Trying to break the cycle of crime and addiction at Merrimack County jail, from the inside out

By JEREMY BLACKMAN

Monitor staff

Tuesday, September 29, 2015
(Published in print: Tuesday, September 29, 2015)

Eight years ago, Sullivan County commissioners faced a costly dilemma. Their jail, outdated and overcrowded, needed serious work – to the tune of $42 million. Daunted by the prospect, they turned to their new superintendent, Ross Cunningham, who suggested scrapping the project altogether and redirecting a fraction of the cost to what he saw as a more immediate need: treatment-based re-entry.

Three years later, the “TRAILS” program debuted, offering drug addicts three months of in-house treatment and up to a year after of monitored care in the community. The model, one of the first of its kind, has since drawn statewide praise, and recidivism has plunged to about 20 percent – half of what it was and one of the lowest rates in New Hampshire today.

“We’re thrilled,” said Commissioner Bennie Nelson, noting that some inmates used to wait months for beds in private treatment facilities. “This is helping to break the cycle” of crime, he said, “and that’s the big thing.”

Now Cunningham, who was hired last fall to help head the Merrimack County jail, hopes to repeat the same success in Boscawen. He and Superintendent Ron White have pitched an ambitious plan to revive the defunct former jail next door into a 70-bed transitional facility, centered on combating substance abuse and other co-occurring issues, including mental health.

The project, which has not yet been approved but has attracted early interest from county officials, would essentially mirror Sullivan County’s, though the inpatient component would last about 60 days, not 90. It would target nonviolent offenders at high and medium risk for returning to substance abuse once released.

Under the proposal, participants would undergo two months of intensive, daylong programming and then spend up to a year transitioning back into the community. Those with housing could leave within days of finishing their treatment, and others could live at the facility and work in the community by day.

“This isn’t going to be about soft on crime,” Cunningham said. “There isn’t an offender around here who would like the idea of getting up at 8 in the morning to do programming all day, and then be responsible for their space, their time, be accountable for their behavior. That’s a whole new concept for them.”

He added: “I think any county that doesn’t take this path is not looking at the long-term solutions.”

Should the project move forward, the jail’s existing diversion program, SOAR, would phase out, and its staff would be redirected to the new aftercare component. Cunningham also hopes to partner with Riverbend Community Mental Health in Concord and Genesis Behavioral Health in Laconia to connect inmates early on with services they may be eligible for on the outside.

Riverbend, for example, would assign a case manager and a clinician to participants at the beginning of their treatment and work with them as they near release.

“The clinician would work inside and outside of the new facility, so they would become a bridge in and of themselves,” Riverbend CEO Peter Evers said. The nonprofit currently sends a staff member to the jail, he noted, but only part-time and not in a case management capacity.

“The idea is to cover the whole landscape of people with addiction and psychological problems,” Evers said.

It’s also to forestall logistical pressure from the county’s surging opioid crisis, which is sending more and more people into the corrections system. The jail now has 237 beds, about 30 of which are filled by women, though that number has been rising, Cunningham said. More than 80 percent have substance abuse issues. Many of those end up waiting their sentences out with little if any programming and the fleeting hope that they will snag a bed at an outside treatment facility.

“Warehousing inmates is not a good service to the population,” said Peter Spaulding, chairman of the Merrimack County Board of Commissioners. “If anything, they probably come out worse than when they come in.”

While the specifics have yet to be ironed out, the program would undoubtedly require new sentencing arrangements, not unlike the ones in place for SOAR. Eligible offenders would likely receive two sentences, one if they complete the program and one if they don’t.

That means someone sentenced to six months, for example, could get out in less than half the time. But they would have to earn it, Cunningham noted.

“You can have that same unproductive person in six months or you can have that same unproductive person in 80 or 100 days, but we’re watching them, and we’ve programmed them, and we’ve prepared them in a different way than they’ve ever been prepared before,” he said.

Tracy Scavarelli, managing attorney at New Hampshire Public Defender’s Concord office, said she’s encouraged by the proposal but unsure of its overall feasibility.

“I just don’t know where the funding is coming from at this point,” she said.

Scavarelli also noted that more resources have to go toward intervening early on, before those with substance abuse problems enter the corrections system.

County Attorney Scott Murray said there is certainly a need for new treatment options. He stressed that the program would have to include stiff and immediate sanctions for those who trip up on the outside.

“There needs to be a strong nexus between incarceration and living in the outside world.” Murray said. “There has to be a transitional program. That’s what people need.”

The county has been weighing different options for the old jail since it closed 10 years ago. There was talk of turning it into female offender housing, of using it to target those with mental health problems, of tearing it down altogether. Last year the county paid about $300,000 for a new roof, and the elevator has been kept operational. There have been rumors of asbestos, but Spaulding said a recent study found none.

Cunningham put the renovations between $1 million and $10 million but said they wouldn’t likely come close to the higher end. Architectural plans and an engineering study would need to be completed before an exact figure is reached.

The center would be minimum security and open, Cunningham said, meaning cell walls would be knocked down. It would be split nearly evenly between women and men, with separation of the two by floor. Program director Lori Seog said coursework would be tailored so inmates could start at any time.

“I think it’s a huge plus for us to do it this way,” said Seog, who now oversees SOAR.

The center would also house nonparticipants on work release, Cunningham said. That’s already an option, he noted, but the new jail’s configuration makes it difficult, especially for female offenders, who have to pass several checkpoints on their way in and out of the facility.

Cunningham hopes to begin rolling out the treatment component this fall, with or without a green light on the renovations. But the residential component, he said, will be key.

To move forward, he’ll have to convince both commissioners and the county’s legislative delegation, which would appropriate the money – most likely a bond.

Spaulding said the board is supportive, but it has other priorities to consider. With the state eying a new superior courthouse on Hazen Drive, it has to figure out what to do with the existing courthouse, which it draws hundreds of thousands of dollars from in rent each year. The county attorney’s office is also overcrowded and in need of a new, bigger space.

But the jail’s proposal could bring long-term savings, Spaulding noted. The county now pays about $100 per day to house an inmate; it would cost considerably less, he and Cunningham said, to house them under minimum security and then out in the community, even if through electronic monitoring.

“The cost for the space in the existing facility is very expensive . . . and this means that we don’t have to expand,” Spaulding said. “Because that’s what we’re looking at otherwise.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)