By Doug Ireland
---- — A rising inmate population at the Rockingham County jail has prompted a review of options to avoid overcrowding at the 31-year-old facility.
A jail that had nearly 90 beds when it was built in 1981, now has 387 and averages about 350 inmates a day, according to jail superintendent Stephen Church.
“We’ve been steadily going up,” he said. “Over the past two years, I’ve had to add bunk spaces. Bed space capacity has increased about 400 percent in 30 years.”
Although the size of the jail doubled in 1991, there are only 15 to 20 empty beds on some days, Church said.
“In a correctional facility, that becomes a dire situation,” he said.
That’s why a group of state lawmakers and county officials, led by Rep. Norman Major, R-Plaistow, is trying to come up with solutions. They include Church, Sheriff Michael Downing and County Attorney James Reams.
Major said the group has met numerous times over the past three months to study the problems. The options do not include costly alternatives such as expanding the jail, he said.
“To me, that’s not the (answer),” Major said. “I want to know if we are utilizing the facility the way we should be.”
No concrete solutions have been agreed on as the group explores various alternatives. Those include diversion programs, such as electronic monitoring of nonviolent offenders, he said. Inmates are allowed to be free as long as they are strictly monitored.
But about two-thirds of inmates at the jail are awaiting trial and must remain incarcerated, Major said.
“We have had people await trial for two years,” he said. “We have to do something to speed up justice.”
It costs $33,000 a year to house an inmate at the county jail, Major said.
“If we could reduce the population by just three, that would be $100,000,” he said.
Reams said it wasn’t long ago the jail housed about 200 inmates. The increase to about 350 is largely due to a rise in drug and violent crimes in recent years, he said.
Reams agreed expansion isn’t a feasible option.
“I don’t see any possibility for expanding the jail coming out of a recession,” he said.
County Commissioner Thomas Tombarello, who took office last week, said one of his main concerns is the jail. He replaces longtime Commissioner Maureen Barrows, who lost in the primary after serving for 19 years.
“The jail is overcrowded,” Tombarello said. “It gets to the point that it’s dangerous.”
Barrows said last week one of her major concerns is housing too many inmates at the jail.
There have been no major problems at the jail, but double-bunking increases the possibility of friction between inmates, Church said.
The jail hasn’t had space to accommodate female inmates since the 1980s, Church said. The approximately 50 to 70 women must be housed at other jails, costing about $1.1 million a year, Church said. That’s a big chunk of the approximately $11 million annual budget for the 101-employee jail.
Church, Barrows and 16-year Commissioner Katharin Pratt said state budget cuts have had a significant impact on the court system, leading to delays in the prosecution of cases at a time when crime is on the rise.
“There is significant crime being committed in Rockingham County,” Pratt said.
Reams said there are only three judges hearing cases in Rockingham County Superior Court, where there used to be five. A few positions in the clerk’s office were also eliminated a couple of years ago, he said.
“Everything is taking a little bit longer,” he said. “There are challenges.”
Rockingham County already has several alternative sentencing and diversion programs, designed to help reduce the inmate population, he said.
But at least 30 percent of the inmates at the jail are from Massachusetts and not eligible to participate in those programs, Reams said.
“They are just not eligible for any programs,” he said.
The programs available to inmates include the Supervised Community Release from Incarceration Program, known as SCRIP. It allows nonviolent offenders to be released and monitored.
“I think they are generally effective,” Church said. “The focus of the committee is to look at what we are doing and what we can do better.”