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Commissioners call Valley Street jail 'safe, secure'

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 19. 2013 10:40PM
Officer William Price frisks inmates at Valley Street jail. (David Land/New Hampshire Union Leader)

MANCHESTER - Two Hillsborough County commissioners said that the Valley Street jail is a "safe, secure place for inmates," despite a spate of lawsuits the county settled over the last decade dealing with abuse and poor medical treatment.

Long-term Commissioner Toni Pappas, R-Manchester, said she is familiar with the lawsuits spelled out last week in New Hampshire Sunday News and Union Leader articles. She called them past history and said there are two sides to every story.

"As far as the jail is concerned, we've gradually made changes and improved it," Pappas said in a telephone interview. "I feel it's a safe, secure place for our inmates."

Articles reported that the county has paid $904,000 since 2008 to settle lawsuits brought by inmates and an employee over conditions at the jail, the largest in the state. Juries have also awarded former inmates $244,000 in the 2000s.

Meanwhile, the jail is part of an investigation by county and state officials into the broken neck of Fern Ornelas, the Manchester resident injured sometime last month between his attack on a hospital security guard and his custody at the Valley Street Jail. He is now paralyzed.

"We have all kind of cameras and protocols (at the jail)," said County Commissioner Carol Holden, R-Amherst. "They do things properly."

Holden said she can't predict what the Ornelas investigation will determine. But she said a person can sometimes walk around with a broken neck and not realize it is broken.

The county's insurer has said experience ratings of claims for the county are higher than they should be; the county has also decided against accreditation for the jail and Corrections Department."We feel we are following proper codes and practices that the American Correctional Association recommends," Pappas said. To seek accreditation would be an added expense, she said.

She attributed the high insurance rating to the size of the county. Hillsborough County is the most populated county in the state, and its 724-bed jail is the largest jail in the state.

With the two largest cities in the state, the jail has to house an "extraordinarily difficult population," Pappas said. Primex, the insurer for New Hampshire counties, provided the experience ratings of claims for counties, but it has refused to say how those numbers are arrived at, saying they are trade secrets that could jeopardize its competitive standing.

Both Pappas and Holden had praise for David Dionne, who received the job of superintendent about a year ago. He was acting superintendent after the retirement of James O'Mara.

"Dave (Dionne) has a different style; it's working," Holden said. "He tries to keep people happy, and he's concerned for the safety and security of guards and inmates."

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections said it has no oversight over county jails."We've got nothing to do with them whatsoever," spokesman Jeff Lyons said. He said the only jail the state Corrections Department monitors is Strafford County, because it houses some state female inmates there.Like Hillsborough County, he said the state prison is not accredited by the American Correctional Association. The state stopped doing so in 2006 for budgetary reasons, he said.Accreditation looks at hundreds of factors, including meals, security measures, cell size, inmate density, and the medical unit. Lyons said the state prison must follow several court orders and settlements which deal with treatment of inmates, especially in the medical unit.

Both the state prison and Valley Street Jail have similar policies when it comes to medications for inmates.

Helen Hanks, director of medicine and forensic services for the state Corrections Department, said an inmate's medications must be verified by a physician or pharmacy when he or she enters state prison.

The prison provides an inmate's medical care, so a physician or nurse practitioner may revise an inmate's medication, Hanks said. And the prison may substitute generics or a less costly alternative.

She said an inmate's psychiatric medication is usually continued until the inmate sees the prison psychiatrist, who may make changes to the medication.

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