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N.H. Correctional Facilities Release Inmates To Prevent Spread Of COVID-19


Correctional facilities across the state are releasing some inmates accused or convicted of non-violent crimes to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 within jail populations.


Social distancing is nearly impossible to maintain in jails or prisons, corrections officials say, and some inmates could be at risk for serious or life-threatening symptoms from the coronavirus. So prisons and jails  have taken to freeing up space in their facilities when possible.


County jail superintendents have been evaluating early releases on a case-by-case basis. Only non-violent defendants are eligible.


According to Rockingham County Corrections Superintendent Stephen Church, the release of a defendant often depends on specific restrictions or requirements. This could include daily check-ins, electronic monitoring or participation in programming.


Many counties have only released a handful of inmates. Rockingham County Jail, one of the larger facilities in the state, has released about a dozen people.


“We consider a number of risk factors,” Church said. “What is the risk to the public and what is the risk to the defendant themselves?”


The majority of inmates who have been released by county jails have been close to the end of their sentences, or have already been on work or weekend releases. 


Correctional facilities across the state are putting new inmates under quarantine for a minimum of 14 days. Officials said it would be impossible to quarantine inmates serving on work or weekend releases because they leave and return to the facilities so regularly.


Belknap County has released more defendants than most other counties in the state. Corrections Superintendent Keith Gray said his jail population has decreased by about 20 percent since the beginning of March.


Belknap County’s jail population has been slowly declining over the past few years due to reforms to the state’s bail system. Gray said that, combined with responding to COVID-19, his population is the lowest he’s seen in 20 years.


Gray said he’s had several sentenced inmates with medical conditions that would put them at risk if they were to contract COVID-19.


“I think there’s the perception that we’re releasing people who are dangerous,” Gray said. “I want to make people understand that we are reviewing each person carefully and only releasing those who we’ve determined are ready.”


The state Department of Corrections is also considering releasing inmates through administrative home confinement.


“I have a team reviewing cases looking at the use of at home confinement, but being cognisant that we do need to be a good public safety partner,” commissioner Helen Hanks said on NHPR’s The Exchange on Wednesday.


Other precautions jails and prisons in New Hampshire are taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus include screening staff and new inmates daily, canceling volunteer programs and group activities and increasing sanitization of their facilities.

Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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