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Belknap commissioners approves hiring four correctional officers despite delegation's no vote

Union Leader Correspondent

July 24. 2017 10:20PM
This new 72-bed community corrections center is home to Belknap County's new initiative to cut down on repeat offenders. (Bea Lewis/Correspondent)

LACONIA — A stalemate over staffing that has stalled the opening of the newly completed Belknap County Community Corrections Center has been resolved, at least temporarily, by the County Commissioners’ vote to authorize adding four new correctional officers to the payroll.

Last week’s action by the County Commissioners comes on the heels of the Belknap County legislative delegation’s 7-7 vote on May 22, which scuttled a supplemental appropriation that would have funded the positions.

Department of Corrections Superintendent Keith Gray said the four new hires will join his 23-member security staff that now includes 20 correctional officers and three sergeants, paving the way for the opening of the $8 million, 18,100-square-foot, 72-bed bed center that was issued an occupancy permit by the city on June 21.

“I understand that the biggest portion of my budget is personnel. I’m a taxpayer myself. The debate among the politicians now is how do we pay for this,” Gray said Monday.

In support of their decision to approve the hirings at an annual cost of $296,550 the County Commissioners released a letter from their newly retained attorney, Bruce Marshall of Concord, that asserts that the Belknap County legislative delegation’s decision to cut the Corrections Department’s budget and then deny the County Commissioners’ supplemental appropriation request was “arbitrary and capricious.” It further warned that the delegation’s actions could jeopardize the contract for the construction of the community corrections center and could potentially make the county liable for a breach of contract suit if the general contractor, Bauen Corp., were so inclined.

The County Commissioners’ lawyer also cites a 1975 New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling that holds that the legislative delegation’s actions must not be based on random choice or personal whim, or by sudden or unaccountable changes in mood or behavior, but rather must adequately fund various county departments to perform their legally mandated duties.

In support of the added staff, Gray has previously told the legislative delegation that the local daily inmate population is higher and that Belknap County has less full-time staff when compared to their most similar counterparts in Carroll, Grafton and Sullivan counties. In 2000, the average daily inmate population in Belknap County was 42, and just seven years later had soared into triple digits.

Belknap County Department of Corrections Superintendent Keith Gray points to a new ceiling mounted digital projector and pull down viewing screen in a multi-purpose room at the newly completed Community Corrections Center in Laconia. (Bea Lewis/Union Leader Correspondent)

Gray, who has held the superintendent’s position for the past two years, said more than 80 percent of people being held at the facility are there because of substance abuse — drunken assaults, thefts or burglarizes to feed a drug habit or drug possession or sales.

By state law the maximum sentence that can be served at a county correctional facility is 12 months, but as a result of plea bargains, Gray said, some people who have committed felony level crimes remain incarcerated locally instead of going to state prison.

The original cell block was built in 1890. The House of Corrections was added in the 1950s, with subsequent additions made in the 1970s and 1980s. Female inmates are now housed in the former gym and are collectively served by a lone toilet and a single shower. Meanwhile, some male inmates are housed in the attic above the old House of Corrections, where temperatures soar to uncomfortable conditions during the summer months.

“A lot of these people need treatment, counseling or education. In the old building, we had two classrooms and one of them was made into make-shift housing 10 or 12 years ago,” Gray said.

The new facility will allow for the full rollout of the county’s new corrections model to be known as CORE — Corrections Opportunity for Recovery and Education. It is patterned after a successful program launched in Sullivan County in 2009-2010. Like Belknap County, the average inmate population in Sullivan was averaging 120 to 140 a day. In the past six months, those numbers have plunged to 60.

A key focus of the new initiative is helping those who have finished serving their sentence reintegrate into the community and connect with local service providers.

“We want to help them recover, give them some hope for the future, get them away from the cycle of drug abuse, find a job and get additional education,” Gray said. “Our goal is to get them back into the community and improve their relationship with their families.”

The pilot program that has been ongoing for about a year has enjoyed some successes and Gray believes added staff and more space provided by the new facility will only advance that progress further.

Recidivism is costly, Gray said, as police must investigate more crimes, the judicial system is burdened with more cases and the economy is impacted by lost worker productivity and rising health insurance premiums.

“When you add it all up at the end of the day, this makes financial sense,” Gray said.

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