LACONIA — A timeline prepared for the Belknap County Jail Planning Committee eyes completion of a new county corrections facility in May of 2017, with the facility being occupied and fully operational by September of that same year.
The timeline was presented to the committee by Belknap County Administrator Debra Shackett and had been prepared at the suggestion of Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia), who along with other Democrats on the Belknap County Convention have been showing up lately at meetings of the jail planning group.
Shackett said the committee is currently in the fifth stage of the nine-phase facility development process, the design phase, which will take up to a year and require the development of schematic designs, followed by the design of development documents and then construction documents.
That work cannot proceed without approval of more funds by the Belknap County Convention and the committee is looking to present a proposal for a $3.5 million bond issue to the convention early next year which would provide $500,000 for a schematic design for a new facility, as well $1 million for replacing the HVAC system at the current jail and $1.8 million for the three-year rental of 48-bed temporary housing facility.
The convention has not appropriated any funds for the jail planning process since the summer of 2011, when it approved a $160,000 supplemental appropriation sought by the commissioners, by a single vote. The funds were used to hire Ricci Greene Associates, a New York consulting firm which earlier this year presented a conceptual plan for a two-story, 94,450-square-foot facility it estimated to cost $42.5 million. It would have 180 beds, plus five for inmates requiring medical care. A third of the beds — 44 for men and 16 for women — would be reserved for inmates awaiting trial, on work release, undergoing treatment or on electronic monitoring, the so-called community corrections part of the facility. The remaining 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.
The plan was endorsed by the commissioners but was not well received by the convention and the Laconia City Council, which called on the commissioners to rethink the plan in terms of what was affordable for county taxpayers.
County Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia), chairman of the Jail Planning Committee, says that he expects that the costs of the proposed facility can be substantially reduced but defends the process the committee has taken to this point.
''We took the experts' recommendations to heart,'' Philpot told new members of the jail planning group's advisory committee at Tuesday night's meeting.
He said that the community corrections part of the proposal represents the best way to have programs in place which reduce recidivism and that having an adequate facility is the key to the entire process.
''The building is really a program location, not just a facility for housing inmates,'' said Philpot.
Belknap County Corrections Superintendent Dan Ward said that even with all of the crowding problems at the current jail there are programs which have been offered in the past which had great success and which could be expanded in a new facility.
''I'm confident that we can make these programs work if we have space,'' Ward told members of the committee, pointing out that a GED program offered over the last four years had seen 83 inmates earn a high school degree with only a 17 percent recidivism rate, compared to 50-60 percent for other inmates, and a zero percent recidivism rate for the 30 inmates who took part in a parenting program.
''We will be able to gain support by demonstrating the success of these programs,'' said Ward.
Ward said that there are currently 140 inmates in the county facility, which is designed for 120, and that the 17 women inmates are housed in the gymnasium, which keeps that part of the facility from being used for recreation during the months when outside recreation is limited.
''We've been sending upwards of 30 people away (to facilities in other counties) during recent months. If we install a temporary facility we get all of the prisoners back and get the use of the gymnasium back as well as have some program space,'' Ward says.
He said that the land where the temporary facility would be located is level and located just to the right (west) of the current jail and that all power, water and sewer lines can be connected directly on site and no changes would be needed to the road which serves the jail.
Ward said that the 50 foot by 100 foot temporary unit provides both fixed cells as well as dorm space and is divided by a middle wall which would allow male and female prisoners to be housed on different sides of the same structure.
"We have 50 employees and 130 inmates and can't continue to operate the facility this way" said Ward.
He said that the county could be put in a position where it would need as many as four more temporary structures during construction of a facility if it involves extensive renovation or repairs of the current structure.
The county will also 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.
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.