Attorneys say the state's largest jail is keeping them in the dark on how it is managing COVID-19 risk and potential cases among its inmates and staff.
Attorney Robin Melone, president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says inmates at Valley Street Jail in Manchester are reporting a “flu outbreak” that has put some in quarantine. Inmates are describing symptoms that include chills, cough and fever.
Melone says they know of no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the jail, but administrators there are offering few details to the public on COVID-19 testing and safety protocol.
“I tend to not be alarmist, but I am really scared and concerned for the inmates that are at Valley right now,” she says. “The fact that the facility is being so not transparent and frankly obstructionist is concerning. It puts the inmates at risk. It puts the staff at risk, and it makes it difficult for attorneys to measure their own risk when they choose to do their job by going in to see their clients.”
Hillsborough County Department of Corrections Superintendent Willie Scurry did not respond to multiple interview requests from NHPR, but he told attorneys and advocates in emails this week that some inmates reporting symptoms of COVID tested negative and are “being monitored” and in quarantine.
However, Scurry says the jail is not conducting facility-wide testing for COVID-19.
The scarcity of tests are not the only concern raised by attorneys and advocates. Until Wednesday, inmates were not required to wear masks outside their cell, and attorneys say some of their clients report not being given masks until last week, over a month into a statewide coronavirus surge that has hit Manchester hard.
The CDC recommends that inmates be given masks at no cost, and that all staff and inmates wear masks when possible.
Sarah Rothman, who heads the Manchester office of the New Hampshire Public Defender, says her office became so alarmed in the fall by the lack of available masks at Valley Street that her office offered to order masks for inmates to wear during their in-person meetings. She says the jail declined, citing security concerns, and that public defenders only observed consistent mask-wearing at meetings this month.
The state health department has offered COVID-19 guidance to county correctional facilities, but testing and safety measures vary by county.
Most jails, including Valley Street, are quarantining and monitoring symptoms of all incoming inmates for two weeks before allowing them to mix with the general population. Some - including in Merrimack and Strafford counties - are publicly reporting coronavirus testing protocols and positive cases.
However, oversight over county jails is unclear. As county facilities, they are run by county commissioners.
The state health department says that county and municipal health departments – not the state – are expected to oversee COVID-19 protocols at county jails. The Manchester Health Department says it does not have authority over Valley Street, though they provide educational assistance and respond to complaints on behalf of DHHS.
Rothman says the absence of clear oversight over Valley Street Jail leaves inmates, inmates’ families and attorneys like her in the dark about health and safety there.
“We’re banging our heads against the wall, trying to get access to information and trying to determine who has authority over the jail,” she says. “Everyone wants to pass the buck and say ‘We don’t have oversight.’”