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Work programs allow inmates to give a helping hand

Special to the Union Leader

August 02. 2015 7:50PM
State prison inmates at work at the Live and Let Live Farm, a shelter for abandoned horses and other animals in Chichester. (Ted Siefer)

A group of state prison inmates had a busy day last week cleaning stables, building a horse shelter and, for good measure, playing with a motley litter of puppies. The setting was the Live and Let Live Farm in Chichester, the largest shelter of its kind in the Northeast for abandoned and abused horses and other animals.

The inmates were brought to the farm as part of the Department of Corrections’ community work program — although work wasn’t the first word that came to mind as the puppies crawled all over the burly tattooed men. In fact, this was one of the inmates’ duties, Teresa Paradis, the shelter’s executive director, explained — to “socialize” animals that in many cases had been mistreated or left for dead.

The inmates, she said, “learn empathy and compassion; in the healing of the animals they start healing themselves.”

The scene seemed to offer the rare example of a government program that makes everybody happy. A nonprofit was getting free labor, while the inmates were doing something far more productive and fulfilling than sitting in prison cells, getting “three hots and a cot” on the taxpayer’s dime, as the saying goes.

All of this raises the question: why aren’t state prison work crews a more common sight in New Hampshire? Neighboring states appear to have larger and more organized programs to put inmates to work outside the penitentiary walls.

While state prison officials recognize the value of programs and have pushed to expand work opportunities (they contacted Paradis), its scope has been limited by a familiar problem: budgetary and staff constraints. Work crews can’t be dispatched without correctional officers to oversee them.

William Schoof, an inmate at New Hampshire State Prison for Men, rakes hay at the Live and Let Live Farm in Chichester as part of the prison’s community corrections program. (Ted Siefer)

“The problem I have is manpower,” said Joseph Diament, the Department of Corrections’ director of community corrections. “I don’t have enough corrections officers to send out with them. We can train other people, but that’s always a slightly higher risk.”

Referring to the inmates, he added, “It’s not because these people are dangerous, but if we say we’re monitoring them, we have to monitor them.”

The DOC has long struggled with a shortage of correctional officers, and the budget for the community corrections division has been level funded in recent years.

Only a certain group of inmates, designated the C2 population, that demonstrate good behavior and are nearing their release dates, are eligible for work on the outside. (Other inmates must work at the prison facilities.)

Even with the staffing constraints, Diament says on any given day 20 to 30 inmates could be sent outside the prison to provide manual labor for other government agencies and nonprofits, but he said the numbers fluctuate depending on the demand and availability of officers.

By contrast, in Vermont, where the state prison population is about 2,000, 1,000 less than New Hampshire, inmates perform about 200,000 hours a year in community service work, according to the 2015 budget for the Vermont Department of Corrections. That’s the equivalent of about 100 full-time, year-round workers.

In Maine, which also has a state prison population of about 2,000, inmates performed more than 80,000 distinct “community services” so far in 2015, according to Ellis King, the quality improvement manager for the Maine Department of Corrections. (The department does not track the number of inmates in the program or the number of hours worked.)

New Hampshire does have a more robust community work program at the county level. It’s not unusual for county jails, which house inmates convicted of lower-level crimes, to send work crews to towns and local nonprofits.

Still, the counties have also had to bear the expense of supervising and transporting the inmates.

In Hillsborough County, the legislative delegation decided to start charging towns for the use of work crews. The county’s jail superintendent, David Dionne, stressed that the county only charges enough to cover the staffing expenses; no revenue is generated from the program.

“Paying officers’ salaries, that was a cost the county delegation didn’t want to absorb anymore,” he said of the decision two years ago. “There were small towns saying it was such a good service they wanted it even if they had to pay.”

Dionne added that, when it comes to assisting municipalities, the county jail mostly works with towns, avoiding cities like Manchester and Nashua that have unionized labor forces. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t step on union toes,” he said.

State Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, who is the vice chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Safety Committee and has long been involved in correctional issues, supports community work programs at the county and state level.

He said if the state’s program is hampered by staffing shortages, he would expect corrections officials to make the case for more funding. “Funding is a real problem in this state right now,” he said. “We only have so many dollars, but I would support more money to get inmates working. That’s part of rehabilitation, and that’s what our (state) constitution says to do.”

State prison inmates only recently started going out to the Live and Let Live Farm, and their visits are limited to one day a week. During the inmates’ shift last week, corrections officer Jamie Welch said that the visit almost didn’t happen because of the limited availability of staff that day.

Standing to the side as inmates unloaded bags of soil off a truck, Welch welcomed the change in setting after completing a stint in the state prison’s maximum security unit.

“They act a lot different out here,” Welch said of the inmates. “The communication is different; you can interact with them a little bit.”

Earlier, William Schoof and a fellow inmate were cleaning a stable and petting a horse below his chin, finding a spot that made the horse tilt his head in pleasure.

For his part, Schoof, who is 27, had no doubt that the work he and the inmates were doing was good for them. “A lot of inmates in there have social skills that are pretty damaged. To come out here, dealing with animals that have gone through some situations, I think it’s helped them and us, to be honest.”

Schoof added: “If I could, I’d rather be here every day.”

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