LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners were told Wednesday that the county House of Correction will need to make major changes in the way it handles its inmate population in order to comply with new federal standards which will take effect at the start of 2014.
BCHOC Superintendent Daniel Ward said that those standards, developed as a result of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was passed in 2003 with unanimous support from both parties in Congress, cover all prisons, as well as local jails, police lockup and juvenile facilities.
He said that were the standards were in place today there is no way that the county facility could meet all of them, particularly a requirement that juvenile inmates be separated by sight and sound from the general inmate population and that they be offered the same level of programs as other inmates.
He said that some of the provisions of the law which require administrative actions such as staff training, naming a PREA coordinator and providing informational material about sexual assaults to inmates can be met. But other areas are problematic due to the configuration of the facility which does not allow line of sight supervision in all areas.
Ward said that cross-gender pat-down searches, commonly used to detect contraband for those entering the facility, are prohibited, as well as cross-gender cell monitoring, which means that more female guards will need to be on duty on all shifts.
He said that currently guards are allowed to pat-down both genders and that requirements for direct line-of-sight supervision, either in person or through the use of cameras, would require the installation of a camera system which would provide security equivalent to that of a jewelry store, especially in the corridors between cells.
''We will be able to comply with policy and procedure but we can't comply with the requirements for sight and sound separation for juveniles,'' said Ward, who said that if a 17-year-old were brought into the facility at 10 at night there would be no place where they could be held which would comply with the new standards.
Ward said that this year he has had 12 17-year-olds at the facility, eight of whom were charged with felony level offenses.
He said there has been some talk in correctional circles of having the state change the age of majority to 18 in order to have juveniles housed in a separate state-operated facility, but no action yet been taken. ''Juveniles wouldn't be coming to this facility if the law is changed,'' said Ward.
Ward also said that the correctional facility will partner with the Belknap County Sheriff's Department on rape investigations involving prisoners and that many of the standards would also apply to the Sheriff's Department when it came to transportation of prisoners, as well as to the jail's medical facilities.
Ward told commissioners that failure to comply could have major economic implications for the county, which could lose eligibility for up to 5 percent of the total federal funds available to the county from all federal sources for every year it is not in compliance with the standards.
He said that the county could request an audit of its facility in order to better understand what needs to be done and establish a plan, which would need to be implemented within 180 days, to make recommended changes. The US Department of Justice is in charge of administering the requirements of the 2003 law.
County Commissioner Ed Philpot said that he was hesitant to have the facility audited, pointing out that one of the major concerns of the commission in recent years, which motivated it to establish a committee to develop plans for a new correctional facility, is that there are other problems with the jail could produce a lawsuit which would require major and costly changes.
But an audit will be coming sooner or later anyway. All confinement facilities covered under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards must be audited at least every three years to be considered compliant with the PREA standards, with one third of each facility type operated by an agency, or private organization on behalf of an agency, audited each year.
These include adult prisons and jails, juvenile facilities, lockups (housing detainees overnight), and community confinement facilities, whether operated by the Department of Justice or unit of a state, local, corporate, or nonprofit authority.
The laws says that each agency seeking PREA compliance will be responsible for contracting with or otherwise securing the services of one or more DOJ-certified auditors to schedule audits for each of its facilities during the three-year audit cycle.
Commission Chairman John Thomas said he had requested that Ward make a presentation so that the county could be aware of the impact of the law and the implications it had for the county facility.
''We're looking at major operational costs for staffing, new equipment and a camera system,'' said Thomas.
Ward said that he would be bringing together a plan for compliance which he will present to commissioners by November 1.