A Bit of Forward and Back


I just read an article on the Daily Beast about a jail facility in New Hampshire. It’s really a model of excellence on some levels and a model of failure on others. Consider the following quote:

There are many things about Cheshire County Jail that you’d be hard-pressed to find in any other carceral space in the country. The warden, Rick Van Wickler, prides himself on the building’s environmental design—complete with a geo-thermic heating and cooling system—and overall low-carbon footprint. The correctional officers insist that there’s “very little conflict” between the 150 prisoners currently being held at this 240-bed facility. They also claim that they’ve had relatively few issues with contraband and zero escapes in the 4 years of the jail’s existence, thanks in part to high-tech surveillance and the 118 cameras spread throughout the site. Boasting accessible health and psychiatric services, over 100 community volunteers and the strict enforcement of U.N. standards on the use of solitary confinement, which limit isolating a prisoner to 15 days, Cheshire County Jail has attracted national attention as a rare model of progressive incarceration.

I’m indifferent to the carbon footprint part, but the rest is excellent, especially the part about not holding people in solitary forever. The population:bed ratio is also excellent, as is the inclusion of psychiatric care.

So what’s the problem?

Well, first off, inmates aren’t allowed outside to exercise. That’s a violation of their Constitutional rights, and for those of you who are going to whine about, “Oh, those poor babies,” allow me to remind you that “Constitutional rights” are also what we call “laws”. It’s also just common sense to allow people a little access to the outdoors.

Second, inmates are charged a small fortune for just about everything. Phone calls start at $1.80 for the initial connection and are 31 cents a minute after that. As the inmates aren’t allowed in-person visits (more on this in a moment), that’s the only way they can keep in contact with their family and friends on the outside.

Again, for those of you who are now going to say, “Oh, these poor little babies can’t talk to their mommy. Boo-fucking-hoo!”, well…first off, you’re an asshole. Stop reading my blog. But beyond that, studies have proven time and again that having strong family connections decreases the likelihood of reoffending. Further, many of these people are simply awaiting trial and, therefore, are completely innocent of the crime they’re accused of until the state proves otherwise. That’s kind of an important distinction.

To continue on the expenses, the article says they’re charged a co-payment for medical visits, and it implies they’re even charged for things like papers and pencils. Ok, to a certain extent, that isn’t horribly unreasonable, but these are presumably people without much in the way of money. Why do I assume that? Because if they had money, they would have posted bail and wouldn’t be in jail while awaiting trial.

Finally, the fact that the inmates aren’t allowed in-person visits, except in unusual circumstances, is a real problem. Again we come back to the fact that building up strong family connections helps keep people from reoffending. On a more practical level, if inmates have strong family connections while in prison, it might give them someone to live with once they get out. Allowing only video call visits (that the inmates pay for), is problematical. If nothing else, inmates shouldn’t have to pay for visits period.

So there is much to admire with this facility, and much to dislike. I’d say it’s five steps forward and four back, but at least it is some progress, and it’s clear from a quote at the end of the article that the warden has his heart in the right place.

“It’s quiet and clean. That’s the way I like things,” [warden] Van Wickler says. “Still, 40 percent of these people probably don’t deserve to be here. If we lived in some sort of utopian society they’d be in a situation that actually helped them.”

Of course we don’t need a Utopian society to help these people. We just need a good solid dose of pragmatism and kindness.

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