For years, New Hampshire has been unable to recruit enough prison officers. Despite spending thousands of dollars on recruitment and advertising, prisons here operate with 70 fewer officers than they need to meet "critical staffing" levels.
While correctional facilities across New England face the same shortage, New Hampshire is the only state in the region that requires candidates to pass a polygraph test: a practice Congress banned among private employers 30 years ago. The New Hampshire Department of Corrections says the test is essential for preventing abuse and coercion behind bars. But recruitment staff say that test also eliminates many applicants who are otherwise qualified.
I’m inside the administrative offices for the Department of Corrections, sitting in Don Valente’s gray upholstered polygraph chair. Between the floor and my dangling feet, Valente puts a ream of paper, a hardcover book – and then, two foot sensors.
“Lean back and put your arms up until I tell you to put them down,” says Valente, as he begins to attach pneumograph tubes - one under my armpits, another around my ribs - to monitor my breathing.
Valente grew up in Boston and talks fast. He administers all the polygraph tests for the state and for local police.
There are clips on my right hand fingers measuring blood flow and sweat. My left hand is completely numb because of a blood pressure-type cuff cutting off my circulation. I don’t even want a job at the prison, and I’m sweating. Valente says everyone’s nervous.
“What I tell people in reference to breathing is all you have to do is breathe the way as they would when you’re having a conversation with somebody," he says. "You don’t do huhuhu rapid breathing, do you?”
In most states, applicants for correctional officer jobs have to pass a background check and a physical fitness test. New Hampshire is the only state in New England that also requires correctional officers pass a polygraph test.
Linda McDonald is responsible for recruitment for the prisons. She says this test is one reason the prisons have a hard time hiring.
“We do find that there is a lot of people that, once they sit down with the polygraph examiners and they start listening to the questions, they decide it’s just not the place for me,” McDonald says.
It’s pretty rare to find a polygraph test in the hiring process. Almost 30 years ago, Congress banned private employers from using the tests. Then years later, the Supreme Court limited their use in courtrooms. Those rules changed after researchers agreed the test was unreliable.
Polygraph tests are still allowed in law enforcement, however. And in New Hampshire, corrections officers are considered law enforcement, which is not the case in many states.
DOC Commissioner Bill Wrenn is responsible for almost 3,000 incarcerated people. He needs the test to weed out people who would make poor prison guards, h says - people might smuggle drugs to prisoners, abuse inmates or be vulnerable to blackmail.
But does this polygraph test really weed out people with bad judgment? Or does it just weed out people, generally?
Valente says when people get booted because of a polygraph, drugs are usually the kicker.
If you’ve smoked marijuana in the last six months, you’re disqualified. For other drugs, you can’t have used them in three years. Often Valente hears this.
“So somebody comes in and says two years ago I took someone’s Adderall," he says. "We see this a lot with college students - finals time, they take somebody’s Adderall and say it helps me focus. The problem with that is based on administrative rules they’re prohibited from being certified. Even if we wanted to hire somebody, the rules will not allow that.”
While the department stands by the test, it has narrowed the questioning over the years. For example, Valente says, he doesn’t ask about whether someone’s hunted or fished without a license anymore.
He does ask about pornography consumption, and sexual behavior – is it always consensual, for example.
The polygraph test Valente administers doesn't just look for illegal behavior, however. The test is also designed to assess candidates’ judgment. Valente says he needs to make sure “they are not putting themselves out there on the internet in various compromising positions, because, again, this is a different type job, people can use that against them.”
There are lots of reasons people aren’t applying for jobs as correctional officers in New Hampshire. Unemployment is at a record low, and while the benefits are good, the starting salary is just over $30,000 a year. Many who might be interested can’t pass the criminal background check.
Nevertheless, the department gets around 450 applicants each year. Last year it hired 40, then lost 18 to retirement.
At a recent correctional academy graduation in November, there were only six officers receiving diplomas. That’s a number Commissioner Wrenn said was disappointing.
I asked those graduates what part of the application process was the hardest. One officer, Farradon Young, told me "the hardest part would honestly be the lie detector part.”
There are two stages to the polygraph test. First, Valente sits you down in a regular green office chair, right next to the polygraph chair with all its sensors and wires. First he explains how the test works. Then, he has a conversation. And, Valente says, most of the bad things people admit to come out in this green office chair, before anyone gets strapped to the actual machine.
"They look at the chair and realize this isn’t gonna work I’m not going to make it through this and they start saying, well, this that this that," Valente says.
Wrenn says he needs that information, and he thinks other employers would it, too
“I believe that with many of the applicants we’ve rejected because of information we’ve received because of the polygraph," he says, "if a prior employer had that information, because they had a polygraph unit that they used prior to hiring, that they would not have considered that individual for hiring purposes.”
Federal law won’t allow NHPR to require me and my colleagues to take polygraph tests. But if they could, I wonder, how many of us would have gotten our jobs?