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State prison census drops, gymnasium emptied

March 03, 2011
BERLIN — The Northern Correctional Facility, the state prison located in Berlin, is a little safer these days. That's because, thanks to SB500 legislation that provides supervised early release for prisoners, the population at the northernmost prison has gone down by more than 100 inmates in two months.

The reduction means that the overcrowding issue at the facility has been resolved and the gymnasium that had been outfitted to hold 112 prisoners is now being cleaned up and returned to its original purpose. "That's the huge news," said prison warden Larry Blaisdell. "It's a great thing."

In December, when the county commissioners sent a letter to the Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn and Governor John Lynch expressing their concerns about overcrowding and understaffing at the prison, the facility had a census of 740 inmates. It was initially built to hold 500.

As of Monday, Feb. 28, the population stood at 639, Blaisdell said. He attributed the drop to SB500, calling the situation a "short-term success" since the bill took effect in October. Blaisdell explained that anytime there is a significant reduction population it becomes a safer environment. "Everybody breathes a little sigh of relief," he said.

Prior to last year's high, Blaisdell said the population in his seven-year tenure had averaged 520 to 525 prisoners. He added that during the times when they housed many more prisoners, there had been no major staff increases at the prison.

The population drop is just being seen now, since those who went before the parole board in the fall were not released until January and February, according to Jeff Lyons, public relations officer for the Department of Corrections (DOC). The state prison population isn't just down in Berlin. Statewide, the prison system has seen a reduction in population of more than 200, from 2774 inmates in February 2010 to 2543 inmates in February 2011, according to DOC figures.

While prisoners are being released early under SB500, which was designed to do just what it has — reduce prison populations in the state, they are released under supervision. Prisoners are put on either 90-day or 9-month supervision programs depending on their crime and then fall into the purview of the probation and parole offices scattered around the state.

Joe Diament, Director of the Division of Community Corrections, characterized his department as the "work outside the walls" of the prisons. He said this recent reduction is all "part and parcel" of the changes advocated by the commissioner and legislature and said the new policies deal more effectively with the dramatic increase of prisoners over the last 10 to 15 years. Much of that increase, he said was related to prisoners re-incarcerated due to technical violations of the probation and parole terms. A technical violation is a non-criminal offense that violates the conditions of release, like drinking alcohol or other otherwise legal activity, Lyons explained.

"The numbers are exceeding our expectations at this point," said Diament of the population reduction thus far. The expectations were that the prison population would go down by 50 inmates in the first year. The actual number is more than four times that figure "with no corresponding crime wave."

Police in Berlin confirmed that they have not seen any real jump in crime, despite the prison opening it's doors to more than 100 inmates. "Fortunately for us, most of the people they've let go are going somewhere else," said Berlin Police Lieutenant Barney Valliere. "The impact on us has been minimal."

Valliere admitted to not being a supporter of the early-release measure, citing possible impact on victims and the fact that for most, the felony conviction that lands them in prison is far from the first run-in they have with the law. He also noted that the city has seen a couple of parole violators recently. Aside from that, however, he said that the bulk of the prisoners are likely heading south, back to the cities they came from. Whether those cities are seeing an impact, he said, is unknown.

Lyons said that since the program is so new, exact recidivism numbers have not yet been compiled. He did say that of the 33 inmates statewide who were released with 9 months' supervision, four have returned to prison for their 90-day penalty on technical parole violations. For those who were released with 90 days of supervision, Lyons said that it is too early to track the data since they were just released within the last eight weeks.

He added that the prison in Berlin is the location the department has designated to handle all of the offenders who are sent back to prison for technical violations to serve their 90-day penalty.

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