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County residents should be proud of work being done at their jail

To The Daily Sun,

As superintendent of the Belknap County Department of Corrections, I want to extend my sincere thanks to those members of the Delegation and to their invited guests who took the time to attend the 90-minute tour of this facility on Monday, August 12th. While not likely to be on most people's "must see list" for attractions in the Lakes Region, I am always honored and proud to show individuals and groups around the facility. Members of the Delegation have joined the ranks of interested citizens and taxpayers of Belknap County, a number of local selectboards and city councilors, members of the law enforcement and criminal justice system, and interest-based and leadership groups such as the League of Women Voters, Leadership Lakes Region, Leadership NH, CASA, DCYF-Laconia, Belmont Explorers, Children's Fund of NH, the Tilton School, and the Laconia Citizen's Academy, just to name a few.

A walk through more than 130 years of construction history dating back to the 1890s reveals not simply how well the physical structures have held up over the years but more importantly how the construction styles have evolved and drives the way we hold, and provide services to those citizens who have been placed under our charge. Those very practical changes from simple brick walls, to cinder block construction, to poured concrete walls and rolls of razor wire, and from traditional cell blocks to military-style dorm housing all tell stories about the people held within each group and the society that held them.

It is overly simplistic to suggest that we can (or should) as a community house our inmates all inside a military tent as our soldiers, sailors or airmen might have to do in times of war in a foreign land, or that military barrack style housing as is used in boot camp is appropriate for all levels of inmates from those facing driving offenses together with those charged with home invasion, burglary, rape or drug sales resulting in the death of another. Your jail... the jail of today... houses every one of those inmates and many more.

The jail on County Drive is a microcosm of society. We would never think that a one-size-fits-all approach would work in a school, a hospital, or any other large-scale public safety complex and after more than 20-years specializing in criminal justice, justice studies, and corrections, I can assure you that it doesn't work in this field either. The purpose of an effective classification system is to secure dangerous inmates or those who pose significant risks to society in secure detention settings, including single or double bunk cells, while at the same time recognizing that those who pose little risk and who are able to reasonably return to society better than when they arrived can do so with a little help from professionally trained staff.

Although my staff and I highlighted all of the positive accomplishments of our programming and classification efforts to reduce recidivism and to be the best stewards of the taxpayer's funding, it is clear that much emphasis was placed on the visual inspection of the facility by members of this tour group. Their depiction in the August 20 Laconia Daily Sun was "spot on" and I appreciate the recognition of our efforts to address those areas of the building that had been painted and cleaned where they could be as well as noting those areas of deficiency that needed attention. I have heard suggestions that paint and polish can simply be the "lipstick on a pig" and while those things are clearly desirable, they fail to address fundamental safety, security or operational concerns that are of primary importance. Certainly I would be the last person to suggest that years of neglect or a lack of maintenance or replacement of broken locks, poor electrical systems, rusting pipes, shortage of staffing to properly supervise the inmates or maintenance projects, or broken HVAC systems don't contribute to the accelerated decay of any building or system but paint and polish alone won't fix that issue. I don't believe anyone is suggesting we should have a "pretty jail" but rather one that meets the changing needs of Belknap County, that addresses the growing substance abuse and mental health epidemic, and provides legislatively mandated services to those "sentenced to hard labor" and also those who are "presumed innocent", detained without criminal commitment and awaiting trial.

We are often asked by members of the tour groups how we are able to manage our population. In the early 1990s the inmate population in total was as low as 34. In 2013, your jail holds as many as 120 inmates within its walls; this in a building that was designed to hold 87 bodies. Operationally that means the jail's "support services" were designed for 87 people. Services such as toilets, showers, seating areas to eat meals, telephones to talk to attorneys and family members, visiting booths and recreation areas and physical floor space — all of which are governed by national standards used by the courts for the treatment and detention of prisoners. We exceed that cap every single day by having some inmates sleep on the floor on a "stack-a-bunk" plastic sled bed. We have converted the gym space for housing, have taken away two program areas to make additional housing units and double-bunked cells not intended for or designed to hold the numbers assigned.

My answer to the question is always, "we make it work because we have no right of refusal in a jail"; we accept whomever the police department arrests and detains and whomever the court sentences without regard to pre-existing medical issues, gang affiliation, mental health status, drug abuse history, predatory nature or potential to be preyed upon. We hold inmates as young as 17 years old and have individuals well in to their 80s today. I would ask those who suggest a single cinder block 4-walled dorm whether careful consideration was given with regards to the protection of these various groups and the unique needs that may be required to hold them as they each come and go "through the system" between one day and up to several years?

Today, we are supervising 143 inmates. We have 111 inmates inside the jail. The remainder are benefiting from services and programming that we have designed to help reduce our population and to safely reintegrate inmates back in to the community in a manner that helps them to become the law-abiding contributing members of society that we all expect. Although I spend a significant amount of time discussing programming during that tour and how our one classroom space is used to offer some 37 programs to all classification levels, ages and to both males and females, the article discussing the "needs of the jail" failed to even mention it as a consideration.

Could we stack inmates like cord-wood by simply going higher with bunk beds? Since we have exhausted floor square footage, the only option left is cubic-foot space (go up!). I can simply remind those who consider this as a solution that the building was not designed to support that theory. A home's kitchen table or a septic system in one's own yard was only designed to accommodate a fixed number. You can temporarily exceed that design but at what cost and for how long is uncertain; eventually, creative manipulation of time and services provided will no longer handle the approaching tides. The need to address the functional and operational plan for the entire criminal justice system in Belknap County goes significantly beyond the overcrowding that has existed here since 2006 when the average daily population first exceeded design capacity.

The county has steadfastly supported alternative sentencing programs, electronic monitoring, work release, drug and alcohol counseling, pre-trial and diversion services, and creative sentencing options with the local courts as means to address the numbers and the specific needs of incarcerated and potentially incarcerated individuals. We have partnerships with UNH Cooperative Extension, Belknap-Merrimack Community Action Program, DCYF, Lakes Region Community College, NH Employment Security, Horizons Counseling and the Nathan Brody Program, Genesis Behavioral Health, and countless individual services providers within our communities to create a network of collaboration. Without the efforts of these men, women, and organizations, I can assure you that you could not build a jail large enough to address the needs that would be presented to this county. It is not about simply building a building but rather building a system that addresses the needs that are unique to our community.

The citizens and taxpayers of Belknap County should be proud of the work that is being done at this facility. The professional and dedicated employees commit themselves to managing a population that we read about every day on the front page of every single newspaper. We make it possible to sleep soundly at night and to know that your neighbor, loved one, or stranger who gets out of jail and returns back to your community was treated fairly and was given the tools to live as a law-abiding citizen. Thanks again to this group and those who join me on an almost daily basis to explore and understand the jail, how it operates, and the role it plays in the criminal justice system of the 21st century.

Daniel P. Ward, Sr., MBA/PA, CJM
Superintendent

Belknap County Department of Corrections

 
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