New leadership coming in at Merrimack County jail

The Merrimack County Department of Corrections has new leadership.

Ron White, who oversaw the opening of a 237-bed jail and helped champion improved access to mental health care for afflicted inmates, has retired as superintendent after a decade on the job. His recently-hired assistant, Ross Cunningham, has been tapped as his replacement.

Cunningham arrived in 2014 from Sullivan County and has been at the forefront of an effort to revive the old county jail into a 70-bed transitional center. That proposal, now backed by the county commission, includes in-house treatment for substance abuse and co-occurring issues, such as mental health, and up to a year of aftercare in the community.

“We’re in a very exciting spot,” Cunningham said this week. “I’m excited for this opportunity. I’m excited to work with such a great staff here.”

Cunningham was behind a similar project in Sullivan County, where he became superintendent in 2007. Before that, he was a major in the state Department of Corrections. He has worked in corrections and law enforcement for over 26 years.

“I think Merrimack County is very fortunate to have someone with his background and knowledge and attitude toward corrections,” said Peter Spaulding, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, which appoints the superintendent. Spaulding noted Cunningham’s eagerness to innovate and learn from other jurisdictions, both in and out of New Hampshire.

“It’s been a very positive experience so far,” he said.

In a way, Cunningham’s project picks up where White’s legacy leaves off. White joined the department in 2005, just weeks before it opened the new facility. An Air Force veteran and former Nebraska county corrections superintendent, he had a deep interest in diverting mentally ill inmates out of the corrections system and into community-based treatment plans.

In 2010, White helped launch an alternative sentencing program in Concord that partners with area and state service providers to establish and monitor treatment plans for defendants. It was one of the first “mental health courts” in the state, and is now one of more than half a dozen.