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Op-ed, Keene Sentinel (NH): How one man is changing how we view corrections

Read my op-ed here or below.

How one man is changing how we view corrections

When a prisoner just sentenced arrives at Cheshire County jail in Keene, he enters into an area that looks like the waiting room in a doctor’s office. Arrive uncooperative and belligerent, and you are put into a normal holding cell to await processing. But be patient and cooperative, and you’re unshackled and take a seat in the “doctor’s office” to await your in-processing.

The Cheshire County facility is still a prison, of course. But it’s built on respect. Guards call inmates “Sir” and “Ma’am” and detainees get more freedom than in other such installations. The philosophy of the place is that everyone is fundamentally decent and deserves a second chance.

As Rick Van Wickler, the superintendent of Cheshire County’s Department of Corrections, explained: “I was taught that the mission of corrections was ‘care, custody and control’ — but I learned over the years that you can’t control another human being. You can only manage people, and that’s what we do here. De-escalation is also important, because too often corrections officers are only taught how to escalate, and not how to cool tensions.”

I visited the jail as I was walking across New Hampshire, and sat with veterans and talked about their service and their experience — we talked freely, with no barriers between me and them, and only a correction officer a few yards away. They shared stories of their time in the military, and I sensed their pride in serving this country, and the warmth with which they talked about their tours. Yet they also admitted that they were currently serving time for mistakes they had made, as they told stories of broken homes and opioids — and seemed hopeful that they would be able to overcome the challenges they faced to go back and rebuild careers and families.

I then visited the maximum-security section, and again, I sat among the inmates, with a guard over 50 feet away. As Rick, a longtime Army vet who entered corrections after he left the service, told me: “We try to provide an open facility where people can actually live their lives — and with incentives like tablets as well as disincentives. We also give them access to job databases, and counselors who can help them with their resumes and aid them in looking for employment after their time at the facility. One of the biggest challenges is re-entry, because without the right support, and without jobs that provide for a decent living situation, it’s far too easy to fall back into crime and drugs.”

That re-entry was different for the women I then met in the female wing. As I entered the main hall, I saw a few women around a table, laughing and playing cards. The informal network that they built was the same kind of informal network that works best in re-entry programs for women — because while men require a focus on personal self-worth in their re-entry programs, women often tend to thrive where they are given a network of support and trust. It’s much like when I was in the Navy, and I saw how women did so well as officers when they started to be allowed on combat ships — because they build those networks of people around them, particularly in the division of 20 or so men and women they headed — and built better teams for mission accomplishment.

One learns from this New Hampshirite that we need to rethink our entire approach to corrections policy. Taking guidance from Rick Van Wickler would be the right place to start, because his Cheshire County jail has a lot to teach us about giving someone the best second shot they can get when exiting prison — because of how they were treated within.

This is just one of the many great stories I could share with you about the tremendous New Hampshirites I met as I walked across the Granite State.