This Warden Wants to Make His Job Obsolete

By Roc Morin

Photos by Roc Morin

“In the other jails you’ve been in,” began Warden Rick Van Wickler, “do you remember the inmates yelling, and screaming, and banging?”

I nodded, scanning the faces of the men of D-Block gawking at us from the narrow glass windows of their cells: eyes wide, mouths slack.

“You asked how we measure success? This is one way we measure success. Everyone’s looking at us and no one is making a sound. They’re looking, and they want to yell right now. It’s right here in their throats.” The warden balled up his fist, tucking it under his chin. “And as much as they want to yell and bang and scream, they won’t because it is unacceptable behavior that will result in an undesirable action.”

The warden spoke slowly and deliberately, like a man indifferent to time.

The 54-year-old runs New Hampshire’s 230-bed Cheshire County Correctional Facility. I spent a day with Van Wickler earlier this month to see how one of the nation’s most modern and progressive jails operates. Aware of critics who see facilities like his as being too comfortable for inmates, the warden took special care to emphasize the unpleasant aspects of incarceration here. Van Wickler believes that punishment is his primary duty, but that it can be administered in a manner that encourages rehabilition, lowers costs, and vastly reduces the number of Americans behind bars.

“It wasn’t always this way,” Van Wickler recalled gesturing around him. In 1993, he had inherited an institution mired in corruption. The previous warden had operated a side business, selling stolen firearms to some of the same criminals that flowed in and out of his facility. When an official came to inform the warden that he was under investigation, the warden pulled out a handgun and unloaded into the official’s chest before turning the gun on himself. The warden had preferred death to the prospect of ending up in one of his own cells.

“Those were horrifying days because there were no standards to jail conditions,” Van Wickler stated of his experience as an entry-level corrections officer back in 1987. “The unprofessionalism was just unfathomable. Looking back, I don’t know how I stayed.”

“We were at another building at that time,” he continued. “It was very overcrowded—scorching hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. There was literally ice on the inside of the walls.”

“When I took over as warden, I immediately petitioned for the money to build another facility. It took 13 years to get it. But in retrospect, those 13 years were a gift. During that time I toured a lot of jails all around the country, asking the question, ‘If you were to build this place all over again, what would you do differently?’ That was a big advantage. I took the best of what each one had to offer.”

“What were some of those ideas?” I asked.

“Well, the first thing, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is that there’s no perimeter fence.”

“Right, I was lost for a couple minutes this morning trying to find the place,” I admitted. “I was looking for barbed wire.”  

“That’s the idea. Nobody wants a jail in their neighborhood, and we didn’t want to make it obvious. Most people don’t even know it’s a jail. They think it’s a school.”

“Does the lack of a fence impact your security?”

“That’s the problem with corrections today. They say, ‘We need more fences. We need more cameras. We need more sensors.’ Well, if you just fucking stay awake and do your job, you don’t need any of that. They’ll say, ‘We need a fence to catch escapees.’ Well, how about you don’t let them escape in the first place? But here’s the primary reason that I don’t want a perimeter fence: Children come here to visit mom or dad. It’s scary enough for adults to go through concertina wire. Imagine a four-year-old.”

“And you’ve never had any escapes here?”

“Never.”

Van Wickler ushered us into the sun-drenched lobby of the 94,000 square-foot institution. It looked like the waiting room of a doctor’s office, and that, the warden explained, is exactly the point.

“Good afternoon, Becky!” Van Wickler called out to the smiling woman behind the front desk. “Hello!” Becky chimed with all the sweetness of a kindergarten teacher.

“As you can see,” the warden continued, “we post some of the art and projects that the inmates do. The women just made these flowers in a recent craft shop. Inmates who never knew they could draw are now discovering new talent.”

As a testament to the unintimidating environment, the artwork is regularly stolen by guests coming to visit prisoners.

“They’re under video surveillance so we know who takes the stuff. We go talk to them, and they always give it back.”

We entered the secure zone almost imperceptibly. I was never searched in any way. As we strolled through the labyrinthine corridors of the jail, operators inside what is jokingly known as “the secret squirrel room” followed our progress via CCTV. Solid steel doors buzzed open one by one as we advanced—the bolts slamming home behind us. It was as if we were made out of vapor—some ephemeral material that allowed us to drift effortlessly through walls that held back the dense bodies of the prisoners. I felt it the whole time we were there: They were heavy; we were light.

“Make yourself at home,” I was told without irony. “You can photograph anything you like.” That unprecedented access was only possible because of New Hampshire’s autonomous correctional system. Unlike most jails across the country, this facility is funded at the county level. The warden’s word is law here. “We receive no funding from the state, and so the state has no oversight,” he explained. “The policies and procedures are developed by me. We don’t have the bureaucracy of going all the way up the chain. That makes us very efficient.”

First among the jail’s policies is its human-relations focus. “I think what we do here better than most places is we set limits and we enforce those limits. Not only for the inmates but for our employees. The mission of corrections, according to the American Correctional Association, is ‘Care, Custody, and Control.’ We believe it to be ‘Care, Custody, and Management.’ Rule one for my corrections officers is: You are not in control of anything. You do not control anybody. So-do not try. Rule two: You can manage everything. Let’s face it. We’re outnumbered. It’s 64-to-one in most cases. The only way that you can successfully run a jail is with the offenders’ cooperation. If they want to overrun you, they will overrun you. It would seem that the best thing to do is to gain voluntary compliance. The question is how do you do that?”

The women’s block constituted an open area of tables surrounded by tiered cells. A single corrections officer sat unprotected behind a computer console near the entrance. The warden discussed the advantages of that configuration. “In the old way of doing things, called ‘linear intermittent,’ the inmates were always behind bars or doors. You’d move them using correctional staff. You’d move them to eat, you’d move them to programming, and you’d move them back. The problem was, all that movement created flashpoints where assaults would happen. The design of this correctional facility is ‘direct supervision,’ meaning that the correctional officers are with the inmates 24/7.”

“Now,” he continued, “with ‘linear intermittent,' you’d have control rooms monitoring inmates through one-way glass, or through cameras. Under that old style of architectural design, the inmates would behave as though the area where they lived was their real estate. So, when you went in to bring them meals, or to do a head count, you were encroaching on their territory, and they gave you that sense: ‘You’re in my house.’ Well, the way we do things here, we’re in their area every day. That takes away their sense of ownership over real estate.”

The first inmate I met in the woman’s wing was a cat named Polo. “He’s from the Humane Society,” the warden said. “We have this agreement that the women will take care of the pets until they’re adopted. It’s been very good for the pets, and it’s been very good for the women.”

He pointed to the exercise yard, an enclosed space. Inmates were walking in a circle. “Doors will open in the top to allow fresh air to come in. The standard is for offenders to have fresh air. They don’t have to see the clouds or the horizon, and here, they don’t. That gets into the punishment factor. If you’re here for three years and you’ve never seen the horizon, can you imagine? I would think that’s a pretty significant infringement on one’s liberty.”

The warden stepped off to talk with an officer as I sat down with two of the inmates, Amanda and Maria. There was a half-finished Scrabble game between them.

“Gane?” I queried, pointing to one of the words.

“That’s the past tense of go!” Maria laughed.

“She likes to make up her own words,” Amanda explained.

“Buteo?”

"That refers to beauty!” Maria affirmed.

“Well,” I chuckled, “you two seem to be having fun here. Do you all really get along that well?”

“No, not at all,” Amanda confessed. “We’re just pretending. It’s 30 women and 50 personalities!”

“Right, well, I’m sure that cuts down on the boredom a bit at least,” I offered. “What’s it like being here?”

“It could be worse,” Amanda shrugged. “There’s a lot of programs here. The CO's [corrections officers] are amazing. It’s clean. The food’s not that bad. We get to work. I was in Merrimack before; it’s a rougher place without those kinds of privileges.”

“How are the corrections officers amazing?”

“The way they treat us is very respectful. They refer to us as Ms. So-and-So, not Inmate So-and-So. And we do the same for them. I call them by their last name: mister and missus. I don’t call them officer. That weirds me out.”

“Also, when they do a room search, they fold our blankets back up,” Maria added. “They don’t toss everything. I’m from Mass, and Mass will toss everything. Everything ends up in a pile in the floor. Here they’re teaching us to be respectful of ourselves and one another, which of course, a lot of us need to learn.”

“So what are you in for?” I asked.

“Unlawful concealment,” Maria replied.

“What does that mean?”

“Attempting to shoplift.”

“And failing!” Amanda added with a laugh.

“How about your crime?”

 “My alleged crime is the manufacture of methamphetamine,” Amanda stated.

I asked to take photographs and the women posed playfully, like movie stars.

“So pretty!” Amanda laughed. “So skinny!”

“Send us copies, or I’ll hunt you down!” Maria threatened with a smirk.

I said my goodbyes and reunited with the warden.

As we walked out, I noted that the white floor of the corridor was interspersed with multicolored tiles. “When members of the public first see that, a lot of times they ask, ‘Why do you do that? It makes things too nice.’ I always say, ‘Remember that this is a place of employment as well. There are 80 employees here, and aren’t they entitled to a decent workspace? Aren’t they entitled to a little bit of color?’”

I asked what kind of prisoners we could expect to find at our next stop, the maximum-security block.

“There is not a criminal who is alleged to have committed a crime anywhere on the planet who’s not in this prison,” the warden stated. “We don’t handpick our inmates. Some pretrial offenders are here on federal contract.”

“How do you determine what level of security each prisoner gets?” I asked.

“Well, in the old paradigm, 60 percent  of the population was considered maximum security, but the way it was assigned was pretty arbitrary. Here, we do things differently. We make an objective review with data to determine one’s classification. With our system, you should have fewer than 10 percent in maximum security. That’s important because, if your mindset is that everybody is maximum security, you’re treating people like maximum-security inmates. Here we keep apples with apples, oranges with oranges, and snow tires with snow tires. If you mix them, that’s when you have assaults, and sexual assaults, and strong-arming.”

We entered a control room enclosed in glass. The warden pointed into a room of cells. “All of these people are on lockdown 23 hours a day. You get only one hour out in which to shower, or make a phone call, or clean your cell. Inmates are here for discipline reasons. Now, the standards say that you can be in here for an indefinite period of time, but I’ve limited that to 15 days. We’re trying to create a system where everybody always has an opportunity to see the end. We’re trying to say, as correctional agents, ‘Every day is an opportunity for you to decide to do things differently, and when you make that decision, we will be here to support you.’”

“Are they allowed anything in the cell?” I asked.

“They can have two books, but no photographs, no radio, no TV, nothing. Fifteen days can be a very long time.”

“And nobody ever stays longer than 15 days?”

“There have been people who have done extended periods of time because their behavior is so violent you can’t put them in the general population.”

“Why are they so violent?”

“I just think they’re institutionalized. These are people who’ve spent their whole lives in prison basically. They can’t make it in society more than a month or two without ending up back in the system. These are angry people who don’t have a lot to live for, and their entertainment is being feared in jail. They can’t hail being a high school graduate or being a good father, so being the toughest guy in the house is all they’ve got. And unfortunately, we disappoint them.”

On our return from the cell blocks, Van Wickler paused to indulge in his favorite vice: smoking cigars. He led us through several rooms of loud geothermal heating machinery, before opening a steel door in the wall. Suddenly, there was forest, and sky, and birdsongs—and all of it extra vivid. I could feel my heart slowing down. I took a deep breath.

The warden gazed off as he smoked, casting his eyes to the distant hills.

The future of corrections is out there, he insisted, not in here. “I would like to think that we’re on the eve of the community corrections model, that people can serve their punishment in the community and not in an institution like this. It costs $114 per day to house an inmate here.”

“How does that compare with other prisons?”

“It’s very similar. The average is tickling up towards $40,000 per year, depending on jurisdiction.”

One possible solution, Van Wickler believes, is a GPS-ankle-tether program that his jail currently operates.

Eligible inmates pay $10 per day to be enrolled in the program under which their movements are heavily restricted. That fee covers all costs associated with the program.

“The financial benefits are obvious,” Van Wickler noted. “They feed and clothe themselves, and they pay for their own medical care, all while still being incapacitated.”

Corrections veteran Major Hank Colby oversees the tether program. He spoke about the most common question he receives from the public.

“People always ask, ‘Well, can’t they just cut this off and then go kill somebody?’ I always say, ‘Absolutely, but the idea is to not put somebody on the program that’s at risk for doing that.’ That’s where classification comes in.”

One of the groups that could benefit the most, Van Wickler believes, is nonviolent drug offenders. As a former member of the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the warden is adamantly against the drug war.  

“I’ve seen people come into this institution for drug violations,” the warden explained. “I’ve seen the cost, not only to the taxpayer, but the social costs—the costs of parents being away from their children. Contrary to what a lot of media has portrayed and what law enforcement believes, not every person in jail for drug possession is a bad parent.”

“Why do you think that’s such a common opinion?”

“I think they believe what they see on TV—that you take a hit off a joint and the next thing you know you’re on the bathroom floor with a needle in your arm. What the American public just cannot seem to understand is how much drug use there is in our country.”

“How do you think they can be made to understand?”

“Well, let’s think about alcohol for a moment. The majority of people who drink alcohol in this country have no problems with it. They’re alcohol users: They drink on the Fourth of July, and barbecues, and at the Super Bowl. Then think about somebody who is an abuser of alcohol, meaning that they use alcohol much more than they should. But they’re still working. They still have a house. They’re still in a relationship. Finally, think about an alcohol addict—an alcoholic. Their lives have been destroyed by alcohol. Now, you can take the exact same analogy and just replace alcohol with drugs. Heroin? Cocaine? Meth? You have users, abusers, and addicts in pretty much the same ratios. Let’s not be so damn naïve and say that we in America don’t have professional people that are addicts, because we all know that’s not accurate. We have professional people who are heroin addicts, who have been heroin addicts for years, and are meeting the standards of their employment. That’s happening, and to deny it is an atrocity.”

“Law enforcement always brings up public safety as its rationale for drug enforcement. How do you respond to that?”

“Half a million people die every year in the U.S. from tobacco, and yet nobody’s talking about banning cigarettes. The most they’ll do is slap a warning label on the box. A hundred thousand people die per year from alcohol. Three hundred thousand die from obesity. A hundred thousand die from prescription medicines. Then you look at the number of all illicit-drug deaths combined and you get 16,000. And many of those deaths occur from people using impure drugs, since there’s no quality control on the street.”

“So what kind of policy would you like to see instituted?”

“We can look to Europe. They treat substance abuse like the health issue that it is. If you look in mental health books, they will tell you that substance abuse is a mental illness. So why are we incarcerating people for having a mental illness? Is that smart?”

“I took an informal poll of the inmates in the women’s block, and it seems like about two thirds of them are in jail for drug-related offenses. Does that sound correct to you?” I asked.

“That’s about average.”

“How does it feel to be incarcerating inmates like that, inmates you believe are really just suffering from a mental health problem?”

“I was in the military for 26 years, and my core is, I’m a soldier. My core is, I follow orders. My core is, I will do the job to the best of my ability, probably better than anybody else can do it. It does not mean that I’m going to keep quiet if I think it’s a bad idea. I incarcerate people who are here under current law today, and then tomorrow I go to the statehouse and testify against the very laws that are incarcerating people.”

“Does that ever create a conflict?”

“Quite the contrary. In one role I’m a corrections officer doing my duty, and in the other I am a citizen who has a right to use my experience and my observation to try and change policy.”

The conversation stalled as we both caught sight of a dark shadow, a bird of prey wheeling high above the hills. I watched the last of the cigar burn down to the warden’s fingernails. As long as the thing still sent up that fragile tendril of smoke, we could continue to stand there in the warm light of the sun. Only the throbbing heat of the ember getting too close snapped him back. He ground the stub into the wall unceremoniously before turning away and sealing us back in.

I had one more question as we retraced our steps back into the labyrinth: “Do your beliefs ever cause you to treat drug offenders differently than you treat your other inmates?”

“No,” the warden answered, eyes fixed on mine. “We treat every inmate with dignity and respect.”

Roc’s new book, And, was released recently. You can find more information on his website.

 

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