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By Elizabeth Dinan
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Less than 1 percent of Seacoast residents will ever see the inside of the Rockingham County House of Corrections.
Al Wright has been there 24 years.

Superintendent of the Brentwood maximum-security prison, Wright is charged with overseeing 100 employees, an $8.5 million annual budget and up to 355 inmates a day. Quick to say he's "not a tour guide," Wright makes an exception June 30, offering a look inside the end of the line.

For visitors, the first stop is a reception area, where Bibles are available in both English and Spanish. A sign entices that the Bibles are free, or gratis. Another warns that no provocative clothing is allowed inside, with specific reminders barring see-through shirts and swimsuits.

For the newly arrested, a ride in the back of a police cruiser, courtesy of the arresting community, culminates in the booking station. Here, three sides of the room are lined with cells, each offering views inside, or out, through sizable windows. Outside each door, computer printouts display mug shots and vital statistics for the inmates locked inside.

On June 30, most of the freshly incarcerated look tragic - one sitting upright and staring into a corner, another lying on a cot, visibly sweating under a blanket.

Another, a young blonde woman, smiles when a corrections officer complies with her request for a book.

While the county jail has been male-only since the early '90s, everyone arrested in 37 different county communities begins their correctional journey here.

After being processed, women are transferred out. The men are moved next to the D-Block, one of seven blocks, or housing areas, labeled A through G and all featuring inmates wearing specific and different colored uniforms for quick identification.

D-Block is typically for men awaiting trial on felony charges, assigned to wearing red uniforms and allowed little time outside their cells. They're the new guys, most sitting in chairs drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and speaking little. Behind them, inmates locked in cell numbers 21 and 22 for infractions of house rules press their faces to narrow slit windows, staring at visitors.

Most spend three days here until they're classified into a permanent housing block. Others spend entire sentences here because they won't blend well into a general population.

Reasons vary from bad attitude to serving time for pedophilia or safety concerns. And it's the job of Cpl. Tony D'Agostino, from his closet-sized office, to classify the new inmates.

He describes the job as a hybrid of experience and "mishigas."

"One of the problems is a plethora of sexually charged individuals," D'Agostino said. "We see more of the sex charges than the drug charges now. It's just mushroomed out of control."

Here, said Superintendent Wright, the weak are separated from the strong, predators from potential victims, and enemies and cohorts from one another.

Wright leads visitors through a gray maze of hallways from one block to another, with locked doors along the way. From an unseen location, the heavy metal doors are unlocked electronically with a loud clicking sound. As one door clicks ahead, another slams behind, both sounds echoing through the barren hallways.

Past the prison barber shop is the library, a small room with floor-to-ceiling shelves stocking an assortment of donated reading materials organized by categories. The aroma of paper here is welcome in comparison to the institutional cleansers, inmate bodies and wet shower stalls found elsewhere.

On C-Block, Corrections Officer Richard Shaw, who met his wife here when she worked as an officer, stands guard as the top tier of inmates is allowed outside for "yard time."

Orange inmate uniforms define this area, where one inmate throws a basketball into a hoop to the side of a small clover-filled patch of grass, surrounded by a pair of metal chain fences topped with coiled razor wire.

A uniformed officer stands between them and a row of evergreens frames passing traffic in the free world just beyond.

It's here in 1982 that an inmate threw blankets over the wire and escaped, Wright said of the last time someone broke free.

Back inside, an inmate faces a corner while talking on a pay phone, his every word monitored and/or recorded. Exceptions are made for telephone conversations with lawyers.

Meanwhile, up on E-Block, inmates are assigned to wearing khaki-colored shorts and shirts and are housed in 12 cells on an upper tier over a dozen cells below. Most of the 39 inmates here June 30 are awaiting felony charges, Wright said.

None speak when the jail superintendent stops by.

"It's a dull and quiet life," Wright said. "But this was their decision."

Beside him, a sign posted on the wall lists items for sale from the prison commissary. Rolaids sell for $1.25; birthday cards for $1.50; a Koran can be purchased for $17; and a pair of briefs for $4.85.

Over in F-Block, inmates read newspapers around a stainless-steel table with attached stainless seats. One lifts weights, while another wanders from a shower stall and across the block wrapped in a towel. A wheelchair-bound inmate pushes himself under one of twin stairways leading from a lower to upper level.

Housing up to 70 inmates, F-Block has 66 in residence this day, most, Wright said, who are juvenile offenders or young victims of crimes themselves.

"You can turn yourself around," Wright said. "It becomes an excuse. The issue is when they're ready."

In the control room, a pair of corrections officers watches every inch of the prison on high-tech video screens, while opening and closing those metal doors when a recognized prison official approaches them. They activate the locks, monitor the perimeter fence, operate the elevators and monitor prisoners.

And, according to Wright, that includes unwelcome views of inmates doing things to themselves and others.

"We always hope our officers won't get offended and quit," Wright said. "Because we can't select the people who come in here."
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