By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners are looking for ways to deal with a looming shortage of inmate labor for the Belknap County Nursing Home.
The situation will become critical starting Oct. 16, when inmates in the Corrections Opportunity for Recovery and Education program at the Belknap County House of Corrections will start attending programs five days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will be available to work in the kitchen and laundry at the nursing home only on weekends.
The CORE program has been operating three days a week but has expanded to five days a week now that the new Community Corrections Center is open and its classroom space is available. It is also expected that more inmates will be taking part in the CORE program.
Belknap County Corrections Superintendent Keith Gray said that eight inmates currently eligible to work at the nursing home will no longer be available as they are in the CORE program. And, with the jail population dropping in recent months to the mid 60s, it is difficult to know from day to day how many inmates will be available for work in either the kitchen or laundry areas.
Gray said that even if he had an unlimited number of inmates available, there would still be problems with the inmate workers as nursing home employees are not trained to deal with inmates.
The problem is particularly acute on the second shift when four prisoners are working, two as dishwashers, one cleaning pots and pans and another mopping the floor.
Nursing Home Administrator Shelly Richardson said she has had many kitchen workers on the second shift complain about the poor quality of work from the inmates.
“The cooks on the night shift are stressed. They are there with the prisoners all by themselves,” said Richardson.
Commission Chairman Dave DeVoy (R-Sanbornton) asked if it was possible to have a Corrections Department officer overseeing what the inmates are doing during the time they are working in the kitchen. Gray said it would require having two officers in the kitchen each day and wondered if that was the best use of their time.
Two years ago the county approved a pilot program to pay inmates who worked in the county home kitchen, laundry room or on the grounds $3 a day. The program was dropped last year after both Carolee Sliker, dietary manager at the nursing home, and Gray said that it wasn't working as intended.
Sliker said at that time that the program had produced "a parade of inmates coming through the kitchen who have behavior issues and do not want to work."
She said that those who do want to work and do a good job are quickly lost as they qualify for work release programs, requiring the cooks to be constantly training new inmates, which she said involves paying overtime for the cooks.
Richardson has proposed that the county hire 10 dishwashers and one laundry aide starting on May 1 to resolve the problems with relying on inmate labor. They would be paid $10.61 an hour and be eligible for health insurance. Cost for the eight months would be $310,674.
DeVoy said that he strongly favors continuing to use inmate labor and asked if it would be possible to include working for the county for at least 30 days as part of the sentencing in Superior Court.
Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois said that DeVoy's suggestion would involve a change in sentencing recommendations made by police and that in the case of inmates with drug problems treatment is seen as the immediate goal, with work experience a lower level priority.
DeVoy also suggested outsourcing the kitchen work to a private contractor.
Commissioner Glen Waring (R-Gilmanton) said that the problem is coming at the county in just a few days and asked that Gray and Richardson come up with a short-term plan to get the county through the months ahead with as little disruption as possible.
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