The food was terrible.Drugs were plentiful.Respect was scarce.
This is how two New Hampshire residents recounted their months-long incarcerations at the Valley Street jail in Manchester.
Both men – part-time radio DJ Craig Driggers and Hillsboro-Deering High School graduate John Thomas – were held awaiting trial in the 1D jail block. Their jury selection and trials took place simultaneously in Hillsborough County Superior Court.
Their verdicts, which freed them, came down the same day. Neither had prior records before going to jail.
“It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” said Driggers, 47, who was held for four months without bail until a jury cleared him of felony charges stemming from an alleged domestic assault.
“I often felt the way I was treated there by some of the staff was guilty until proven innocent,” Driggers said.
“They look at it like this: We have a badge, you’re in orange. You’re guilty, we’re not,” said Thomas, who was charged with conspiracy to commit murder after he joked about bringing a gun to his high school graduation.
He spent eight months at Valley Street, including the day he turned 19.
David Dionne, the superintendent of the jail, questions why the two did not fill out request forms or write him personally if the conditions were as bad as they say. (Both said the process is flawed and not worth the effort.)
And Dionne noted that the two are not complaining that they were beaten.
“I gotta give the jail credit,” Dionne said. “The inmates no longer say they’re being dragged around and beaten up. They’re complaining about the food and being called names.”
To be sure, both said in separate interviews that some of the corrections officers were respectful. Those officers didn’t sweat the little stuff. If you didn’t act up, they’d leave you alone.
But others were sticklers for regulations and afraid of being accused of being soft by other staff, Driggers said. Driggers said he was written up for having two pillows.
Thomas was twice put into solitary. Once for mouthing off. Another time when he was accused of fighting, although that involved his cell mate striking him in the head.
He felt corrections officers purposely tried to get under his skin. They liked fights, he said.
Dionne said he has no record of Thomas in administrative segregation. He said Thomas was once struck by his cell mate. Thomas denied being hit and was given medical attention.
Dionne said his staff has lots of discretion. If an inmate ignores repeated demands, for example, to make his bed, he will be written up.
But if an inmate has just gotten bad news about his case or a family member, the staff will go easy on him.
“We’re counselors, we’re medical, we’re psychological,” Dionne said.
Both Driggers and Thomas said they were called a derogatory term for gay people by staff.
Driggers said an officer used the term when Driggers mistakenly approached the officer on his final day there, believing the officer was going to escort Driggers out of the jail.
Thomas said corrections officers used the term after strip searching him in his cell and throwing his clothes in the toilet. That was a low point during his stay; the jail had accidentally released him, then tracked him down and arrested him in front of his mother.
He felt the staff blamed him for their mistake.
Another time, Thomas asked for a pen while talking to his mother on the telephone. A corrections officer said he would give him a pen in exchange for a crude sex act. Dionne said he can’t say that staff didn’t use derogatory language.
“It could have happened. Should it have happened? No,” he said, adding such behavior would be corrected.
Drugs were easy to get at Valley Street, both former inmates said. Driggers said suboxone was the most plentiful, and most inmates had figured how to sneak drugs through the X-ray system. Thomas added methamphetamine, cocaine and tobacco to the mix. He said corrections officers brought it in.
Thomas said a cell mate once forced him to snort cocaine, reasoning that if Thomas snitched, cocaine would be found in Thomas’ bloodstream and both would be penalized.
Dionne said heroin and fentanyl are his two biggest problems in the jail. He said most inmates ingest the drugs when they are in the admissions unit before they are thoroughly searched and the drugs are found.
Dionne said no employees have ever been caught bringing drugs into work, but they are not subject to searches or X-ray scans. Some workers have been suspected of smuggling, been placed under investigation and quit before the investigation went very far.
He invited Driggers and Thomas to call him with information about drugs. “That’s a safety concern to me,” Dionne said.
The two former inmates also said the food was terrible. Dionne said the jail went to a private contractor about a year ago, Trinity Food Services, to plan meals and provide the food at $500,000 a year. Staff and inmates prepare it.
He said the food provides nutritional needs, but it’s not as good as home cooking.
What to make of this back and forth?
Jail is no fun place to be for either inmates or staff. The day I started writing this, authorities announced that a Valley Street jail inmate, Jeremiah Arroyo of Brooklyn, N.Y., was charged for allegedly throwing feces at a corrections officer.
Meanwhile, the jail is 31 officers short of its approved contingent of 100, Dionne said. The jail is also less busy. On March 15, the inmate count was 270 inmates; two years ago the number was close to 500, a drop that Dionne attributes to bail reform, drug and mental health courts, the jail’s own drug rehabilitation program, and the opioid crisis. (Many repeat criminals have died.)
I didn’t expect Driggers or Thomas, who readily agreed to be interviewed, to say their stay was a vacation. But they both left with a sense of humiliation. Four months at Valley Street, Driggers said, and he ended up believing he was guilty.
In the end, that helps no one.
As Thomas’ mother Darlene Wellner said, if the community wants people to succeed when they’re released from jail, treat them with respect inside the jail.
“I’ve seen dogs in pounds treated better than my son was treated,” she said.