagnostic area. The cells have no intercom system and the area has no video surveillance. However, since the area is visible from the master control area, inmates gain the attention of officers by rapping firmly on the windows of their cells.

Master control, a raised room encircled in glass, in the only air conditioned space in the facility. "The air conditioning is not for the comfort of the officer," Ward said. "it's to keep the equipment running." The lone officer manning the station is responsible for all visitors and inquiries, answers all telephone calls, responds to the intercom, opens and closes all doors, manages the "sallyport", maintains the daily log and monitors all the surveillance cameras.

Apart from master control, there is a supervisor and three officers on each of three daily shifts at the jail. Officers make rounds every half-hour and the jail is locked down and a head-count taken with each shift change. Ward said that whenever a prisoner arrives, one of the three officers on the floor attends to reception. Likewise, when the nurse, who administers medications seven days a week, in making her rounds she is accompanied by an officer. An officer is also present when inmates are in the outdoor recreation area.

"The jail runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week with five people," Ward said, adding that to staff the three shifts of five requires 25 full-time employees. "The staffing level has not increased in 20 years," he said.

Beyond the reception and diagnostic area but not far from master control are three cells, which Ward described as "genuine prison cells," for locking down inmates who pose a risk to others. The door is barred and solid, but for a small window and hatch for feeding. These cells are intended for inmates whose behavior requires segregation and confinement. "They are locked down for 23 hours and taken out for an hour to shower and so on," Ward said.

Ward explained that since he cannot foresee when or in what numbers prisoners may arrive or when an inmate may need to confined, as many as possible of the six cells in the reception and diagnostic area and three lock down cells should be available at all time. "If two inmates get into a fight, I need two of those three cells," he said.

Ward said that the jail was built for 87 beds, but its capacity has been stretched to 109, including the nine cells he seeks to keep open. A week ago today there were 92 inmates in the building ranging in age from 17 to 80, of whom Ward estimates 60 percent were awaiting trial and the rest serving sentences. But, by the following Monday the number had jumped to 113, swelled in part by drunks taken into protective custody during the weekend. Pointing to a schedule of concerts at Meadowbrook taped to the wall in master control, Ward said, "we've taken 50 into protective custody, 10 on one occasion, after concerts."

Most of the beds for medium and minimum security inmates who are in pre-trial confinement are in the housing units, which are divided into pods of two, three, four, six or eight cells, most with two beds apiece and toilets, a common area and shower. Inmates are segregated according to their classification. Ward said that the "negative pressure room," where the ventilation system draws air into the room but prevents it from escaping to contain contamination, has been pressed into service to hold four inmates. "The door must always be open and there is no circulation," he said.

In addition, female inmates are normally housed in the attic of the oldest section of the jail, built in 1890, where there is space for 16 beds and they share one shower and two toilets. Finally, there are 32 beds in the so-called House of Corrections where most inmates serving one or more year-long sentences are housed in a large room resembling a barracks fitted with two showers, four sinks and four toilets..

Maximum security inmates are held in one unit with four cells, each with a single bed, and a common area. "The inmates can share the common area, but only leave the unit handcuffed and shackled," Ward said.

In the medium and minimum security pods, the locks have long gone from the cell doors and costing $800 apiece have not been replaced. There are windows in the common area and one cell, but Ward said they cannot be opened to let in fresh air in the summer or sealed to keep out cold air in the winter. Last week, when temperatures flirted with 100 degrees, floor fans in the common areas offered the only relief. One inmate said he had taken two showers, filling the pod with steam both times.

During the hot spell, most of the the women were moved from the attic, where the mercury reached 110 degrees, to the gymnasium below. Another six women occupied a pod with three cells, sharing a shower and lying on the floor to escape the heat. This week, when the number of inmates grew, the attic was reopened for male inmates.

Of the 32 inmates in the House of Corrections, built in 1954, Ward said 27 were working for the county in kitchen and laundry at the nearby nursing home, in the garage, on the farm and maintaining buildings and grounds. "For zero pay," he said. "They're supporting the county budget."

Ward said that 37 different educational, vocational, therapeutic and inspirational programs are offered at jail, all of them in the one room available, which also serves as the space where inmates meet with visitors, attorneys and mental health counselors. "Scheduling the use of that room is a challenge," he said.

Apart from the inmates held in the facility, another 10 are on work release and four on electronic monitoring ("the bracelet") under the supervision of Don Lemay. Ward said that usually Lemay manages 24, divided evenly between work release and the bracelet. "That's all one man can handle," he said. Lemay said that the county receives a third of all wages while the balance is applied to fines, restitution, child support and public defenders.

Ward stressed that he was responsible not only for safeguarding the public but also protecting the inmates. Security within the jail, he stressed, is a stiff challenge. With cells without locks, inmates in barracks and three officers on the floor, usually out of sight of one another and master control, he said there is little to forestall or contain an incident other than the responsible conduct of the inmates themselves. "When we lock down we tell the inmates to stay in their cells and in the House of Corrections we tell them to lie on the beds and pretend they're in a cage," Ward remarked. He credited his officers with fostering sound relationships with inmates and maintaining an orderly atmosphere in the facility, often in trying circumstances.

Ward, one of six certified jail managers in New Hampshire, pulled a stack of books from the shelf behind his desk, three prescribing standards for correctional facilities and the fourth entitled "The Constitutional Rights of Prisoners."

"There are no standards, no inspections in New Hampshire," Ward said, "but the courts apply the standards, he added hefting the three thick volumes.