Pardon bid by N.H. jail guard part of larger debate
On the surface, Cheshire County Corrections Officer Thomas Schoolcraft’s bid for a pardon for burglaries he committed as a teen seems like an isolated request by a convicted felon who wants to further his law enforcement career.
But months before he came before the Executive Council last week, his quest created a rift among county jail superintendents that almost cost him his job and spawned an effort to bar convicted felons from becoming county jail guards.
Tension lingers among members of the statewide corrections officers’ certification board, whose 10 members include nine county jail superintendents and one captain.
Hillsborough County House of Corrections Superintendant David Dionne said Friday he feels Cheshire County Supt. Rick Van Wickler deceived fellow board members by not informing them of Schoolcraft’s felony record when he came up for recertifica-
tion in January. Dionne said he learned of Schoolcraft’s past through media reports on his petition for a pardon.
Dionne said the board voted to reconsider Schoolcraft’s recertification and the result was a tie, meaning he failed to secure recertification. But the executive committee of the New Hampshire Association of Counties overruled the board, saying only the executive committee has the authority to change the rules.
Association of Counties counsel Betsy Miller said each county currently sets its own policy on hiring jail guards. The association is in the process of reviewing standards and rules that could change with executive committee approval, she said.
“I still believe our policies don’t allow it,” Dionne said. “If you are convicted of a felony while working for us, you get decertified. I take that logic to say if you have a felony, you can’t be certified.”
Numerous county corrections superintendents contacted by the Associated Press did not return calls seeking comment, including Van Wickler. Sullivan County’s website has a job posting for a corrections officer that lists “no criminal record” as one of its job criteria.
“It’s no longer just Schoolcraft the person but Schoolcraft the corrections officer and symbol of a power struggle,” said Cheshire County Commissioners Chairman John Pratt, who spoke on Schoolcraft’s behalf at the pardon hearing. “He’s a pawn in a much larger chess game.”
Having a felony record precludes someone from being hired by the state Department of Corrections as a prison guard or as a probation or parole officer. Misdemeanor records are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
Schoolcraft, now 28, was convicted in 2004 of breaking into homes in several Seacoast communities when he was 19. He served nine months behind bars. He has been a corrections officer for several years.
Cheshire County Commissioners Chairman John Pratt said Van Wickler – who teaches at Keene State College – met Schoolcraft while he was a student and offered him an internship at the jail. “He did very well and when he graduated from Keene, Van Wickler hired him,” Pratt said.
His lawyer, Richard Guerriero, said Schoolcraft wants to move back to the Seacoast to be within commuting distance of Boston University, where he is pursuing a master’s in criminology. He said the felony conviction goes beyond simply which counties will overlook it and which won’t.
“It’s not so much what their rules might prohibit as whether you’re ever going to get an interview,” Guerriero said. “I think it’s a huge disability.”
Pardons have rarely been granted in New Hampshire in recent decades. Gov. Maggie Hassan and the five-member council will vote on Schoolcraft’s petition at its Sept. 4 meeting.
At his pardon hearing, Schoolcraft said if counties change their policies because of him, “I’ll feel like I’ve closed the doors in a way.”
“But a pardon could give people hope,” he said. “I think it would be a very positive message that someone can work really hard, stay away from trouble, be given opportunities and excel, and then be given a chance for forgiveness.”