Cuts and crowding at state prison


July 08, 2009
BERLIN — More prisoners and less money have some concerned about inmates and officers safety at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility.

The prison laid off eight people last week, all with less than 10 years in the Department of Corrections. Ten people from the recently closed Lakes Region Facility came to fill the vacancies.

But with the replacement staff came more than 100 additional prisoners.

"We're worried," said Brad Asbury, director of field activities for the State Employee's Union. "Everything isn't fine. They're severely overcrowded. It's unsafe for the inmates, it's unsafe for the staff. A net gain of two isn't going to cut it."

The additional prisoners are housed in one of the gymnasiums in bunk-style accommodations. The prison has 715 inmates, 112 in the gym. The facility was built to house 1,000 inmates, but only half the bed space was ever built. The prison has always had more than 500 inmates, but this new increase has raised concerns.

"Every facility is understaffed and overcrowded," said Sgt. Dave Wilson, a corrections officer with 18 years experience who worked in the Berlin prison from 1999 until 2008. Sgt. Wilson said this combination creates unsafe conditions for inmates and guards. The higher ratios mean the guards are watching more inmates than they can reasonably monitor. The result is more assaults between inmates.

To deal with staffing restrictions the prison has switched from one corrections officer stationed on each block to roving patrols of two or three officers. Warden Larry Blaisdell said this has allowed the prison to run with less staff.

He calls the safety concerns legitimate, saying more staff would always be safer, but the prison is working with the resources it has.

"We can do it safely," he said.

Sgt. Wilson disagrees.

"Those blocks weren't meant to be unmanned," he said, and the prisoners know after the patrol has passed they have time before the next one. This gives them a change to break rules with impunity, he said.

"We did it out of desperation, because we didn't have enough bodies," Sgt. Wilson said.

The result is more inmate on inmate violence, he said, with the strong preying on the weak. It is too much for the few corrections officers to control. Officer presence is key to keeping order in the prison, he said.

Warden Blaisdell said roving patrols are common. It comes right out of the American Correctional Association guidelines. If more layoffs occur, though, the situation still get tough.

"It certainly will tighten us up," he said, but the priority is always safety. Right now he is waiting for the dust to settle, he said.

The dust might stir more before it settles. A second round of layoffs may be in the future for the DOC as the state budget cuts are hammered out. The new inmates and new staff have barely settled in, but there may be more changes on the horizon.

Many within the prison staff said they are worried their jobs will be cut next.

"My hope is common sense and good judgment prevail," said Warden Blaisdell.

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