Bar News - September 21, 2007
Working Behind Bars
A Profile of Attorney Walter Pazdon, NH Dept. of Corrections
By: Craig Sander
His office is small—teetering between cozy and cramped—and filled with cabinets that contain the files of more than 9,000 inmates he has counseled over his 21-year career with the New Hampshire Department of Corrections. He sits at his roll-top desk, neatly tucked in the corner of a room adjacent to the prison chapel, and awaits his first appointment of the day.
Walter Pazdon joined the NHDOC as the Inmates’ Attorney ten years after receiving his law degree from Suffolk University. He worked as a Superior Court law clerk and had a private practice in Manchester with Alabama native, Henry Henzel, before joining the NHDOC. But things changed when his partner decided to move back to Alabama.
“It was 1986, my partner had moved away, I had recently gotten married and I needed a change,” says Pazdon, “and here I am 21 years later.”
He has given advice, and sometimes grim assessments, on virtually any civil legal matter an inmate could have, from family law and probate matters to bankruptcy. And while he may be unable to give you a precise list of his official duties, there can be no doubt that his legal work is a bit outside the realm of ordinary practice. The cases may be run of the mill, but the setting is unlike any other in the state.
Pazdon’s job is unique not only because of his work with inmates, but because he does not actually represent his ‘clients,’ or give them advice on criminal matters. Pazdon says he acts as a sounding board for the inmates and provides guidance to those – who mostly file pro se -– that are dedicated to putting in the work and research required to file in the legal system.
Also unique is the way of life at the prison. Commonly held beliefs of inmate life do not quite fit the New Hampshire prison system, he says. There is very little violence among the roughly 3,000 inmates, the correctional officers are not armed, and there are no snipers in the towers waiting for someone to make a run for freedom. It seems to be a point of pride for Mr. Pazdon, who says that the best way to maintain control is through cooperation.
“These people have families they care about, and that care about them. Being here causes a lot of turmoil,” says Pazdon. “I like to think that I help smooth that out. If they’re not dealing with turmoil, they’re less likely to fall into trouble.”
While Pazdon doesn’t actually represent inmates at the prison, he does give them guidance about proceeding pro se, tells them whether or not they can go any further with a claim, and many times provides what he hopes is an objective point-of-view. However, inmates occasionally visit him for less-than-legitimate issues regarding their sentence and incarceration.
“I sometimes have to tell them that there’s not a legal solution to some problems. There’s rarely, if ever, a loophole to exploit except in the movies. I have no incentive in telling them what they want to hear,” Pazdon says. “There are already plenty of people here that are willing to do that. I like to think that I have an objective voice with these guys.”
His work not only brings inmates to him, but him to inmates. He goes to the inmates when they are housed in units that restrict inmate movement such as the maximum security, psychiatric, and the intake sectors of the Concord facility. He also works outside the Concord prison when the need arises, traveling to the Goffstown and Laconia prisons, and the half-way houses in Manchester and Concord.
For the most part, however, Pazdon works from his office at the Concord facility, and says that the majority of the inmates that visit him have family or financial matters that need to be taken care of, and they need someone to help guide them through the court system.
“A lot of these men are good guys who’ve made some mistakes and now they’re trying to get their lives back together,” says Pazdon. “I make sure they’re serious when they come to speak with me. I try to tell them that preparation gives them a much bigger chance at success. Mostly, I help them help themselves.”
Editor’s Note: NH Bar News will profile NH Department of Corrections attorney John Vinson in the Oct. 19 issue.