New jail superintendent emphasizes education, community engagement

Michelle Wetherbee says Belknap County Jail has 'tighter sense of community between staff and inmates'
Michelle Wetherbee

Michelle Wetherbee  (Photo by Jon Decker/The Laconia Daily Sun)

It’s a new day at the Belknap County Jail with the appointment last month of Michelle Wetherbee as superintendent. Taking on her first superintendent role after over two decades in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, Wetherbee is already making waves in her new position. She takes over from Adam Cunningham, who stepped down from the post this year after starting his tenure in the summer of 2020.

“I worked most recently with the Massachusetts Parole Board as chief of the Transitional Services Unit,” Wetherbee said. “Massachusetts is different from New Hampshire in the fact that the parole officers work inside the walls. I oversaw 37 different houses of corrections and state prisons where the parole officers worked.”

During her career, Wetherbee commuted from Merrimack County, driving sometimes two to three hours one way. Her new role in Belknap County is a one-hour “straight shot” from home.

“I did my 20 years in Massachusetts and I could retire, but I live in New Hampshire and this opportunity arose,” Wetherbee explained. “I’m still not old enough to retire. I still have children in college and it’s a new challenge and something different. Working in prisons and the house of corrections is what I’ve grown up doing, so I actually enjoy it.”

When asked to reflect on key differences between the Belknap County Jail and her previous places of employment, Wetherbee noted a much tighter sense of community between staff and inmates.

“The correctional staff here are above and beyond amazing, and I’ve worked with correctional staff all over Massachusetts,” Wetherbee said.

“These people are positive, and they are from the community. And they want to do good with the inmates to help them improve themselves, because it improves their own community,” Wetherbee continued. “That’s a lot different than I’m used to, where people work in different areas than where they live. They don’t have as much investment in the people they house inside the correctional facilities.”

Despite her current passion for it, Wetherbee didn’t initially pursue a career in corrections. Like many professionals, the superintendent changed paths, building from the lessons of her previous pursuits.

“I actually went to college to be an elementary school teacher, so I have an elementary and sociology degree. Sociology would have covered criminal justice back then,” Wetherbee explained. “I taught at the Lawrence Correctional Alternative Center and the office of community corrections, which is different from community corrections here.”

That emphasis on education seems to be essential in shaping Wetherbee’s compassionate world view when it comes to corrections. In recent years, the county opened the Community Corrections Center, a low-security wing of the jail meant to house participants of the CORE program, a deferment option for low-level offenders experiencing substance misuse. One of Wetherbee’s goals is to expand the reach of CCC programs in order to give more tools to a broader range of inmates.

“Being here in Belknap, one thing that hit me right off the bat was the substance abuse and homeless population,” Wetherbee said. “The only way to prevent someone from coming back is to give them some kind of programming, some kind of services. So we’re looking at trying to see if we can get some of the programming from the CCC to go inside the jail part as well.”

Wetherbee said she has a focus on reentry planning in addition to her goal of increasing engagement with inmates.

“We want to get it so inmates on both sides leave here with Social Security cards, birth certificates, possibly their New Hampshire IDs,” Wetherbee said. “A lot of people don’t [have documentation]. If they’re homeless, they lose those documents. Think about how many people lose their Social Security card or birth certificate, but don’t know how to get it. So a lot of the inmates don’t know how to get those documents, and you can’t get a job without those.”

Wetherbee emphasized that without the ability to gain legitimate employment, former inmates can turn to illegal means for survival, once again putting them at odds with law enforcement, and harming their community. Currently there is only one case manager for the reentry initiative, something Wetherbee would like to change.

“If we’re releasing them from here to be homeless again, that’s not ideal,” Wetherbee said. “We also have a great system here when I got here, a backpack system. So inmates that are leaving here with no clothes or toiletries, we give those to them. Unless of course you keep coming in and out. We do try to limit it because we don’t have much resources.”

The backpack program runs on community donations, another aspect that Wetherbee hopes to continue to expand, as well as kickstarting a volunteer program.

“We’re hoping to get some community volunteers that are willing to come in and help people out with things like how to fill out a job application, how to set a budget,” Wetherbee said. “I know there was a lot more volunteers prior to COVID, and we’re just working our way still out of COVID and trying to get those volunteers back in.”

Wetherbee said although people might be worried about catching COVID when visiting the jail, it’s really the other way around. Even so, the nation has seen a significant dip in infections, and the federal government officially declared the pandemic over in May.

“These people are your neighbors, they live in your community,” Wetherbee said of the inmates. “Everybody can help in some way shape or another by giving anything. Teaching budgeting, basic reading, just reading with someone can help.”

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Categories: Law