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‘Progressive Jail’ Is a 21st-Century Hell, Inmates Complain

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‘Progressive Jail’ Is a 21st-Century Hell, Inmates Complain

by Sara Shourd via The Daily Beast

No outdoor exercise and no family visits, but when video visitation cost $1 per minute, Cheshire County Jail is an expensive form of progress.

Cheshire County Jail in Keene, N.H., looks more like a small college campus or a tech start-up than a house of detention. There are no razor wire fences surrounding the 230-bed facility; just well trimmed hedges and green grass; and the face of the building has a surprising number of windows. As a journalist, it was a surreal experience to be welcomed by a pleasant receptionist in the lobby, then ushered into the secure perimeter by the warden without being asked to fill out paperwork, walk through a metal detector or even give up my cellphone.

There are many things about Cheshire County Jail that you’d be hard-pressed to find in any other carceral space in the country. The warden, Rick Van Wickler, prides himself on the building’s environmental design—complete with a geo-thermic heating and cooling system—and overall low-carbon footprint. The correctional officers insist that there’s “very little conflict” between the 150 prisoners currently being held at this 240-bed facility. They also claim that they’ve had relatively few issues with contraband and zero escapes in the 4 years of the jail’s existence, thanks in part to high-tech surveillance and the 118 cameras spread throughout the site. Boasting accessible health and psychiatric services, over 100 community volunteers and the strict enforcement of U.N. standards on the use of solitary confinement, which limit isolating a prisoner to 15 days, Cheshire County Jail has attracted national attention as a rare model of progressive incarceration.

The prisoners at Cheshire offer a different perspective. In the common area of Cheshire’s medium-security male pod, I approach a group of six or seven young men standing around in their bright orange sweats and black crocks. Nearby, several prisoners are playing basketball in an approximately 15-by-30-foot cell. “Yeah, there’s a lot less violence here,” says Arthur Labshere, “but I’d take two years at a federal facility over one here. I spent 10 years at the Fed—at least there I could go outside.”

“I’m here for a reason,” he added. “I’m gonna do my time, but I can’t just sit on a block like this all the time. What’s the point? I’m going crazy.”

In most jails and prisons, exercise takes place outside, in a yard. But at Cheshire, prisoners rarely, if ever, leave their pod. That means no fresh air and no sunlight. Cheshire is supposed to be a “short-term” facility, with 60 percent of its prisoners awaiting trial. Yet, with the courts backed up it often takes years—in at least one instance four years—for these detainees to see the inside of a courtroom, let alone freedom.

“I’m strictly about family,” another prisoner, Bessette Robert, adds to the conversation, “but since I don’t have any money I can’t visit with my family much, I can’t even afford to call them on the phone.”

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