Inmates See Success in Jails’ Programs

WMUR New Hampshire 

LACONIA, N.H. —In one of the oldest jails in the state, inmates’ artwork lines the walls while workers try to make sure that once released, those inside don’t come back.

The Belknap County Jail has cell blocks, bars and razor wire. It also boasts bright and detailed framed art.

“It’s phenomenal, the amount of talent that we have here,” said program director Tamara McGonagle. “I just think the artwork is beautiful.”

Art on Display is a new addition to the jail and one of McGonagle’s many ideas over her four-year tenure.

“Everything from the GED to writing class to poetry class to AA to NA to yoga to tai chi to alternatives to violence to parenting classes to money management to conflict management and resolution classes,” she said.

There is one “program room” in the jail. Mary Ellen Boudman, 70, teaches art there once a week. Every seat is filled, and there’s never a guard.

“I’m not unfamiliar with young adults, and that’s what we mostly have here,” Boudman said.

Down the hall in a converted closet, a one-on-one GED — now called HiSET — class is held.

Since 2010, when McGonagle took over as program director, 104 inmates have earned a high school equivalency diploma. The rate is climbing steadily. In 2009, six inmates earned GEDs, and in 2010, that number jumped to 20. Last year, there were 29.

“Being in jail is the punishment,” McGonagle said. “We are not here to punish them. We are here to help them so when they are released, they don’t come back.”

Inmate Joseph Wilcott has been in jail since October, busted after five clean years for a probation violation. He earned his high school diploma just before Christmas at the age of 36.

“You can’t get a good job with insurance if you don’t have some kind of an education,” he said. “Plus, my family will be proud of me. My wife graduated. I’ve got a 4-year-old daughter.”

Belknap County Jail boasts low recidivism rates. Out of 104 high school certificate earners, 14 percent have come back, and all but one on probation violations.

Superintendent Dan Ward has been in the business 23 years. The University of New Hampshire alum started as a police officer before moving to corrections. He said he believes the key to success lies in the programs.

Materials for the programs are donated. Except for the GED or HiSET teachers, the instructors are all volunteers. There is no budget for the programs.

Ward said that while the teachers and volunteers at the jail are doing good work, he’s concerned about the jail’s condition.

The old indoor recreation space is now the women’s housing unit. There are no bars and no privacy. Up to 25 women spend their entire day in the converted gym, and they all share one toilet, one sink and one shower. The national standard is one toilet for every eight women.

“The women have access to it all day,” Ward said. “As long as they’re awake, they have access, and they schedule their use of it to make it fit.”

The jail has been renovated three times since it was built in 1890. The most recent renovation was in 1987. Designed to house 87 inmates, the jail is now bursting with 125 inmates at times.

“It’s a shell game every morning to determine where we have space and where are our numbers,” Ward said. “We don’t have the right of refusal.”

Every space in the facility is being used, including the attic.

“We put bunk beds up here, and the inmates who live up here in the attic — we still call it the attic — go out to work,” Ward said. “These are people who have jobs on the outside.”

Overcrowded, understaffed and falling apart, the Belknap County Jail is no country club. Four years ago, the county needs assessment determined that a new jail was needed, but the $42 million price tag is a tough sell.

“That cost is hard to swallow when taxes are going up on everyone else,” Ward said. “Our local towns, our schools have needs, and we think that the last place we want to spend another penny is on a prisoner in a jail.”

Ward looks and sounds more like a youth pastor than a jail warden. He loves his job, and so does his staff. Many stay on for decades and come back part-time after retirement.

“It requires a philosophical investment,” Ward said. “You have to take the leap of faith that what you do to help somebody will work.”

Ward said he’s not optimistic that a 30-year bond for $40 million will ever pass, and he said eventually, the federal government will issue a consent decree forcing the county to build. But the facility would then be built federal specs and not tailored to the county’s needs.