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.”
The only visitation available to prisoners at Cheshire is through a video screen, a privilege for which they are charged $1 per minute if their family wants to connect remotely (with some exceptions for holidays). The service is outsourced to a company called Securus, which advertises “visitations with your loved one from the safety and comfort of your home.”
According to a document provided by Van Wickler, on average each prisoner spends less than one minute using remote video visitation per week. Does this mean Cheshire’s prisoners are too busy playing basketball, watching TV or staring lazily at the pristine lawn stretching outside their cell windows to visit with their loved ones, or are they simply too poor to afford it?
“Okay, that’s unconstitutional,” says Paul Wright, director of Prison Legal News, upon hearing about the conditions at Cheshire. “The Eighth Amendment specifies—and courts have repeatedly upheld—that prisoners are allowed five hours a week of outdoor exercise.”
“On the other hand,” Wright continues, “video visitation hasn’t been litigated yet. Jails and prisons across the country are eliminating in-person and contact visits and instead gouging prisoners for video. It’s about monetizing human contact. … Their loved ones have to pay exorbitant fees.”
A woman in our group asks another prisoner about family visitation, he says he has a 2½-year-old baby that he’s never held. She asks if he’s petitioned for a contact visit, and he says yes, but it was denied.
“This place in a ripoff,” adds another prisoner who gave his last name as Parkhurst. “I was around murderers at the federal prison in Vermont and even they got contact visits. Here, you don’t even have to be convicted of anything but you see your family on a screen.”
“Everything costs money here,” he continues. “I spent $20 on Tylenol when I was detoxing. If I run out of money they’ll still let me go to the doctor, but my account will go in the red.”
Phone services at Cheshire are also outsourced to private companies. It costs a $1.80 for the initial connection, and then 31 cents every minute thereafter. Medical and psychiatric services cost a $5 co-payment per visit.
“None of this is unusual,” says Wright. “Cheshire is probably one of the best jails in the country in some respects, but they are still profiteering off prisoners and their families—but I’m not aware of any jail in America that’s not.”
“Incarceration is costing us a tremendous amount of money,” says Wright. The VERA Institute estimates U.S. taxpayers paid $39 billion for incarceration in 2012.
“Instead of raising taxes,” Wright adds, “the new trend is to shift the financial burden onto the families of the incarcerated.”
Though prisoners at Cheshire are tasked with keeping the facility spotless and orderly, they have no opportunity to earn their own income. Yet, considering that poverty is the leading cause of low-level crime, it’s safe to assume the majority of prisoners at Cheshire don’t arrive with expendable cash. Prisoners are given uniforms, towels and basic hygiene kits upon intake, but forced to purchase just about everything else.
The jail makes a 25 percent commission from prisoner purchases made from the canteen, which has a list of items over four pages long, with everything from bibles and prayer rugs to hand-mirrors and $12 haircuts. You might expect prisoners to have to pay extra for items like habanero squeeze cheese, for example, but what about pen and paper?
“The profit from the canteen goes directly back into the facility,” says Van Wickler. “We use it to buy things like basketballs, TVs and board games. … The most expensive thing we purchased was a Lexus-Nexus law library. Not a single taxpayer dollar went to any of these things. It was all generated by the inmates themselves.”
When I ask Van Wickler about the $5 co-pay required for a medical or psychiatric visit, he says they “started noticing a lot of inmates were turning up sick when the attractive nurse was on duty” and decided that charging was a necessary deterrent. Heading back to the lobby after our tour, I notice an older psychiatrist in session with a prisoner and wondered if he was also considered too good-looking for the inmates to resist talking to.
“It’s quiet and clean. That’s the way I like things,” Van Wickler says. “Still, 40 percent of these people probably don’t deserve to be here. If we lived in some sort of utopian society they’d be in a situation that actually helped them.”
“This is what passes for a progressive jail in America,” says Wright. “If you talk to a guy somewhere else who’s being gang-raped by his cellmates, beaten down by guards or thrown in solitary for long periods of time for no reason—he’d probably say Cheshire is paradise. The fact that prisoners are just being warehoused and gouged for basic amenities here, without being brutalized or mistreated, is real progress.”