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Correctional facilities restrict access, limit transfers to keep staff and inmates safe

  • The former warden tower office at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord.  GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 3/24/2020 2:26:56 PM

Suspended visitation, enhanced screenings and limited transfers of incarcerated individuals are part of new emergency protocols implemented in recent weeks at the state’s three prisons, where there are no known positive cases of coronavirus.

Likewise, the Merrimack County jail in Boscawen has rolled out several changes to its day-to-day operations in the wake of COVID-19, and officials there say staff and inmates are healthy.

As prisons and jails throughout the country grapple with how best to keep the virus from entering the facilities, they’ve taken immediate steps to limit in-person contact, and suspend visitation and volunteer programs while they rethink how to offer essential services to the most vulnerable.

The state’s prisons have remained free from the virus so far, officials said, but news that an ex-staffer at the federal prison in Berlin was symptomatic – and entered self-quarantine – within days of transferring to Colorado triggered additional precautions from the corrections department. The state-owned Northern State Correctional Facility in Berlin is just a couple of miles from the federal site.

State corrections spokesperson Laura Montenegro said safety of staff and incarcerated individuals remains the number one goal. In the wake of more restrictive policies, the department is trying not to disrupt schedules as much as possible and offer inmates alternative forms of communication so they aren’t entirely cut off from loved ones. Each inmate is now allowed two free five-minute phone calls per week.

“We are examining opportunities to get our video visitation implemented faster and will continue to do so,” she said.

Similar efforts are underway at the county jail in Boscawen, where officials are working to get video visitation up and running on existing kiosks in each housing unit, Superintendent Ross Cunningham said Tuesday. Incarcerated individuals can also write one additional letter per week at no expense to them and have more opportunities for phone calls to stay connected with their families.

Earlier this month, the county began devising new quarantine procedures for any inmate who is re-entering or new to the Boscawen facility. Every person undergoes a health screening and is then housed in the jail’s new quarantine unit for 14 days as a precaution, even if they don’t exhibit symptoms.

Any staff member who enters a correctional facility in the state is screened and their temperature checked. Similar procedures are in place for anyone entering one of the state’s transitional housing facilities or halfway houses.

Cunningham said if a staff member at the county jail is symptomatic, even if from possible allergies, that person is asked to return home and to follow-up through human resources. The employee is still paid during his or her time away, he noted.

All facilities have enhanced cleaning and sanitization efforts and tried to minimize movement throughout their buildings, as well.

“Obviously this is uncharted territory,” Cunningham said. “As a county and as a department of corrections, we’re working through this in a thoughtful and collaborative way.”

Elsewhere in the correctional system, probation and parole officers have been instructed to cease in-person check-ins and switch to phone call check-ins only. Montenegro said their focus at this time is on the most high-risk offenders who are under intensive supervision.

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