Inmate accuses corrections department of violating agreement
A murderer serving a life sentence in state prison has accused the Department of Corrections of failing to comply with a decades-old operations agreement and says he plans to bring his claims before Merrimack County Superior Court.
Clifford “Edgar” Avery Jr., who is in his late 60s and was convicted in 1975 of killing an 18-year-old Concord woman, said the department is not adequately staffing its education, vocation and counseling programs, that it doesn’t properly segregate violent inmates, that it’s not maintaining sanitary conditions in some facilities, and that it’s violating certain medical requirements, in addition to other requirements.
“Some of the non-compliance issues are beyond Commissioner (William) Wrenn’s ability to fix due to a lack of financial resources,” Avery wrote recently in a letter to the Monitor. He said his concern will be presented before the court “probably within the next couple months.”
Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Lyons declined to comment on possible litigation. But he reiterated a statement he made last month: that the department is fulfilling its obligations under the 1978 Laaman Consent Decree, which established requirements for living conditions, as well as program and medical treatment offerings at the state prison.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael Brown, who handles civil matters for the Department of Justice, said the state is “absolutely” in compliance with the Laaman agreement. Brown said his office meets at least quarterly with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, the firm that represented the inmates in the 1970s suit and that has continued to monitor conditions at the prison to address and correct potential violations.
Alan Linder, an attorney at Legal Assistance who tracks prison conditions, said the corrections department has become short-staffed in some programs and in its mental health department. Like Avery, he cited financial constraints.
“They’re trying their best to fill those positions,” Linder said. He added that Legal Assistance is not representing Avery’s current claims.
In fact, this is not the first time Avery has lodged such complaints. Linder recalled roughly half a dozen previous occasions in which Avery has made similar contentions, and he said Legal Assistance chose not to represent him on many of those, either because it didn’t agree with his accusations or because it lacked the manpower to try to get them corrected.
Brown said that Avery’s behavior over the years has placed a needless burden on the courts and his office.
“We have more important things to deal with than a vexatious litigator,” he said. “Than to be side-tracked with frivolous litigation.”
Avery has had a troublesome history since his murder conviction. In 1977, two years after he was sentenced to life for first-degree murder in the death of Lee Ann Greeley – the state had also charged him with killing Greeley’s fiance but dropped that when he received a life sentence – he and another convict jumped a wall at the state prison. They remained on the run for nearly two weeks, before being discovered in a construction site trailer in Concord.
Despite the escape, Avery was granted parole in 1988. A few years later, he was charged with sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy. The case ended in a hung jury, but his parole was revoked regardless.
For the past several years, Avery has lived in “B pod,” a residential unit at the state prison. In a letter last month to Wrenn, he said sanitary conditions there are “deplorable.”
“Its (sic) a breeding ground for a multitude of bacteria, germs and deadly mold,” he wrote, describing a bathroom and communal shower area. He noted that mandated state health inspections are not regularly performed.
Among Avery’s bevy of other assertions: inmates are forced to drink out of unsanitary containers and are not being fed three “wholesome and nutritious meals” a day; inmates are at times living in the same units and cells with others from whom they’re supposed to be segregated; more than half of the inmates don’t have access to in-house jobs; the education department is understaffed by 30 teachers; individual and group counseling programs have been eliminated; a program in which inmates receive help planning for parole no longer exists; days when a medical staffer must be on-call are routinely cancelled; patients are not being seen by doctors in a timely fashion.
Linder questioned the basis for some of Avery’s claims. For instance, Avery alleges that the education staff should have expanded, as the prison population has, since 1978. Linder said the agreement didn’t specify a teacher/student ration; it directed the corrections department to simply attempt to add more instructors as additional prisoners arrived.
In any complaint, he added, the burden would be on the inmates or their representative to convince the court that the department has clearly overstepped a line.
That’s happened several times in the past, most recently in 2004 when a judge ruled that the department wasn’t providing adequate mental health services – it hadn’t properly established a residential treatment unit, as directed; group therapy and counseling programs weren’t being offered; inmates who were placed on suicide watch were not moved to hospital settings; and there was no organized system for refilling medications.
“Inmates would be transferred to new housing units, and their medications wouldn’t follow them,” Linder said.
Laaman requirements used to fall under federal jurisdiction but that ended in 2001. Since then, they have become contracts enforceable by state courts.
(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)