To The Daily Sun,
There is much discussion about the condition of the Belknap County Department of Corrections (Jail) and the idea of building a new 42 million dollar facility at $380,000 per inmate. Upon invitation, on August 12, 2013, we joined with several New Hampshire Representatives for a tour of the jail to learn about the building condition and utilization of space.
The facility is located just north of the downtown Laconia area with the jail, sheriff and nursing home sharing the same location. The outdoor grounds look fine, parking seemed plentiful and the brick exterior of the building looks good. The building structure is made of concrete and brick materials that should last for hundreds of years if properly maintained.
The current number of inmates being housed is about 111. The length of stay of inmates held between January 1, 2013 and August 12, 2013 included 439 for 1 to 15 days, about 119 held for 16 to 60 days and 78 held over 60 days. Almost 70 percent of the total number of inmates were held for less than 15 days. Jails are usually for non-convicted people being held waiting a trial, bail, etc.
As we entered the building through a door near the newly renovated County Commissioners offices and conference/meeting room, the concrete walls were nicely painted, the flooring and ceilings looked great and restrooms were clean.
The jail Superintendent Daniel Ward, Sr. did a superb job of briefly explaining the basic operations, the use of rooms and answered questions sincerely. He said tours of the jail are done almost on a daily basis and anyone interested is welcome to call for a tour appointment.
Through connecting doorways, we entered the main area of the jail where the security control room, classrooms, visiting booths and five maximum security cells are located. The overall condition looked great. The concrete walls have a fresh coat of paint and the resilient floors were shiny with polish. It was stated that the inmates painted the walls in this area.
As we proceeded through a hallway to the large gym area where 16 minimum security woman inmates were jointly housed, it was obvious that building maintenance was little to none. The concrete walls and floors need painting and the ceilings have large stain marks. Upon inquiring about the stains, the explanation was that the roof leaks and buckets are used to catch rainwater. It was unknown as to why the leaks have not been repaired. Roof leaks can cause much damage to ceilings, walls, electrical circuits, etc. and should be patched right away to stop the leak until a permanent repair is completed.
The beds were basic metal framed with mattress. However, it sure seems that the use of bunk beds by jail inmates is appropriate since military personnel are required to sleep in them as Mr. David DeVoy, an experienced longtime military person pointed out in a recent letter.
About 43 minimum security men were located in two large rooms with a shared bathroom. The upstairs room, referred to as the attic, was housing about 13 "work release" inmates who work at the nursing home. A portable air conditioner used in the medical room was relocated to the attic area during the recent heat spell. Purchasing more of the relatively low cost portable air conditioning units could be a reasonable solution when summer temperatures are extreme.
There are about 10 smaller rooms housing between 3 and 7 inmates each that have several individual rooms with bunks off a common area used for TV watching, card games, etc. Some of the individual room door locks broke and have not worked for a long time. The locks were never repaired due to high cost and apparent lack of real need.
The neglect of ongoing maintenance makes these inmate areas look run down and dirty since the walls and floor need painting, the bathrooms are in need of patching, tiling, painting, etc. However, painting is inexpensive, especially if the inmates do the work as they did in the main area of the jail. The showers could be repaired by removing old wall material, replacing plumbing fixtures as needed and installing new wall backing with ceramic tiles. One shower stall was lined with plastic sheathing in attempt to stop water from penetrating the walls. A skilled plumber and tile contractor could repair a shower stall in only a couple of day's time. This should be done right away since water leaks from the shower could cause more damage in other areas.
An estimate for a new jail building was obtained since some believe that the jail looks so bad it is not repairable. Most admit that the 42 million dollars seems exorbitant. Before spending many millions of dollars for a new building and demolishing the existing space, it would be prudent to obtain several estimates to fix the roof on a permanent basis, remodel the bathrooms, install reasonable air and heating systems, tile some of the floors while allowing the inmates to paint all the walls and remaining floors.
Upon completion of remodeling, this area will look like the main area mentioned earlier.
In terms of space, a tour handout indicates the design capacity of the jail is 87 inmates, which is 24 less than the current 111. An estimate from several contractors to build a basic concrete wall addition with brick veneer exterior about 10,000 SF in size (much less than 15 percent of the combined existing facility) seems like a reasonable way of increasing the capacity. At 100 to 200 dollars per square foot, the cost would be between 1 and 2 million dollars. The additional space along with the use of bunk beds will provide more than the needed inmate capacity. It will also free up the gym to be used again for winter exercise and other activities.
Hopefully, the 42 million dollar new jail building amount is not being used as a means of convincing people that a 21 million dollar building will be a bargain! Also, if neglecting jail repairs is being used as an attempt to justify an entirely new jail building, the strategy should be stopped. With enough public input, optimistically, the majority of the current delegation will vote for prudent spending. In the meantime, using a practical approach to make repairs should be approved before there is more unnecessary damage to the building.
Rep. Jane Cormier (Belknap District 8)
Rep. Stephen Holmes (Belknap District 5)