Managing Coronavirus In Correctional Facilities | New Hampshire Public Radio

Managing Coronavirus In Correctional Facilities

Mar 31, 2020

How do you achieve physical distancing in jail or prison?  We look at how correctional facilities and the criminal justice system are adapting to the coronavirus, to ensure the safety of inmates, correction employees, and the public. 

Air date: Wednesday, April 1, 2020 

 

GUESTS:

  • Robin Melone - Criminal defense attorney with Wadleigh Law in Manchester, and serves on the board of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. 
  • Keith Gray - Superintendent of Corrections for Belknap County.
  • Tom Velardi - County Attorney for Strafford County.
  • Helen Hanks - Commissioner for the N.H. Department of Corrections.

 

Transcript:

This is a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors. 

Peter Biello:
From New Hampshire Public Radio, I'm Peter Biello in for Laura Knoy. and this is The Exchange.

Peter Biello:
How do you achieve physical distancing in jail or prison? Today on The Exchange, we look at how correctional facilities and the criminal justice system are adapting to the Corona virus to ensure the safety of inmates, correction employees and the public. We'll start by talking to a criminal defense attorney about the biggest concerns she has for her clients and what she has been doing. And then we'll talk with the superintendent of corrections for Belknap County. And we'll finish the hour by talking with district attorney of Strafford County about how he is working with correctional facilities and within the court system to adapt to the pandemic. We'll also talk with Helen Hanks, commissioner of the Department of Corrections here in New Hampshire listeners. Do you know someone who is incarcerated? Where do you work in correctional facilities in New Hampshire. Let us know what your experience has been giving us a call.

Peter Biello:
First, we're joined by Robin Melone. She is a criminal defense attorney with Wadleigh Law in Manchester and serves on the board of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys. Robin. Thank you very much for joining us. Really appreciate it.

Robin Melone:
Thanks for the chance. I really appreciate it.

Peter Biello:
So we'll jump right in. What do you think is the biggest concern for people who are incarcerated, either awaiting trial or already serving time?

Robin Melone:
As far as maintaining their health, I think that there is definitely a concern for inmate health. I want to frontload this conversation by saying that I think the New Hampshire D.O.C., Helen Hanks, the commissioner and the various county jails have done a phenomenal job of, you know, reducing their inmate populations and being conscious of the fact that social distancing is not really possible in jail. It's not really possible in prison. So they have been on the frontlines and we certainly appreciate the work that they've done. But I think that the concern remains. You know, 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.

Peter Biello:
And you've been working with correctional facilities. What has that experience been like?

Robin Melone:
You know, I've been doing this job for a long time, primarily in New Hampshire. And I know a lot of these people and have known that for years. So it was not surprising when, you know, I was contacted by a couple of superintendents and they've certainly been responsive to our inquiries. I think everybody in the system gets it like this is this is not business as usual. And I think we realize that while we work in different parts of the system, it's an adversarial process. We all recognize the risks and we all want to reduce those risks to the inmates, to the facility's staff, to the defense attorneys, and also to the prosecutors and the victim advocates and all the stakeholders, because everyone's at risk.

Peter Biello:
And so what steps are officials taking, the ones you've been working with for years, that that you find most reassuring?

Robin Melone:
I think that the most reassuring is, you know, doing what has been happening nationally. All of the facilities, the prison and the county facilities have looked at their inmate populations and they've asked the hard question, which is who is here that doesn't need to be here right now. And that doesn't mean releasing dangerous people. You know, I'm a defense attorney. That doesn't mean that I think that people are not dangerous. I think that there certainly are people who should not be released to the community. Some of my colleagues disagree with that sentiment. But I I do hold it. I think that all of the facilities have looked at their their inmate populations and they've decided that some people can safely, safely be released without posing a danger to themselves or to the community. I'm aware that there are some inmates who have asked to not be released because they don't have a safe place to go. So I think that 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. And I think, frankly, it's it's unfortunately a matter of time before we do see an outbreak in one of the facilities.

Robin Melone:
I think we've been very lucky here in New Hampshire so far. And I think that hasn't happened yet. But it's coming. I think it probably is. And I think that our our facilities have done enough so far just to to hold it off. And I think that they're doing a great job of reducing it. I don't think if and when it happens, I don't think that it will be the fault of the facilities. I think it's the fault of the virus.

Peter Biello:
Have you spoken to clients or former clients who have been released? Because they were they were not dangerous and they were trying to avoid being stuck in a situation where they would be closed in close quarters with people. And if so, what have those folks said to you?

Robin Melone:
I personally have not. I have been, you know, my my client population over the past couple of years is just frankly not among the population that is likely to be released. I've spoken with a number of our members for any ACLU who have had inmates who have been released. And most of them are grateful. They're scared for friends. And, you know, people that they had met within that are still on the inside. I think, you know, 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 employed. I'm sorry. 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.

Peter Biello:
Listeners were speaking today about physical distancing in jail, in prison not being possible. So how have correctional facilities and the criminal justice system overall adapted to the corona virus? We've been talking a little bit Robin alone about people getting out early or getting out just to stay away from the close quarters. If someone gets out earlier than planned, you've mentioned a few of them before, hurdles that they might face, for example, they may not have a safe place to go. What are some of the other hurdles that they might face if they're suddenly out in the community?

Robin Melone:
I think medical care is a big one. And I also think that the uncertainty. I want to be clear. I don't think any of these facilities are going to turn people out if they don't have an appropriate plan. I know Commissioner Hanks has been very deliberate and in speaking with a number of the individual commissioners, I know you're speaking with Commissioner Gray later. They've all been very aware of the separate danger of turning people out to the streets, even if they want to be released without a plan. I think, you know, the same issues that they're going to have now are the issues that they would have that many would have when they're released from jail, which is lack of employment. And frankly, right now getting a job is going to be pretty difficult. I think anybody with a criminal record faces a hurdle of having that box on their on their employment application. I think medical care is going to be an issue. I think access to medical care is going to be an issue. I think the biggest asset that anybody being released right now who's indigent is going to be having a safe place to go and family supports. And I think that they're just going to have to lean on those family supports until things are, I hesitate to say back to normal. I don't know when that's going to be. But I think that until they can stand on their own, two feet are going to have to rely on their families.

Peter Biello:
I see. So what has work been like for you overall? There was I can presume, I suppose, a flow to your job, a routine, perhaps. How has that routine been disrupted for you?

Robin Melone:
I think like most people right now, I'm working remotely. I have an office set up at my house. I have two children who we are homeschooling. My husband does a much better job of that than I do. You know, crime and the law is one of those areas that's not going to come to a hard stop with the pandemic. People are going to continue to be arrested. So I've continued to have new cases come in. I've continued to negotiate with prosecutors.

Peter Biello:
And are you doing all of that just by video, by video conference?

Robin Melone:
I'm doing a lot of it with Zoom. I'm doing a lot of it with Microsoft meet. I'm doing a lot of it just by cell phone. You know, there are the courts have been has been good about helping us figure out the macro piece of it. So and initially they shut down a couple of weeks ago, I think was frankly absolutely appropriate.

Robin Melone:
I don't think anybody would dispute that. But when that happened, it was very sudden and it left us with this question of how do we do what we do? And I think the stages since then, the two weeks have really been looking at the micro and the long game. Simple things like how do I get multiple signatures on a document? How do I get my client's signature on a document? So the courts within the last week have agreed that we can do electronic signatures. How do I do a hearing telephonically? How do I present exhibits? There's been a big push from us and I think, frankly, from the courts to keep as much business as possible going. You know, some of these courts see several hundred cases a week. Many of those have been stalled. And I think the prosecution and the defense and frankly, the civil bar as well are aware that when and if we return to a normal docket, we're not just going to have the backlog of the cases that we're stalled on that day when the courts suspended proceedings. But we're going to have that pile up in that accumulation of all those cases in the months in between. So how do we deal with that tsunami? So I think that there is the parties are vested in figuring out how do we do this, how do we continue as much business as possible right now? So that that's been a lot of work right now.

Peter Biello:
That backlog is going to be waiting for you when we return to whatever normal happens to be after this corona virus pandemic fades out. So what is the effect, in your view, of stalling? I mean, are there. I assume there are there are people who are accused of things who are, I guess, waiting for for the next movement in in their in their case. Right. Is that is that what's happened?

Robin Melone:
Yeah. And that's a lot of our clients obvious. I mean, there's we've talked of a fair bit about the incarcerated population. And I think the prejudice there is obvious. Right, if somebody is incarcerated. They're not at liberty. And delaying that has very obvious, tangible consequences. But for the majority of defendants, they're at liberty. But to have that case hanging over their head is challenging. 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. You know, much of my practice is criminal defendant based, but I also do a fair bit of victim work. And I've spent a lot of time on the phone with several victims in the last two weeks who are just. Really struggling that this is this is just going to delay their opportunity to have some kind of closure in their case.

Robin Melone:
And I'm super aware that, you know, every party involved in this is it's kind of just left hanging. So our goal and the courts have issued orders in the last in the last week or so is that we can do as much business as possible by phone. They've made some changes that say that we can resolve some cases with paper without an actual physical hearing, and they're encouraging us to resolve things as quickly as possible. I think tent, practically speaking, you know, a docket in a court is usually a cattle call. There may be 20 cases and the court can just cue those up and go through them. I think it's much more challenging when you have to get, you know, four or five people on a telephone or on video conferencing equipment. So I don't think we're gonna be able to move as as many cases as we would with a live docket. But I'm hoping that we're gonna be able to move a fair bit of the business so we don't have that pile.

Peter Biello:
When we when we get back to normal, certainly good for you to remind us, Robin Melone, about all the people waiting on either side of the justice coin for for some kind of resolution to the cases working through the system. Let's go to Karen in Plainfield. Karen, thank you very much for calling. What's on your mind?

Caller:
Yes, I am. Somebody my father used to work with comes getting out of prison and going into the community. They were often.

Caller:
Look into the community wearing somebody else's clothes and given two dollars, sometimes only 25 cents or whatever was left of their money.

Caller:
You know that they might have had in jail. So it took only a day or two for recidivism has set in, so that's one problem. What are you going to do about the way people are discharged? Number two, what about the people that are still in jail? What can you do about the phone calling system? The phones? People in ICE departments and people in jails often have to stand in line to wait to use the phone. The phone is edited and taped. You know, people are listening and they have only five minutes to be on the phone. Then when their phone call reaches their wife or their child or their mom. If that person hangs up or isn't at home. They don't get to make the call if the person picks out the person picking up the to three dollars and fifty cents a minute.

Peter Biello:
Okay. Well, Karen. Yeah, let's let's put that to Robin. So. So Robin, two issues there first. The first thing that Karen brought up was what you're given when you when you leave. I don't know if what she was describing is is currently accurate, giving a small amount of money in someone else's clothes to people who are discharged from prison. Is that is that the case?

Robin Melone:
So my understanding right now and again, it's gonna be facility by facility. But when folks are released, they are given the property that they came in with. So when an inmate is booked into a facility, their clothing, their wallet, their license, you know, that 52 cents in their pocket is all going to be logged. It will be placed in their property that can be released to a family member while they're incarcerated. Other times it's returned to them when they walk out the door. If they came in with clothing, they can leave with that clothing. If they don't have clothing to leave and somebody can bring them other clothes to put on. Sometimes, you know, the worst case scenario, they'll be released in their jail scrubs. Many facilities have. A closet of clothes. Or, you know, some stuff that they can that they can give to inmates when they when they walk out. I think the question of recidivism is one that we face whether we're in a pandemic or not. I think the inmates right now that are being released by the prison and by the various facilities are ones that have been assessed by, frankly, I think the people in the best position to assess them, which is the the jails and the programmers who have lived with them and supervised them and monitored them. I think that they are not going to release people who they think are going to be dangerous. I think if we're releasing people right now that we trust that they're gonna be released to families and a stable conditions as stable as they can be. I think employment is going to be a challenge, as I've said. But I think if they have someplace to go, I don't think people want to commit crimes. Generally speaking, there are certainly some I don't deny that. But I think generally people want to be good.

Peter Biello:
And the second part of Karen's comment had to do with the cost of communicating and also the logistics of communicating. She mentioned queues of inmates lining up to to use the phone to contact people on the outside. I imagine if that still happens, that happens with social distancing in mind. But you tell me, is is is it has there been any change to the way people communicate by phone with the outside world?

Robin Melone:
So communication was one of the huge pieces that we as an organization hit pretty early on when this started happening. Four for two reasons. And there's two aspects to communication. The first is attorney client communication, and the second is communication with support structures in the community. And I'll speak first to the attorney client communication. That was hard for us as attorneys. You know, we a lot of what we do is you build relationship, you build rapport with your clients. And it may not be that I'm just talking about their case. I'm talking about their family. I'm talking about, you know, what they had for lunch that day, who won the the card game that they were playing. And very often we are the only communication they have aside from other inmates. My handshake to that client may be the only welcome physical contact that they have all week. So having that contact shut off again, obviously necessary. We are now working with the jails and the prison. They've all worked with the phone providers to provide inmates at various levels, at different facilities, free phone calls. The prison has set up a really good system for us to be able to get to our clients and communicate with our clients. But it's over. The phone attorney calls are not recorded. So we do have that. My concern, frankly, is that in some facilities where there's no longer in-person visitation, there's now no non-contact visits, which means an attorney is sitting on one side of a thick plexi window and the inmate is on the other side and you both use the telephones.

Robin Melone:
And I am aware that, you know, inmates are coming in. Multiple inmates are using that phone on the inmate side. And during visits where there have been, you know, an attorney seeing three or four clients, that phone wasn't cleaned between visits. So I think that that's concerning to me. And I and I don't I'm guessing I don't know for sure. And I would certainly encourage. This question may be presented to Superintendent Gray. I don't know about his facility specifically. I mean, those phones are you're talking at them, you're breathing on them. You're you're handling them. And so is everybody else. So that's a concern. And I think that that concern translates into the inmates who are on the pod, on the unit within the facility. I don't know if they have inmates, you know, standing six feet apart while waiting for the fall. And frankly, I think that if we have them in small cells and they're less than six feet apart at one point, I don't know that maintaining six feet distance while waiting for a phone is going to make much difference. So I think as far as the cost, we've seen securest and GTL and some of the other providers step up and offer reduced rates and offer some free phone calls to compensate for the lack of in-person visits. But certainly that lack of connection is going to be challenging, I think, for adults and for juvenile clients to maintain mental health.

Peter Biello:
Well, Robin Melone, criminal defense attorney with widely law in Manchester, we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today. Really, really, really appreciate it.

Robin Melone:
Thank you so much. Have a good day, Peter.

Peter Biello:
You, too. Listeners, we want to hear your experience with the criminal justice system during this coronavirus pandemic. No matter where you fall on it, we we think your perspective is important and we'd love to hear from you.

Peter Biello:
This is The Exchange on NHPR. I'm Peter Biello today on The Exchange. We look at how people who are incarcerated and those who work with them are being impacted by the Corona virus. And we turn now to the superintendent of corrections for Belknap County, Keith Gray, for his perspective. Keith, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Keith Gray:
Good morning, Peter. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this conversation.

Peter Biello:
And I'll pick up really quickly with a comment that Robin Melone, criminal defense attorney with Wadleigh Law, just left us. She was concerned a little bit about some of the sanitation practices that she has seen, not necessarily in Belknap County. But I wanted to check with you. What are the Senate sanitization practices going on right now in Belnap County?

Keith Gray:
Well, obviously, as you can imagine, we've we've increased a lot of our sanitation practices due to the Corbitt 19 crisis. So, you know, we're we're trying to maintain vigilance with that. Also asking the inmates to keep their areas clean. My staff is going through the housing areas in enforcing that directive for me. So I feel like we're doing a great job with that. We've ordered a lot more cleaning supplies than we normally would have because of what's going on.

Peter Biello:
So overall, Keith Gray, what are your biggest concerns?

Keith Gray:
My biggest concerns (laughs). Well, I have several of them. I don't know how to put one on top of another.

Keith Gray:
But, you know, you know, the impact to my staff and to the inmates, you know, weren't nervous about the disease and what's going to happen by medical providers. And from what I see, you know, in the in the media nationally is, you know, this thing hasn't reached its peak yet. So we're kind of just bracing for the storm. That's hopefully not going to happen, but I have to be prepared for it. You know, so my one of my big concerns is for my staff, if they start to have people 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. Right now I have about 28 correction's security staff from my cell phone down to line staff. And we have a 24/7 operation, as you know. So I I want to make sure I have enough. Qualified staff to provide the service. That's a concern of mine. Today, I only have one employee that's quarantined at home. They haven't tested positive, but they're showing symptoms of a flu like condition. So in accordance with the CDC recommendations, that person is home right now. 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. So on top of that, we've done a lot of. We've emptied out the facility as much as we can. I worked with the county attorney.

Peter Biello:
And what does that what does that mean like that? Making sure that those inmates who aren't dangerous can be can be placed elsewhere, perhaps with family members or?

Keith Gray:
Right. So there's two types of inmates in the county jail. We have sentence 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 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 PR bailed and released. You know that we're just being held on nonviolent crimes. So today in my facility, my my jail population is at its lowest level in over 20 years.

Peter Biello:
Because of the cleaning out, as you mentioned.

Keith Gray:
That's right.

Peter Biello:
And what about testing? What is testing like for staff and inmates? Is there testing going on regularly?

Keith Gray:
So my 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. So if they pass that screening process, they come in and they start their shift. The inmates in general point relation, I don't have anybody that has been diagnosed with any flu like symptoms. The concern for us is the new the new arrests, those folks that come in, you know, like 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, then you flu like symptoms or if they they say that they've traveled or anything like that. We would we would handle that person with PPE staff. 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 give up.

Peter Biello:
How are you working with other correctional facilities? And how is that going? I mean, you've got a certain set of. You know, Protocols and Belknap County, but it might be different in other counties. How's that? How's that working for you?

Keith Gray:
Well, I'm the president of the superintendents affiliate in the state of New Hampshire, so we're we're in close contact with each other. There's only 10 counties in the state and we have monthly meetings anyways just to discuss business in general. During this COVID- 19 crisis, you know, we've had quite a bit of quiet communication in all the facilities are doing screening processes throughout the state. Also the state prison, if we have to send anybody to the prison or to another facility, we do a culvert 19 screening form and we would send that to the other facility to ensure that the person is not COVID-19 positive and to make that transfer happen. If the person was infected with Cauvin 19, the person would remain at the facility that they were currently being held in until their condition improved and then that transfer would occur.

Peter Biello:
And what about administrative home confinement? How is that working for you?

Keith Gray:
So we've had that in place here for for many years. So I actually transitioned.

Keith Gray:
All my inmates that were in a work work release program. As you can imagine, we wouldn't want people leaving the jail, going to work and coming back and forth during this COVID 19 crisis. So I took all my inmates that are when work release and I transition them into home confinement with electronic monitoring and I have community corrections staff that monitor them. So they go through a screening process to make sure that they're. That they meet all the requirements. And in this case now some of their requirements, especially if there's some financial obligations, I've been waiving some of them to allow some of these folks to be released from custody.

Peter Biello:
Well, Keith Grey, superintendent of corrections for Belknap County. Thank you very much for speaking with me. Really appreciate it.

Keith Gray:
Thank you, Peter.

Peter Biello:
Listeners, if you have questions or comments, give us a call 1 800 8 9 2 6 4 7 7. And let's turn now to Helen Hanks, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. Helen Hanks, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Peter Biello:
Helen, are you there?

Helen Hanks:
Yes, I'm here.

Helen Hanks:
Oh, hi.

Peter Biello:
Thank you very much for speaking with really appreciate. Sorry about that.

Peter Biello:
We're glad to have your perspective here because you oversee writing facilities throughout the state, different regions of the state. And I just want to check in with you really quickly as of right now. No staff or incarcerated people tested positive, recovered 19, correct?

Helen Hanks:
That's correct. As of 9:30 this morning, we do not have any positive staff or residents with COVID-19, which is a very frequently asked questions. And I'm very proud of our staff and our team for the preventative measures we've been engaging in since the end of January. But I just want to Peter, if I could say we're not naive to the it it's going to happen. It's really how we all respond to it. But I'm pleased that we've made it this far.

Peter Biello:
You've considered an inevitability that that people in the prison system in the state will eventually catch COVID

Helen Hanks:
I think we have to be clear that what the community is going through and that our staff come from the community, we have to be realistic in the situation. And our goal is to obviously continue to prevent but also be realistic. We can't we can't walk with that naive Nisse thinking that what's happening in our in our world is not going to happen within our correctional facilities.

Peter Biello:
We got a caller earlier, Helen Hanks, about sanitizing the phones at the prison system. I don't know if we want to focus just on phones, but generally speaking, there are things that inmates regularly come in contact with being sanitize clean properly, in your view.

Helen Hanks:
So I think having heard that question, we've come a significantly long way from, you know, payphones on the wall within our correctional facilities. We've gone almost all, even the county jails to exclusively the use of tablet technology. Our tablets are actually telephones. So we have over sixteen hundred tablets across our facilities, some personally owned by residents and some shared. And they are being cleaned. Not only are those tablets being cleaned, doorknobs are being cleaned. Common areas are being cleaned at a greater frequency than they had been before. But for the protection of residents and our staff, we all have the common goal of having proper hygiene and cleanliness in our institutions.

Peter Biello:
And ah, with regards to people who are being released early for the sake of staying away from being in close quarters with people. How is that working from your perspective?

Helen Hanks:
So obviously we are different than the county jails in that we have to balance the public safety and impact of victims and survivors of crime as we look and examine visuals who are incarcerated, who meet those C.D.C. High risk categories, acknowledging that our fiscal plan is not as conducive as we'd prefer to creating fiscal distancing. So we've created a process. I have a team reviewing cases, looking to the use of that home confinement, but being cognizant that we do need to be a good public safety partner. I think it's important to recognize that the Department of Corrections has a large congary of staff in our community, probation parole officers maintaining through this whole crisis the supervision of people on parole and probation. And what we do at our facilities impacts those individuals. And again, victims and survivors of crime.

Peter Biello:
We got this note from Earl who wrote in to say, Please ask Commissioner Hanks. While the DOC has publicly stated its actions for present preventing the spread of the virus, families are receiving information from their loved ones that soap and cleaning solutions are not available on pod's, that the separation of those infected is taking place in the same pods and share the same bathroom and shower as those not infected. Will the commissioner allow for a third party to confirm the D.O.C. actions or allow families to bring grievances to the D.O.C. and respond quickly? So it seems like the premise of real question is that there are people infected?

Helen Hanks:
Well, there are not, and we're triaging those as they come to my office. We would not be following best practices by co-locating potential symptomatic individuals with non symptomatic individuals. We are not doing that. 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. It's simply untrue.

Peter Biello:
Another person wrote in to say One mother son is located at the Transition Work Center and as of Thursday, March 19th reports there's not a directive from CO's or any other staff regarding cleaning or sanitizing. Further, they've stated they have not been given cleaning supplies, bleach or wipes or any kind. Others indicate they have not witnessed any correctional officers passing out cleaning or disinfecting supplies. That was of as of March 17th, so a few weeks ago. I dont know if that has changed since then, has it?

Helen Hanks:
It wasn't the case then and is actually almost verbatim a complaint I received on the same day. 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.

Peter Biello:
So how are you keeping people informed? Both. Are you contacting family members of those incarcerated to let them know what the conditions are inside or is that left to the the folks inside to communicate?

Helen Hanks:
So also through the same tablet technology, we're pushing communication out to our residents. We have a resident communication committee who I met with several weeks ago who affirmed that that information is incredibly helpful and keeping them apprised of changes and why we're making changes. We're using the same social media outlets that other research sources are engaged in, such as Twitter and Facebook and pushing that information out to the public. We're certainly triaging inquiries from family and friends and trying to go off full court press on getting information. Communication is critical for everyone involved in the situation.

Peter Biello:
And as far as I understand, your you're allowing more communication between inmates and their families or friends on the outside.

Peter Biello:
Is that correct?

Helen Hanks:
So we have not decreased or adjusted our communication regimen, except that we are providing two additional phone calls free, five minute phone calls free. We actually only charge point zero one three cents per minute for phone calls. We have the second national lowest rate of phone call charges. And those moneys that are spent on phone calls go back into the resident trust fund to be spent on them during their incarceration.

Peter Biello:
Why do you think it's important to even though it's a modest increase, make that increase and allow them to do that? The increased communication with with folks on the outside?

Helen Hanks:
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. One of the most critical interactions that produces positive reintegration is maintaining that connectivity to the positive supports that people have in the community and to other comments made early, not only about communication, but releases. We would only be releasing people to safe housing plans. Just as an aside, it's not going to help individuals to be released to homelessness, and that's not something we're going to do.

Peter Biello:
So as this continues, this coronavirus pandemic continues and has yet to peak. Officials say that it's the peak is coming, but it's not here yet. How would you or what will you be looking for in the next few weeks or what will you be keeping a very close eye on?

Helen Hanks:
I'm keeping a very close eye on the locations and prevalence of positive cases, as well as people recovered and people who are testing negative going to continue to do that front door screening of anyone coming into our facilities and the measures that Superintendent Gray referenced with regard to transfers. We're going to continue to try to limit any unnecessary transfers that could be delayed to a later date. Really, we're in the risk mitigation phase of trying to reduce potential avenues of virus, interrupting our operations and affecting our staff and our residents.

Peter Biello:
And what would you say is being done, if anything, to monitor the stress that employees might be feeling at this time?

Helen Hanks:
Communication and an open line of communication between staff, leadership, all parties involved. We are sending those dialogues to our staff. We're checking in with our staff, you know, cognizant of the stressors of what may be happening in their homes and knowing that we still need them on the job. It's a delicate balance that we have to be responsive to that.

Peter Biello:
And if you could request for request and receive any kind of either, you know, support staff wise or supply wise, what would that be?

Helen Hanks:
Why would you ask for at this point, we continue to be among those who need personal protective equipment. We do have supplies of them, but we'll continue to need them to maintain those preventative measures and measures that will be necessary really when we have a person who is potentially symptomatic. So keep corrections in mind both from the facilities perspective but also in the community. Probation and parole officers still have to go to home checks for high risk and intensive supervision cases. And they are also in our communities on the front line of maintaining public safety during a challenging time.

Peter Biello:
Are you like some other institutions, accepting donations from the public of personal protective equipment?

Helen Hanks:
We certainly would. And in fact, just as other organizations are fabricating fabric masks and fabric gowns, we're using our resources and partnering to do the same within our own facilities.

Peter Biello:
Well, Helen Hanks, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, thank you very much for speaking with me. Really appreciate it. Thank you for the time.

Peter Biello:
This is The Exchange on an HP bar, and we just want to know as well that we have heard from a correctional staffer that inmates are trying to call us but can't get through because it's an 800 number. That's just a limitation, I suppose, of the prison system. But we're glad that you are listening and we hope to get a line of communication to you at some point. We appreciate that you were out there. We appreciate that all of you are out there and joining this conversation.

Peter Biello:
This is The Exchange on NHPR. I'm Peter Biello in for Laura Knoy today. And tomorrow on The Exchange.

Peter Biello:
How can you practice physical distancing outside safely and responsibly? Send your questions or concerns by e-mail. The addresses exchange at an HP bar dot org. Right now we're looking at the impact of the Corona virus pandemic on those who are incarcerated, the people who work with them, their families. And joining me now is Tom Velardi, district attorney for Strafford County. Earlier in the show, we heard from a defense attorney and a county corrections superintendent who talked about measures to keep people in our correctional facility safe, ways to perhaps transition inmates out of a jail system to reduce the population. Tom, thank you very much for speaking with us. Really appreciate it.

Tom Velardi:
Good morning, Peter. Nice to be here.

Peter Biello:
So right now, Tom, what's the status of criminal proceedings and trials in your county?

Tom Velardi:
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.

Tom Velardi:
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. I've heard from some colleagues that there are telephonic hearings going on. So the gears are grinding slower, but they are still grinding to make sure that folks are not sitting in an incarcerated situation when they don't have to be or they may have the opportunity to gain their liberty.

Peter Biello:
And as we've heard earlier in the hour, concerns around safety of those who are currently incarcerated, including those awaiting trial. If the court system has been limited because of quarantines. Fewer people are able to attend hearings and potentially get released. Also means people may be incarcerated at a time when physical distancing is a nationwide priority. So how are you balancing those demands with public safety?

Tom Velardi:
Well, what we've been looking at are reviewing cases strictly on a case by case basis. I myself dealt with a case at the end of last week with someone who had very demonstrated medical issues and looking at re reviewing the charges. Looking at that persons case, I agreed to have that person be released to administrative home confinement. And that's been the instructions to staff, which is let's review these things on a case by case basis. We have to balance public safety, we're not opening the doors to let everyone out because we're in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic in this country. But we have to be smart. We have to be rational, we have to be fair and look at cases on a case by case basis where people are showing a demonstrated medical heightened concern.

Peter Biello:
And what has changed about the way you assess whether someone is eligible for this? I assume you've always looked at people on a case by case basis. It's the nature of the justice system to give each individual a fair shot. But what's changed? What are you looking at now that you may have not been looking at before?

Tom Velardi:
You know, Peter, it's just one more layer when you consider that people who are in the Strafford County house correction. These are people who have at least the pretrial folks. These are people who have already been given a chance to be out at their liberty, either on personal reconnaissance bail, on administrative home confinement, through GPS, through some other set of conditions that still allowed them to maintain their liberty. 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, are 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.

Tom Velardi:
So these this is a population that's already been triaged as meeting the highest level of supervision, that is incarceration. 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 have this person because of that new intervening factor? Really? And so in this one particular case, I worked on myself last week, given the reasons why the person was incarcerated. Balanced against those new medical factors that I was able to consult with the person's physician on. It was determined that that that person should be released, but that, you know, so we're gonna look at those things. But the triaging that's going on already, just because that's the way we run things here in regards to who is incarcerated pre-trial. It's a it's a low level of people that are awaiting trial and are incarcerated in Strafford County at least.

Peter Biello:
So so if I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying that let's say you have an inmate who already has some kind of lung condition that COVID-19 would would make them especially vulnerable to dying.

Peter Biello:
And so you have to weigh that with the possibility that, you know, if if they if they are released. Are they going to re-offend? Is that basically what you're looking at?

Tom Velardi:
That's right. Consulting with jail medical staff and in this particular instance, consulting with medical staff of that particular inmate who said this is so serious. I'm waiving my right to medical privilege so you can talk to these folks. I see we're trying to make those decisions as quickly as possible.

Peter Biello:
And how has the home confinement, the administrative home confinement worked overall? You mentioned that there have been some makes an exception where someone still could not maintain the conditions of administrative home confinement. But overall, are most people complying when they are given administrative home confinement?

Tom Velardi:
Yes, it's been extremely successful. We've been using it here for more than 15 years as a way to manage not just pretrial folks, but sentence individuals. You know, enhancing the ability to stay in the community, keep those community ties, keep a residence, keep employment, all those things that go into creating a successful, successful rehabilitation. Well, fortunately, we've been set up to weather this maybe a little better or a little differently than some of our other partners and the incarceration field or in the prosecution field.

Peter Biello:
How so? How are you better set up?

Tom Velardi:
Just because we've been doing it for so long. Where were we? We have a reduced population up from. Engaging in these practices for the last decade and a half.

Peter Biello:
Mm hmm. And so do you feel like this is changing in a permanent way, the way administrative home confinement is done? In other words, is this covered 19 pandemics said, hey, look, this is sort of forced us to use this in a way that maybe we we hadn't before. We might want to keep this up after the coronavirus pandemic passes.

Tom Velardi:
Well, I think what a situation like this does where it alters. The major facets of not all the facets of all of our lives, you just naturally reexamine. What is my mode of procedure for coming to problem solving? This disruption has had me have another way of thinking about it. Maybe some other places will say that this might be an alternative way for me to think about this. We in Strafford County, where we have our paradigm set up that is very conducive to administrative home confinement for folks who are sentenced because we have, we've dedicated the resources to have folks effectively supervised in the community. So it's really all about balancing that public safety with the need to incarcerate you, dedicate resources towards that public safety. Then you can safely supervise a lot of people. We supervise hundreds of people in the community here in Strafford County. We have been doing it for years. So if you're set up to do it, then it's not that much of a paradigm shift to be forced to do it when a pandemic or some other major life altering event comes along.

Peter Biello:
We heard earlier in the program about the delays that the coronavirus pandemic may cause to the the process of administering justice. Obviously, the longer the stay at home order continues, the greater the backlog in the system. How are you preparing for that?

Tom Velardi:
Staying in constant contact with the clerk of court and with the presiding judge here, along with the head of our local public defender program, about how our trial is going to be rescheduled. What are we going to be doing to catch up with hearings that have been back logging? Is there any way to continue business currently with non-emergent things? But when we have agreements with defense counsel. But it's going to be a significant issue, certainly on our end of things as a prosecution office were very concerned about making sure that victims of crime have redress in the courts. We can't give that to them right now because of the backlog. You know, just trying to cut down on the tremendous level of confusion that's going to happen as things that have been bumped off up the court's docket have to get re put on wherever the court can find room for it, which may not be, you know, may not be convenient to persons who are called in as witnesses.

Tom Velardi:
Frankly, even to people who who are victims of crime as well. So it's gonna be a lot of juggling. We're just going to have to try to tackle that when the time comes. The good news about that is that that means we've returned to some semblance of normalcy. So that will be a good turn for all of us to take together. But we are bracing for that. And we'll we'll try to deal with it in a collaborative of a manner as possible of defense bar, prosecution, bar and court working to make sure that we can come up with stacked schedules that will work for all the all the court users.

Peter Biello:
And in the meantime, what have you been hearing from those waiting for justice, perhaps victims of crimes?

Tom Velardi:
No, just explaining that for effectively speaking, the court system is shut down. Other than those emergent situations that will stay in touch, my victim assistance staff are fielding a lot of calls, doing some proactive calling just to make sure that folks feel as though they've got some support. They have all the information that we can possibly share with them. And we're just sharing with them that this is a wait and see for really the whole state and frankly, for the country, for all the states that have gone on to a shut down. No one really knows what's coming next. It's a unique experience for all of us to share as a state and as a country.

Peter Biello:
So. So what will you be watching for in the in the coming weeks? For for a sign that that you'll be able to continue doing your job or your job will return to normal or things you should be doing to sort of head off the next enormous problem. What will we be looking for in the next few weeks?

Tom Velardi:
Well, I think like a lot of people going home, turning on the news and seeing what the national administration has to say. Certainly watch what Governor Sununu says. Appreciate his clarity and leadership on this issue. It's just that, frankly, decision makers are being stymied by the amount of non-information that is known at this time. And so I think that, you know, some patient passing of what we do know. Listening to the health professionals about what we can do, you know, should I have staff here in the office that I'm calling you from right now? Should I have half staff? Should I have no staff listening to those folks and making good executive decision to try to keep everyone as safe as we possibly can and get back to that normalcy as quickly as possible? That's that's what we're all aiming for.

Peter Biello:
And what would be the number one resource that you would need right now if you could ask for it and definitely receive? What would that thing be or or people if it's if it's a people resort resource.

Tom Velardi:
Right now, you know, it would be that the PPE equipment just for my local law enforcement officers, you know, that they are changing, some of them are changing the way that they're doing their jobs. I just want them to be as safe as possible. You know, they still have to enforce the laws. They still have to have that face to face interaction. So support your local police. I think that they are oftentimes. Overlooked in regards to being on those frontline and trying to keep us safe and maintaining order on the street.

Peter Biello:
Well, Tom Velardi district attorney for Strafford County. Thank you very much for speaking with me. I really appreciate it.

Tom Velardi:
Thank you, Peter. Greatly appreciate being part of this program.

Peter Biello:
It's been a comprehensive discussion today about the Corona virus in the criminal justice system in New Hampshire. Want to also thank superintendent of corrections for Belknap County, Keith Gray. Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Helen Hanks. And Robin Melone. Criminal defense attorney for Wadleigh Law in Manchester for joining us on the program today. The program, the conversation on today's program continues online at N H Nhpr.org, as well as our Facebook page.