Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Make a year-end gift to NHPR!

How N.H. Attorneys, County Jails, And State Prisons Are Managing Coronavirus

Cheryl Senter

The Exchange spoke with attorneys and correctional facilities across the state to hear about how they are adapting to the coronavirus outbreak, and what they are doing to ensure the safety and health of incarcerated people, corrections staff, and the public. 

The following exerpts have been edited lightly for clarity. You can listen to the full conversation here.

Click here to donate to support NHPR's reporting on this critical story - your help matters more now than ever before.

Robin Melone, Defense Attorney

What do you think is the biggest concern for people who are incarcerated, either awaiting trial or already serving time?

Inmates, by the nature of being incarcerated, they're in small enclosed spaces, they're in cells. They're having close contact with each other. But also every time the staff or the providers leave the facility and they return, they bring with them everybody that they've had contact with on the outside.

So this is not isolation the way that we're seeing with family units in the community where, for example, my family and I have not had contact with other people. We've been fairly isolated just among the four of us. But inmates don't have that option. So I think that's the biggest challenge, is that they don't have full control over what their exposure is.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter to get the latest news on coronavirus in New Hampshire

On the balance between reducing inmate population size and maintaining public safety:

I think that all of the facilities have looked at their inmate populations and they've decided that some people can safely be released without posing a danger to themselves or to the community...

By reducing the population, they are getting people out. I think that that does two things. The first is that it limits the risk of exposure while they're incarcerated. But it also in the event that there is an outbreak within a facility, it reduces the number of people to whom the medical staff will have to respond to.

On the concerns for people who may be released early:

We're dealing with a vulnerable population to begin with. Most of the cases that travel through New Hampshire's criminal justice system are indigent defendants. And I think if you look at that population, a lot of them are working day to day jobs.

So some of them are now going to be unemployed. Healthcare may not be readily accessible to them. So we're already looking at people who may be vulnerable to infection and risk. So I think that that just heightens that the anxiety for that population.

On the impact of the backlog in criminal proceedings caused by coronavirus:

Having an open case means that many people put their lives on hold. They wait until that case is resolved to buy a home, to decide to make a move to change jobs. Many people are unable to get employment when a criminal cases is hanging out there and waiting.

So I think, you know the real consequence is that people are just kind of left in limbo. And I don't know that that's healthy for anybody. It's not healthy for the defendants. It's not healthy for the victims either...

Keith Gray, Superintendent of Corrections for Belknap County

On the biggest concerns for his facility:

So my one of my big concerns is if we start to have staff that have to be quarantined at home. I need to be able to maintain enough officers in the facility to continue operations in a safe manner...

The other thing we're concerned about is for the inmates. You know, I've canceled a lot of programs. Volunteers aren't having access in their facility. Only nonessential staff members are coming in. So, you know, their routine is changed.

Inmates generally like to have routine when they're incarcerated. They get used to their environment after a while and their environments been disrupted both by COVID-19.

What have you been doing to reduce the jail population?

There's two types of inmates in the county jail. We have sentenced inmates that serve 12 months or less and then pretrial defendants.

So I've worked with the county attorney and we wanted to get people out that obviously aren't a safety issue for the community. So the county attorney filed motions and we were able to release a lot of people that were sentenced, especially those that had any medical issues that could be compromised, especially if they if they became ill with COVID-19 and also pretrial defendants.

We also worked with the county attorney and also the public defender's office to try to get people bailed and released, that were just being held on nonviolent crimes. So today in my facility, my my jail population is at its lowest level in over 20 years.

What health processes have you put in place?

My employees, every time they come into work, they go through a screening process. So we're asking those questions that are recommended by the CDC. You know, if they if they have flu like symptoms, if they've done any traveling, if they've had contact with somebody else that has been diagnosed with COVID- 19 and temperatures are taken...

The concern for us is the new the new arrests, those folks that come in right now. So we have a screening process for them that's similar to the one we provide to our employees. And if they're exhibiting any symptoms... we would handle that person with PPE.

We'd get gowned up in PPE and we would put that person into isolation and then monitor the conditions and have our medical staff made aware of that individual.

Helen Hanks, Commissioner of the N.H. Department of Corrections

Do you think a diagnosis of COVID-19 is inevitable in your facilities?

We can't we can't walk with that naïve-ness thinking that what's happening in our in our world is not going to happen within our correctional facilities.

A listener said, “families are receiving information from their loved ones that soap and cleaning solutions are not available on pods.”

The cleaning solutions may not be sitting on the pod because they have alcohol in them and unfortunately, individuals will abuse that and drink them. They are out in the staffing areas that are specifically adjacent provided to individuals who are going around and cleaning.

Another listener said, “One mother's son is located at the Transition Work Center and as of Thursday, March 19th reports there's not a directive from COs or any other staff regarding cleaning or sanitizing. Further, they've stated they have not been given cleaning supplies, bleach or wipes of any kind.”

That was not validated and not accurate. And we continue to provide that cleaning. I think it's important as these accusations come forward. If we weren't cleaning, we wouldn't only be putting residents at risk. We'd be putting our staff at risk, who are going into the same places, performing duties through the facilities. Why would our staff put themselves at risk at the cost of others? And that's just not happening within our facility.

Have you adjusted communications?

So we have not decreased or adjusted our communication regimen, except that we are providing two additional five minute phone calls free.

We actually only charge .013 cents per minute for phone calls. We have the second national lowest rate of phone call charges. And the money that is spent on phone calls go back into the resident trust fund to be spent on them during their incarceration....

Well, I think it's clear that in correctional facilities, we've had to close our doors to the public to maintain safety. And because we've done that, we want to increase the communication with their families.

Tom Velardi, County Attorney for Strafford County

What’s the status of criminal proceedings in Strafford County right now?

So in Strafford County, like the other nine counties, trials have basically come to a halt. There are discussions in regards to how to possibly have trials in the interim of the Supreme Court order, which effectively stops all non-emergent hearings until May 4th.

We're dealing with making sure that we have staff on hand to have those emergency hearings.

In other words, for folks who could gain their liberty before May 4th, making sure that we have attorneys here that can appear in court, all court proceedings and Strafford County are all done by video at this point.

Has the way you assess whether someone qualifies for administrative home confinement changed in this crisis?

[The two types of incarcerated people eligible] are people who have already been given a chance to be out at their liberty, either on personal reconnaissance bail, on administrative home confinement... And they still have not been able to comply with those bail requirements. And so now they're sitting as a pretrial detainee. That's one group.

The other group, of course, is the folks that were immediately put into preventative detention because the court found, by clear and convincing evidence, that they were not safe to go out into the community.

All we're doing now is looking at extreme medical cases and saying, can we rebalance what we've already done, saying that this person ought to be incarcerated and house this person because of that new intervening factor?

And so in one particular case, I worked on myself last week: given the reasons why the person was incarcerated, balanced against those new medical factors, I was able to consult with the person's physician and it was determined that that that person should be released.

Christina joined the Civics 101 team in 2021. Previously, she worked on The Exchange, NHPR's flagship live news talk program, where she produced shows on topics including healthcare, social services, politics, and breaking news. She grew up all over the country, but considers New Hampshire her home base.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.