October 1st, 2010

New Hampshire wants new women’s prison

As far back as 2004, a report by the New Hampshire Commission on the Status of Women detailed issues with the state’s services for female inmates including overcrowding and a shortage of space to provide programs to help reduce recidivism. Compared to programs offered to the state’s male prisoners, the women are provided with fewer options for rehabilitation programs including vocational training.

In June, the state’s corrections department made a plea to change that situation with a proposal for construction of a new $37 million facility to house female prisoners and a halfway house for those nearing release. If approved, the plan would create a 325-bed prison facility and a 128-bed halfway house.

“We believe that a new women’s prison is needed,” says Jeffrey J. Lyons, the public information officer for the N.H. Department of Corrections. “We have requested this several times over at least the last two budget cycles. This is our number one capital budget priority.”

The appeal was made as part of the annual pitch from state agencies to have projects included in the 2012-2013 state capital improvement budget. The proposal will be put before the state legislature in early 2011 and voted on some time in the spring.

According to Lyons, the current system is woefully short on space for both the inmates and for programs to help them be rehabilitated. Currently, the state has one facility for approximately 125 female prisoners in Goffstown. The Department of Corrections also rents space at the Stafford County Jail for approximately 25 to 30 others and close to 50 are held at a halfway house in Concord.

“The ideal situation,” Lyons says, “would be to have all of them in one facility so that we can provide the needed, gender-specific programs that focus on their needs specifically.”

“The current prison [in Goffstown] was built for 100 and now has 125 inmates,” he adds. “There is limited space for programs. We really need double the space.”

When asked if the inequity between programs offered for men and those available to the female prisoners could leave the state open to lawsuits over gender bias, Lyons replied, “We do provide as much parity as we can given the space limitations.”

For mental health programs, the women’s prison recently added a full time psychiatrist and a mental health clinician, after an outside consulting firm made the recommendation. For medical needs, however, the patients do not have on-site health care.

“For serious treatment, they must be brought to the Concord men’s prison and isolated from the men for treatment or hospital admission there.” Lyons says.

At one point, lawmakers were looking at the feasibility of moving the women to a juvenile detention center in Manchester and closing the Goffstown site. The juveniles would be moved to another facility. The legislature formed a committee to look at the proposal and at the problems with the women’s prisons in general. N.H. Senator Lou D’Allesandro, (D-Manchester), who chairs the committee says that, while the move to the Manchester site is not seen as a valid option, the legislature is taking seriously the concerns with the women’s prison system.

“We have had a series of meetings, have visited the existing facilities,” says D’Allesandro. “We are not sure what the recommendations will be yet, but we are working on it.”

The committee will have a proposal that may include the funding of a new facility, by Nov. 1. “We obviously need to do something,” he says.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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