Jaclyn Hilow of Winchester was a senior in high school when addiction took hold of her life. A day’s dose of heroin became far more important than anything else, and she found herself powerless to fight it.
When Hilow was 18, her classmates were anxious to graduate and start the next chapter of their lives, whether in college, the workforce or military. But as those seniors planned their futures, Hilow chose to fade into the background. The streets of Nashua became her home.
That was more than a decade ago, Hilow, 29, recalled last week through tears at the Cheshire County jail in Keene. She’s now a federal inmate there, secluded from the New Hampshire communities where she grew up and met her husband.
On April 21, Hilow was one of 53 federal inmates at the Keene jail — the most the facility had ever housed at one time.
The number of people jailed for being accused or convicted of committing local crimes is declining — a shift that’s a direct result of the county’s alternative sentencing and pretrial programs. Those initiatives help keep non-violent offenders out of jail and, in turn, allow for the facility to house more federal inmates, according to Superintendent Richard N. “Rick” Van Wickler.
Meanwhile, the average number of federal inmates at the jail has grown significantly, from a handful to more than 50, since it relocated from Westmoreland to Keene in 2010. And while the county must balance the space needs between local and federal inmates, the uptick in the latter group has proven profitable.
A significant source of revenue
Of the 53 federal inmates awaiting their fate at the Cheshire County jail, some face charges in New Hampshire, but the majority are being prosecuted in Vermont.
Hilow is charged with conspiracy to distribute one kilogram or more of heroin in the Keene area, according to court documents available in U.S. District Court in Concord. Her husband, Jamie Hilow, was recently sentenced to 135 months — the equivalent of more than 11 years — on the same charge in a related case.
“I know I’m going to prison for a long time, too, so I can’t indulge too much,” Jaclyn Hilow said when asked about her dreams for the future.
“I want a life with my husband. I want normalcy. I don’t want to be a junkie for the rest of my life. ... I want to be Jackie.”
The federal government pays the county $105 per day, per federal inmate, as part of an agreement the parties reached in 2010.
Those funds are a significant source of revenue for the county, which doesn’t incur any additional expenses if its federal inmate population is up, Van Wickler said. Rather, the jail’s daily expenses, such as utilities and personnel, are the same whether a bed is empty or full. The exception is the nominal expense for food, with one meal costing $1.40.
The U.S. government reimburses the county for federal inmates’ medical costs, he noted.
The county brought in $1,502,190 — $659,040 more than expected — for housing federal inmates in 2015, according to County Finance Director Sheryl A. Trombly. The Cheshire County Delegation put a total of $1 million toward offsetting taxes to be raised in 2016, which was in large part made possible because of the federal inmate program, she said.
This year is on track to surpass 2015 figures because of the increase in the average number of federal inmates at the jail, Trombly said.
But at some point, jail administrators have to draw the line on the number of federal inmates they can house, Van Wickler said. That number today is about 50 federal inmates at a given time, as county inmates come first, he said.
The jail has hit that mark, although it’s a fluid one.
Projecting revenues from the federal inmate program as part of the annual county budget process isn’t easy, officials say. In fact, in three of the six years since the jail has been in Keene, the county didn’t hit these revenue projections.
“If there is a local explosion, we might move that target down (from 50) to 40,” Van Wickler said of the number of federal inmates at the jail. “We have 29 (county inmates) on electronic monitoring today. Those 29 could be called in at a snap of a finger.”
Van Wickler has the option to call the U.S. Marshals Service at any time to ask for the relocation of federal inmates due to an unexpected change in the county population; he’s never had to do so, though — and hopes not to.
In addition to Cheshire County, several other correctional facilities throughout New Hampshire house federal inmates, including in Coos, Merrimack, Strafford and Belknap counties, according to the U.S. Marshals Service’s website. Conversely, Vermont’s jails and prisons are so overcrowded that their own inmates must serve sentences in other states such as Kentucky and Michigan, and the end result is a limited supply of federal beds, according to news reports.
When Cheshire County decided after roughly 12 years of debate to rebuild the new jail off Route 101 in Keene, it did so with the intent that it would last decades and hold 230 people, Van Wickler said. Outside consultants told county officials they’d need 260 beds.
On April 21, the jail had 47 open beds for men and 18 available beds for women out of a total of 230. Of the 230 beds, 199 are in the jail’s general population unit and 31 are in the segregation unit, which is an isolated unit for people who act out.
The county under-built the jail for its population, Van Wickler said. But it did so knowing it wouldn’t fill all of those beds either, and that there would be enough for federal inmates, too.
The reason? The county’s alternative programs to keep people accused of non-violent crimes out of jail. The programs — all of which launched within the past decade — include the electronic monitoring program, Alternative Sentencing Program and Mental Health Court, as well as the Cheshire County Drug Court which is for felony-level offenders.
Van Wickler credits those efforts with reducing the number of sentenced inmates in the jail. For years, 40 percent of people convicted of crimes committed in the county were sentenced to a period of incarceration; now that’s down to 26 percent, he said.
Spearheaded at the state level, “Felonies First” is another program aimed at reducing the time those charged with felony-level offenses are in jail prior to the resolution of their cases. Cheshire County prosecutors now file felony cases directly in superior court, rather in circuit court, which streamlines the process.
‘We’re treated like human beings’
Hilow, sitting on the cafeteria-style benches in the jail’s F-block for women, said she doesn’t associate much with the county inmates because they come and go so often. People who have committed probation violations most frequently re-enter the jail, she noted.
Her greatest frustration is that those convicted locally of drug possession and distribution charges often get more lenient sentences than federal offenders; a near identical act is considered more criminal if federally prosecuted, she said. A drug case, for example, is prosecuted at the federal level if there’s evidence the crime crossed state lines, and therefore is beyond one state’s jurisdiction.
“I’ve seen the same people come in and out of here five to eight times. Why can’t I get a chance to screw up?” Hilow asked, noting that there are far greater restrictions on federal inmates as they’re considered among the most “at-risk.”
Van Wickler explained that the jail has five classifications, with the first being people released on electronic monitoring and the fifth being people assigned to the segregation unit. The majority of federal inmates fall into tier four.
He noted that the jail doesn’t segregate a person for more than 15 consecutive days for a single violation. The policy at other facilities varies greatly in that inmates are secluded for a month or more at a time, he said.
“I have a firm belief that segregation is very unhealthy for human beings,” Van Wickler said. “We can have someone do serious things, be in segregation for 15 days and then I give them a second chance. What we’ve found is given a second chance, they take it.”
Federal inmates said Van Wickler’s philosophy makes the Keene facility a preferable one to others they’ve served time in.
Rebecca Lawrence of Winooski, Vt., and Emily Lasell of Milton, Vt., who both face drug-related charges, said the Keene cells are well kept and not overcrowded, which is in stark contrast to Vermont’s correctional facilities. Also, they said, the county jail offers substance abuse counseling and other programming to benefit them.
“We’re treated like human beings,” said Lasell, who began using heroin as a teenager.
The jail has three programs that inmates can participate in and earn certifications from at the conclusion of an eight-week cycle, according to Kate Robertson, a jail substance abuse counselor. Two focus on techniques for stress reduction, and the third is centered on recovery and coping strategies, she said.
Lawrence recalled fondly a recent opportunity to talk with a group of high school students at the jail about her history of drug abuse and incarceration time in Cheshire County.
“It’s not worth it. It’s my second federal charge,” Lawrence said of her pending heroin case in Vermont. “I’m going to do a lot of time if there’s a next time. I’ve spent my life abusing, and it’s not worth it.”
Lawrence dreams of a bright future for herself, but she said that’s easy to say when she’s in a controlled environment with no access to drugs. The world doesn’t stop because she’s behind bars, and the same people who tempted her before will likely try again, she said.
“It’s very hard to get out of the cycle. You can run from it, but it’s still going to be there,” Lawrence said. “If you have a strong support system and you really want it, you can succeed.”
For now, “I have to be maintained. I’m not strong yet.”