EAST KINGSTON — The East Kingston Police Department has stopped using prisoners to perform maintenance work after authorities say a Rockingham County jail inmate was found with "prohibited items" following a break-in at the police station.
Rockingham County Sheriff Michael Downing confirmed that his office is investigating an incident in May in which an inmate is suspected of breaking into an area of the East Kingston Police Department while he was working there as an inmate trusty.
"We were notified that a trusty had brought in some prohibited items to the jail and we were called down to investigate. We recovered several items and were requested by the County Attorney's Office to investigate an incident at the East Kingston Police Department and that is in progress as we speak. We are trying to verify whether that's where they came from," Downing said Tuesday.
The inmate was part of a trusty program that allows low-risk minimum security inmates to perform landscaping, cleaning and other work at Rockingham County facilities, primarily the nursing home, local police departments and even some businesses for $1 a day. The program saves the nursing home an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 a year in cleaning and maintenance costs.
East Kingston Police Chief Reid Simpson confirmed that an "incident" had occurred, but said the investigation is being handled by the sheriff's department. He declined to provide more details.
While the experiences with past inmate trusties "haven't been that bad," Simpson said the East Kingston Police Department is no longer participating in the program.
The jail suspended the program in May after the incident, but started it up again a few weeks ago.
The incident has raised questions about the county's liability and the risks associated with inmate trusties in the program, which cuts costs for county and police agencies.
County Commissioner Tom Tombarello of Sandown said he feels the trusties need more supervision if the program is going to continue.
"I'm concerned about safety and making sure the program is supervised. I think it needs to be revamped," he said.
If supervision isn't improved, Tombarello said he would support abolishing the program, despite the money it saves the county.
"If something tragic happens with the program not running the right way, we're going to be sued for a lot more than half a million dollars," Tombarello said.
While the inmates in the program are considered "trusties" and aren't violent, Tombarello said they're "still inmates at a correctional facility."
County Commissioner Kevin Coyle of Derry supports the program, but agrees that more supervision may be needed.
"I think it has its merit and it's valued and I support it, but perhaps there needs to be better oversight," Coyle said.
Coyle said the program not only saves money but also helps rehabilitate and integrate the inmates back into the work force.
Epping Police Chief Michael Wallace said his department has never had a problem with a trusty.
The trusties help with washing police cruisers and other maintenance Monday through Friday. Wallace said they're always supervised and never left alone.
"It's been very advantageous to the town. It's a savings and we're not having to hire a janitor or someone to come in and maintain the safety complex," he said.