A beer drinker.
A petty thief.
A poor person.
These three people were locked away on Monday at Valley Street jail after being arrested for minor crimes or court absences. None involved violence, and they could hardly qualify as a danger to the community.
Convicted of nothing, they sat in Valley Street because they didn’t have a couple hundred dollars that — if they did — supposedly would guarantee their return to court.
“People with low bail like that — $100, $250 — they shouldn’t be here,” said David Dionne, the superintendent of the state’s largest county jail, who has grown increasingly vocal about low-bail inmates who end up in his custody.
The issue has become more than just Dionne’s. Earlier this month, the chief judge of the Superior Court system, Tina Nadeau, and some judicial reform advocates kicked off the 3 Days Count effort in New Hampshire. The title represents how a brief time in jail can upend the life of someone already struggling with issues such as poverty, mental illness or drug abuse.
Next week, the New Hampshire House is expected to take up a bipartisan bail reform measure that has already sailed through the Senate.
“Why should the taxpayer be paying to jail people who just can’t afford bail? That’s something everyone agrees on,” said the sponsor, state Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord.
Here are their stories:
Clothes in the dumpster
William Blakeley, 66, was on his eighth day in jail when we talked, held on $200 cash bail. His rent was due the following day, and he was worried what might happen if he wasn’t out to pay it.
He wears his gray hair long with a beard to match. A retired textile mill worker, he said he suffers aches and pains and forgetfulness at times.
He described himself as a beer drinker but said he is not a lousy drunk or troublemaker.
Nashua police arrested him on theft and disorderly conduct charges. He got into a dispute with another customer at a laundromat, and when she left he threw her clothes in a dumpster.
“I did something stupid,” Blakeley said. “Yes, I was intoxicated. I didn’t give the officer a hard time, but he said I did.”
When Blakeley told Dionne that he has money at home, Dionne said he would likely grant a custodial furlough to Blakeley, meaning he would have a corrections officer drive him to his Nashua apartment, allow him to fetch the cash, and return to pay the bail.
“If I can get anybody out of here, I’ll get them out of here,” Dionne said. Blakeley was out of jail by the time I checked on Friday.
Heather Ainslie, a 42-year-old grandmother explains her situation succinctly — she calls it debtors' prison. In 2012, she wrote bad checks to an oil company to keep her kids warm during the winter, she said. She was sentenced to 1 1/2 months in jail and ordered to pay restitution, which haunts her to this day.
Ainslie, who lives in a camper-trailer at a Campton campground, said she struggles to make the $35 monthly payments, on her monthly income of $1,038 in disability and food stamps.
She’s missed a couple of court dates in Lancaster, and so when she was pulled over in Hooksett two weeks ago for an unsafe lane change, a judge set her bail at $250. Most of what she said is backed up with court records, except for the bail. According to a record of her March 23 hearing in Goffstown District Court, she should have been released on her own recognizance.
But she sat in jail on Monday. She got out the following day, when her Social Security check was automatically deposited into her account. A friend accessed the cash and paid her bail.
In the meantime, she said, her food stamps will be terminated because she was in jail on the date of her recertification appointment. Her three cats and two dogs were taken from her camper-trailer and adopted out, and her 14- and 17-year-old kids are probably mad because they haven’t heard from her.
When Ainslie appeared in court, she had no lawyer because she was not charged with a crime. Her only failure was not paying a bill.
“It makes no sense locking people up if you want money. Locking them up, you’re not going to get it,” she said.
What’s more absurd, she said, is an order by District Court Judge Suzanne Gorman that any bail money she posts would be forfeited to make restitution payments. Which means there’s no incentive for her to return to court.
“Where does that make sense?” she said.
Kyle Logan, 25, faces the most serious charges of the three — felony theft charges for shoplifting a pair of boots and tools from Walmart and Home Depot. Because he has previous thefts on his record, he faces felony charges.
He needed the boots so he could start a second job, Logan said. Logan said he quickly confessed to the crimes, hoping he would get free.
“I’ve lost everything. My job, my 3-year-old daughter’s visits on weekends. I’ll have to answer my kids’ mom about where I was,” he said. He also worries that if he misses a court date up north on other charges he could end up returning to prison.
Logan said all his crimes are thefts; he’s never hurt anyone. He had been in jail for seven days and expected his brother would come by with the $200 cash to bail him out. He was out of jail by Friday.
Eventually, Logan hopes to get into a drug rehabilitation program.
“They’re doing it to everybody. It’s all heinous. It’s about money, making money,” he said, claiming Valley Street jail makes money by keeping people locked up.
Jail Superintendent Dionne dismisses such talk. Most of his expenses at the jail — personnel, heat, programs — are fixed and vary little based on the daily census. He estimates that an inmate adds another $20 a day to his costs, mostly in food and laundry. But if an inmate needs to see a doctor, the costs jump significantly.
Dionne said there are other drawbacks. Every Monday, he sends the Social Security Administration the names and Social Security numbers of inmates; some could end up losing their retirement or disability benefits.
And inmates and counselors tell him that Medicaid has been slow to reactivate inmates when they are released.
Police and bail-bond companies have opposed efforts to reform the system. They say they would end up chasing people when they don’t show up to court.
“A hundred dollars is going to make a difference?” Dionne asked. “You know where the guy lives; he’s not jumping on a plane tomorrow.”