Cheshire County jail

The Cheshire County jail, seen here in 2019, received good marks for oversight by county commissioners.

When Hillsborough County Commissioner Toni Pappas toured the Valley Street Jail in Manchester last December, as she and fellow commissioners are required to do at least twice a year, she didn’t appear to find any cause for concern.

“I have found the condition of the facility, the security of the inmates, and the management to be in order,” Pappas wrote in an inspection report filed with the N.H. Attorney General’s Office. “The inmates are being cared for pursuant to [state law], and are appropriately supervised by trained correctional staff.”

Based on what she saw, she concluded, “there are no specific actions that need to be taken.”

But just a few days after that visit, a Hillsborough County Superior Court judge came to a dramatically different conclusion about conditions inside the same facility. In an order granting bail to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 while being held at the jail, the judge said he was “deeply troubled by the cavalier attitude that [the facility] has shown toward its inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Soon, the Valley Street Jail, the largest county correctional facility in the state, had a full-blown outbreak on its hands: More than half of the people incarcerated at the facility were infected with the virus, with more than 168 cases eventually reported across residents and staff. The facility accounts for about 40 percent of the COVID-19 cases reported at all New Hampshire county jails since the start of the pandemic.

When attorneys and other advocates raised alarm about virus protocols inside the Valley Street Jail last winter, state officials said it was largely out of their control. And they were right.

“That was the moment that it became crystal clear that the system that we have does not work,” Robin Melone, president of the N.H. Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, said of the Valley Street Jail outbreak.

In New Hampshire, responsibility for monitoring what’s happening inside county jails rests primarily with county commissioners like Pappas: elected officials who receive no formal training on correctional issues and no supervision from state officials who specialize in issues relevant to incarceration. The lack of consistent statewide standards means that, in times of crisis, the level of protection afforded to those inside county jails hinges on the level of interest and scrutiny their county commissioners bring to their role.

While New Hampshire law gives county commissioners lots of discretion on how to run jails, it is clear on at least one thing: Twice a year, commissioners are supposed to “make a proper examination into the management, condition, and security of the condition of the inmates in county correctional facilities.” And within a month of that inspection, they’re supposed to file a written report on “their findings and actions or proposed actions on such findings” with the New Hampshire attorney general.

Several counties opted not to conduct in-person jail inspections during the pandemic, citing safety concerns. But an NHPR review of the inspection reports posted publicly on the attorney general’s website found that even before the arrival of COVID-19 most county commissioners were only fulfilling the bare minimum of this law.

Most of the inspection reports are no longer than a few paragraphs. Some county commissioners — including those in Hillsborough and Strafford — have re-written essentially the same summary after each visit, year after year, with no mention of changing conditions inside the jail. Coos County’s reports consist of a checklist with minimal comments. In Sullivan and Grafton Counties, reports are similarly brief and routinely authored by jail officials — the very people who are supposed to be the subject of the inspections reports — not the county commissioners.

“The inspection reports looked meaningless,” said Michele Deitch, a distinguished senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin who studies prison and jail oversight across the country. “They were so lacking in detail as to be useless — which is not to say that they are not fulfilling oversight responsibilities in different ways, but there still needs to be another external government entity that’s responsible for going into the facilities and ensuring that they are complying with a set of minimum standards.”

‘Transparent operation’

The N.H. Attorney General’s Office said its only role, when it comes to county jail oversight, is to ensure the reports are filed; how the commissioners approach the inspections is up to them. If something in one of the reports raised “significant concern,” Associate Attorney General James Boffetti said the state would investigate.

“But in terms of monitoring for the quality or checking when this examination took place and in what form? That’s really not our role,” he said.

If people have concerns about the inspections or other aspects of county jail oversight, Boffetti said, “they should be raising those with the elected county commissioners.”

Some county officials, when questioned about their inspection reports, said they believed they were doing what the law asked of them. Sullivan County Manager Derek Ferland said that even though his county commissioners do not personally author their jail inspection reports — that task is delegated to him and jail officials — they still take the tours seriously and give the reports careful review before they’re submitted to the attorney general.

“When we submit a report saying the commissioners walked through the building, that’s what the law is for, is to ensure that they’ve done that,” Ferland said. “As far as having them write a report — to me, that’s just good staff work, you typically don’t have the senior person in your organization responsible for the administrative tasks.”

Grafton County, however, plans to change how they approach their reports after being contacted by NHPR for this story: They will no longer be authored by jail officials, and Grafton County Commissioner Wendy Piper said they will more fully reflect the “full-bodied conversations” commissioners have with staff and people held at the jail.

“I’m sorry for the lack of detail on the reports, because I believe that they should be more detailed,” she said, explaining that inspections are usually much more thorough than what their previous reports would suggest.

Piper, who also serves as the president of the N.H. Association of Counties, said it would be helpful if the state provided a standard inspection form so that there was more uniformity across counties.

To the extent that commissioners go into detail in their inspection reports, they tend to focus on facility issues — whether the kitchens or showers were clean, for example, or whether the security system was functioning — rather than on the welfare of the people inside the jail.

A notable exception is in Cheshire County, where commissioners typically provide a minute-by-minute log of their visits. Their reports also usually include summaries of what are described as private conversations between the commissioners and people who live and work at the jail.

“I look at it as a way that we could all improve, in terms of how we deliver public services to our constituents,” said Chuck Weed, who until recently served as a Cheshire County commissioner and previously led the statewide association of counties.

County commissioners across the state emphasized that these inspections aren’t the only way they hold their local jails accountable.

“While there is always room for improvement, I believe we Commissioners take our responsibility to oversee the jail very seriously,” Pappas, who has served as a Hillsborough County commissioner for about two decades, wrote in a statement in response to questions from NHPR. “Our job is to protect the safety of our community and the security of our inmates. I believe this happens with the impartial monitoring and oversight that occurs during jail inspections, but more importantly happens during our bi-weekly meetings with our Superintendent.”

Longtime Strafford County Commissioner George Maglaras says he meets weekly with his jail superintendent, but he doesn’t believe he needs to share the details of those meetings with the public because they involve discussions that could compromise the security of the facility, the privacy of the people who are held there or personnel matters about jail staff.

Instead, Maglaras has included the same, brief summary in each of his jail inspection reports dating back to 2013. It reads: “We found the House of Corrections/Jail to be in excellent condition regarding the management and security, as well as in cleanliness during this inspection.”

“The reports that we filed meet our statutory obligation,” Maglaras told NHPR. “If I filed the report on the weekly meetings we have with the superintendent … most of the information would not be made, could not be made public.”

He’s confident the Strafford County jail has “the highest standards of any facility in the state,” because it also doubles as a federal immigration detention center.

“We have a very transparent operation,” he said. “Well, as transparent as it can be, under the circumstances that we’re dealing with.”

Other states

New Hampshire county government has few major responsibilities and operates largely out of the spotlight, compared to the state or even local government. County commissioners are in charge of funding and monitoring some obscure positions, like registers of deeds, but also a few highly consequential ones: county attorney offices, county nursing homes and county jails.

In contrast to county correctional facilities, other county-level positions in New Hampshire are routinely subjected to at least some kind of state-level scrutiny. County sheriffs are certified through the N.H. Police Standards and Training Council, which explicitly says it “does not train or certify County Corrections personnel.” County nursing homes are licensed and monitored by the Department of Health and Human Services, or their federal counterparts. County attorneys, the top prosecutors elected in each of the state’s 10 counties, too, are subject to oversight from the state attorney general.

“That sort of analog doesn’t really exist in the same way with county Departments of Corrections,” said Henry Klementowicz, an attorney for the ACLU of New Hampshire.

That also puts New Hampshire in the minority of states without at least some kind of state oversight of local jails.

According to Deitch, 28 states provide at least some kind of jail regulation through the state correctional agency, a statewide sheriff’s association, an independent commission or, in some cases, the state health agency.

Those who study correctional systems across the country caution that merely having state-level oversight doesn’t automatically bring more accountability. These systems can still lack the kind of transparency, consistency and enforcement options to bring meaningful changes.

“Even where formal oversight mechanisms have been built in states, they tend to not produce a lot more dignity or safety for the people behind bars,” said Jasmine Heiss, who directs the Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards project, which focuses on incarceration in smaller towns and rural communities.

However, Deitch — who has spent much of her career studying correctional oversight — wasn’t aware of any other state except New Hampshire where the primary responsibility for monitoring county jails rests with local elected officials. And this model concerns her on a few levels.

“Relying on them to point out problems in the facilities is a concern because they don’t have the expertise to know what they’re looking for,” Deitch said. “And, arguably, they’ve got a conflict of interest because they’re the ones that are funding and ultimately liable for what happens there.”

There are some potential benefits to giving elected officials at least some role in jail oversight, Heiss said, since they’re ultimately accountable to the public.

“If there are things happening that voters don’t like, there is always the possibility for them to respond and to use direct democracy as a way to sort of hold people accountable or to ask for something different,” Heiss said.

County government can often be an afterthought in the minds of the average New Hampshire resident. But attorneys who work directly with clients at New Hampshire’s county jails, including Valley Street, said there are good reasons for people to pay closer attention to how these facilities are being supervised.

For one, local defense attorney Suzanne Ketteridge said, “everybody’s entitled to a certain level of care and dignity.”

“A lot of people in jail are pre-conviction — they have not been convicted,” she said. “It could be your son or your brother that somehow ends up in the jail, for whatever reason.”

N.H. Public Radio reporter Sarah Gibson contributed to this story.

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