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FRONTPAGE

July 21. 2012 11:15PM

System claims a victory as former inmate becomes corrections officer


Cheshire County House of Corrections Officer Thomas Schoolcraft pats down a prisoner in the jail's booking room. (MEGHAN PIERCE/Union Leader Correspondent)

KEENE — Eight years ago, an angry Thomas Schoolcraft was a high school dropout who made his living burglarizing homes along the Seacoast in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Today, he is a changed man from the one who served eight months in Rockingham County House of Corrections in Brentwood in 2004.

Now 26, Schoolcraft has made an unusual turnaround. He now works as a corrections officer at Cheshire County Jail in Keene, recently marking his one-year certification.

“Every day is a surprise,” Schoolcraft said. “I am just shocked at every accomplishment. It's unreal.”

With the support of his boss, Richard Van Wickler, superintendent of the Cheshire County Department of Corrections, Schoolcraft is seeking a pardon from Gov. John Lynch and Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

“Tom Schoolcraft is a better citizen than most people who don't have a record,” Van Wickler said. “If someone like him doesn't deserve a pardon, I don't know who does.”

Envisioned bleak future

As a young man, Schoolcraft could see no way to climb the economic ladder. The American dream belonged to other people, he thought.

“When I got out of jail, I said I would give it a sincere try, to attempt to get my life together,” Schoolcraft said. “I didn't think it was possible with felonies on my record.”

But then an uncle put in a good word for him at a Seacoast dealership, and he found he was terrific at selling cars. That feeling of success grew on him. He wanted more, but figured it would take a better education to get ahead, especially as a felon.

Schoolcraft threw himself into studying. In 2011, he graduated with honors from Keene State College with a degree in psychology.

This fall, he begins work on his master's degree in criminal justice at Boston University.

“Things started to come together piece by piece. I started to see a way out,” Schoolcraft said. His family always stood by him, he said.

At work, Schoolcraft has been promoted to the booking room — dealing with convicts, many of them scared first-timers and others repeat offenders — helping them through their first day behind bars.

It was at Keene State that he met Van Wickler, who teaches two criminal justice courses a semesterin addition to running a consulting firm that teaches alternatives to violence.

It was Van Wickler's philosophy of treating inmates and staff with respect that encouraged Schoolcraft to volunteer at the county jail.

“Everyone got to know me,” Schoolcraft said. Sometimes he would share his story with inmates, hoping something he said would inspire them to leave crime behind, too.

Then he broached the subject of a paid job with Van Wickler.

In theory, Van Wickler told him convicted felons could work in law enforcement.

In reality, Van Wickler had to give it some thought, but in the end believed Schoolcraft had been rehabilitated and deserved the chance.

“I want that pardon to be able to restore my rights. One is the right to carry a weapon,'' Schoolcraft said, which would be necessay “if I get into probation, parole or re-entry and need to be able to carry firearms.”

County attorney's view

Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams, whose office prosecuted Schoolcraft, said it appears he has been rehabilitated, but Reams wouldn't say whether he supports a pardon until after he talks with the victims of Schoolcraft's burglaries.

The Sunday News contacted two of his burglary victims, but they declined to comment.

“Tom Schoolcraft is one of those guys who gives us hope,” Reams said. “He is a success story from the criminal justice point of view.”

Van Wickler said there is a lot riding on Schoolcraft's success for both of them.

“If I didn't give him a chance, and said I believe in rehabilitation, that would be a falsehood,” Van Wickler said.

He hopes Schoolcraft will be pardoned.

“If it can't happen for him, it can't happen for anyone,” Van Wickler said.

Gov. Lynch has never granted a pardon, according to his spokesman, Colin Manning.

Manning said the governor hasn't seen Schoolcraft's pardon request.

“The governor believes pardons should be reserved for very extraordinary circumstances or clear cases of miscarriage of justice,” Manning said.

Letter to governor

In Schoolcraft's letter to Lynch, he took responsibility for his crimes.

“People's homes were broken into, personal belongings were stolen and people in the community would not feel safe because of my actions,” Schoolcraft wrote.

Schoolcraft said he doesn't have a drug problem and burglarized the homes for money.

“I am in no way trying to conceal my record or my actions,” Schoolcraft wrote, “but rather to show those who have made the wrong choices how they can make the right ones.”

Schoolcraft, who lives in Keene, detailed his future plans.

“My ultimate goal is to work towards lowering the recidivism rate by using my experiences to shape, encourage and inspire young people who are in the same situation I was in many years ago.”

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Nancy West may be reached at nwest@unionleader.com.


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