Editor's note: The following is the second part of a two-part series looking at Manchester, NH's Valley Street Jail.
From the outside, there's really no indication of what goes on inside Valley Street Jail:
Which is probably how most of us prefer it. Who, after all, wants to think about the less-than-pleasant institution that is jail? I know it's not at the top of my to-dwell-on list. But maybe it should be, if for no other reason than as Hillsborough County, NH, taxpayers, we pay for the jail's operation and upkeep. And it's not cheap.
In providing a tour of the Valley Street Jail to the Leadership Greater Manchester Class of 2010 a couple of weeks ago, Hillsborough County Department of Corrections Superintendent James O'Mara noted that in his Fiscal Year 2011 budget he has requested $15.9 million to run the jail, which operates 24/7/365 and requires a staff of 180 people.
"It's more complex than locking someone in a cell and throwing away the key," O'Mara said. "We take on responsibility for all aspects of people's lives - food, health care, safety, education. And we have a diverse population with diverse needs."
He said the jail spends $1 million a year in prisoner medical bills and $20,000 a month in pharmacy costs. And maintenance and repairs to building and its high-tech systems aren't cheap either.
"Yes, jails are expensive. But it costs a lot more to run an inadequate jail," he said, noting the very real possibilities of law suits, costly repairs and exorbitant medical bills if the jail is not adequately maintained and operated.
And while cost is an important reason for Hillsborough County residents to care about the jail's operation, we must also remember that we are all morally responsible for what goes on in the jail as the prisoners there are incarcerated on behalf of "we, the people." And as Dostoevsky reminds us, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
Which is why I'm intrigued by the Independent Monitoring Board concept used in Great Britain. There, every jail, prison or holding facility in the country is overseen by volunteers from the local community who "monitor the day-to-day life in their local prison...and ensure that proper standards of care and decency are maintained."
These volunteers are allowed unrestricted access to their local prisons at any time and can talk to any inmate they wish to, "out of sight and hearing of prison staff if necessary." And every year, each board produces a report detailing its findings for the community.
Sounds like a good idea to me. If a jail or prison is run well or not, we need to know.