To The Daily Sun,
Belknap County is now at a crossroads regarding housing of the inmate population. The refusal of the county delegation (in its May 2017 tie vote turning down the supplemental appropriations request) to properly fund the Department of Corrections has created this crisis, and the individual representatives responsible are Vadney, Abear, Howard, Sylvia, Silber, Aldrich and Comtois, all of whom voted against the funding request. Representatives Lang, Flanders, Huot, Spanos, Fraser, Fields and Plummer cast votes in favor.
The original plan (Option #1) was to open the new Community Corrections Center concurrently with the start of renovations to the old jail. This timing would allow the new facility to be used to house some of the inmates as the work on the existing facility was being done. As of May 2017, when the three commissioners completed their inspection of the old jail, a semi-annual state requirement, two areas presently housing inmates were deemed uninhabitable. In particular, what used to be the gymnasium, where the female inmates are housed, and the “attic,” where some minimum security male inmates are kept, were both deemed to be unfit for human habitation. Under the renovation plan, the shower and bathroom area for the gymnasium will become the mechanical room for the upgraded HVAC system and the gym area will be returned to its original purpose as an exercise area for inmates. The attic area, which has been deemed unusable for any purpose by the architects, is to be retired from use altogether. The inmates presently occupying those two areas would be moved into the new CCC.
Unfortunately, the CCC cannot open without the addition of the four corrections officers requested by the DOC and included in the commissioners’ original recommended budget. If the CCC were to open, the net additional square footage requiring supervision by the DOC would be over 15,000 square feet, even after the gym and attic areas are discontinued as residential space. The DOC is already grossly understaffed by every standard, and could not possibly supervise the additional areas without high risk both to the officers and inmates. Therefore, Option #1, the preferred and only reasonable course of action, is off the table unless the new positions are funded. It should be noted that before the delegation voted unanimously in 2015 to approve the bond issue for construction of the new CCC and for renovations to the existing jail facility, they were advised both that the new positions would be necessary and of the cost for the new positions.
Option #2 is to stop construction of the new CCC and leave the current jail in its present condition, abandoning the renovation plan and continuing to house the inmates in the gymnasium and attic areas. In view of the serious deterioration of the HVAC system, which led to the declaration of these two areas as uninhabitable, that option is not acceptable. Continuing to expose the occupants of the jail, both officers and inmates, to such terrible conditions, would be continuing a tinder box ready to explode. The terribly high temperatures within the attic on warm days make it a literal tinder box and, given the failing HVAC system, the gymnasium and its one shower and one toilet for 15 to 20 women inmates is not much better.
Option #3, which is the only remaining alternative course of action, is to go forward with the renovations as planned and to move some inmates to other counties to be housed in their jails. Belknap County is required by state statute (NHRS 30-B: 1 II) to provide housing for its inmates. The statute gives the county two options. First, it may house its inmates in its own county facility. If the county cannot or does not provide its own housing, then it must by statutory direction send the inmates elsewhere, either to a state or other county facility. In this regard, the statute provides: “All expenses related to the confinement of prisoners pursuant to this paragraph shall be a charge upon the county sending such prisoners.”
The current daily charge for prisoner placement in another jail is $57.50 per day. If Belknap County is forced to move 20 inmates (the current average daily female population of the jail) that translates out to a per-day cost of $1,150, or $34,979 monthly, an annual cost of $419,750. If one adds to that number the 18 males currently housed in the attic, the cost nearly doubles, with the daily cost becoming $2,185, the monthly cost $66,460, or an annual charge of $797,525. The cost for four additional correction officers for the remainder of 2017 would be $147,315, and for a full year beginning in 2018 the cost would be approximately $296,000.
It does not take a financial wizard to see that the costs of transporting inmates to other counties and paying for their housing there will be exorbitant compared to the cost of the four additional corrections officers needed to house them in-county. The additional housing cost is not the end of the unnecessary costs. The Belknap County Sheriff's Department would be statutorily required to transport these inmates back and forth to Belknap County for all court dates. The sheriff’s office, which is already having great difficulty in performing its statutory duties (again, due to slashing of its budget by the county delegation), will have the added burden of this additional transport responsibility.
The cost of funding the four additional correctional officer positions pales in comparison to what Belknap County will be spending under Option #3. If any representative who voted against the supplemental appropriation ever in the future claims to be a fiscal conservative, that claim would be laughable if it were not so sad. Hopefully, common sense will prevail before it is too late.
This letter is submitted in my individual capacity as one member of the Belknap County Board of Commissioners, and is not intended to represent the view of the board as a whole.