IN RECENT years the Strafford County House of Corrections (HOC) has become a model facility recognized throughout the region for its fair treatment of incarcerated individuals. This treatment includes outstanding medical care, addiction treatment, and educational programs where 60 to 70 inmates a year secure a high school equivalency diploma.

In addition, the HOC dedicates physical space to administer educational programs, including separate therapeutic communities for drug addicted male and female offenders. This comprehensive three-phase (minimum 12-week) program focuses on helping the addicted person better understand their addiction and how to best combat their illness.

All of these treatment efforts complement the excellent staff and leadership at the facility.

A court battle has ensued over the last few weeks regarding the HOC’s holding of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) inmates at the facility. The HOC has, for some time, been a host site for civil immigration detainees making their way through the federal deportation process. We take pride in offering these persons a safe and humane place on their journey through the system. We view that as good government “doing the right thing.”

But this ICE case has been published front and center recently in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This court case has somehow turned the Strafford County House of Corrections from being viewed by both independent third-party auditors and judges at the state and federal levels as a model facility for others to emulate, into a scapegoat for the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) long-held position that all ICE detainees everywhere in the United States should be released immediately.

What is not reported by those who seek to gain from this situation are the many extraordinary steps taken by Strafford County to keep all persons in its care safe. For example, we went through the extraordinary measure of testing more than 400 County Complex workers to determine if they were asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers.

Instead of recognizing this measure and being praised for protecting nursing home residents, inmates, co-workers, and employees’ families, the facility was vilified for the one employee who was identified as an asymptomatic carrier. What is ignored is that it was the forethought and preparedness of the HOC that caught the symptoms of the positive employee before any others were placed in harm’s way. Through adherence to best practices and the abundance of voluntary testing, this employee had no inmate contact.

The facility was chastised when a new inmate was diagnosed with COVID-19. Negative ACLU comments were generated before everyone learned that the system created to combat spread of COVID-19 at the HOC kept other inmates and staff from being exposed.

The system worked, again, owing to dedication to best medical practices, excellent training, and sticking to our mission of caring for those in our custody. But that was not recognized by the ACLU’s pleadings or public comments.

The HOC does not have the power to choose who to accept or not accept when someone in custody is brought in by area law enforcement. What can be expected of the HOC is to safely manage any health threat. They did so in the cases of the two positive instances noted here, and several unreported instances of false alarms from those self-reporting symptoms.

For all of these instances of managing this pandemic, which has stymied the entire world in a professional manner, we believe our HOC should be recognized for its efforts and commended. When so many other institutions have been ravaged by the effects of COVID-19, our HOC continues to be a safe place for those housed there.

We support the ACLU and their mission. Who wouldn’t support a group whose job is to support the U.S. Constitution? We also have jails for a reason, and our county has been a national model for diversion and rehabilitation in its jail. We implore the ACLU to use the facts accurately and completely as it makes public comments about its court case and not use a great facility as a scapegoat in an effort to get the desired outcome as part of a larger political agenda.

We have too many dedicated people working too hard here for our county to not speak out on their behalf and to show all of the good things that they do to keep the inmate population safe. As a result, all of us in Strafford County are safer.

George Maglaras lives in Dover, Robert J. Watson lives in Rochester, and Deanna S. Rollo lives in Rollinsford.

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