What’s the plan behind the women’s prison proposal?

New Hampshire Corrections officials gave out details last month for a proposed $38 million, 224-bed women’s prison behind the men’s prison in Concord. We know the number of cells in receiving and diagnostics, the medical unit and each of three classification tiers. But the top-down, instead of grassroots, planning process for this major capital item has remained opaque until recently.

There was a compelling reason for the secrecy. The state was still evaluating 17 bids from four vendors to construct a prison or prisons and run them for profit or lease them back to the state. It would have been worse than disingenuous to air the state’s real intentions any time this winter.

The bidders, some of them international players with big legal departments, might have sued for getting so badly used. No doubt the Department of Corrections learned a great deal about building a new prison from the proprietary companies.

The 224-bed plan hinges on the assumptions behind a published graph of inmate census projections that says the state would need a 275-bed facility a year and a half from now if the recent rapid growth in the women’s census continues. The $38 million scenario predicts that figure will stabilize at 224 in the next year and stay there.

There is some reason to favor the optimistic number. According to assistant commissioner Bill McGonagle, the population is rising because the reforms in a 2010 law known as SB 500 have largely been repealed. Also known as the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act, it took away much of the discretion of the Parole Board and forced it to release prisoners sooner and hold them a shorter time on parole violations.

To cover either guesstimate, the smaller prison would be expandable to 300 beds. The core facilities, such as visiting room, dining room, treatment areas and classrooms could handle that population from the start. As a precedent, the 500-bed men’s prison in Berlin could serve 1,000 inmates just by adding multiple pods that are already designed.

Today, the state incarcerates some 190 female prisoners in grossly inadequate conditions at Goffstown, at the Shea Farm halfway house in Concord, at the Strafford County House of Corrections and in other county jails. The women’s population was roughly 125 a mere 18 months ago.

Few if any of those prisoners are getting proper services, according to a lawsuit filed by New Hampshire Legal Assistance. The litigation is on hold while the parties wait to see if lawmakers finally fund a new lockup.

What this plan lacks, perhaps understandably, is a long-term vision and the courage to lay out a philosophy of corrections to justify every lock and brick. Let me explain. It’s not just that the census projections stop at the end of 2014. There’s also no coherent idea behind the plan.

This is a hot political issue, and the balance of power in the State House has swung wildly in the last three elections. Before Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn came aboard, the state welcomed a new commissioner on a yearly basis.

But maybe we ought to spend most of the money on relatively cheap halfway houses, sober houses, electronic ankle bracelets and monitoring, home incarceration, and other low-security situations, leaving a small high-security core prison with intensive treatment and diagnostic services that the women would occupy as briefly as possible. Sullivan County House of Corrections has substantially implemented that approach, and I’m told it works.

Lawmakers should pass the $38 million bill. That’s got to be a no-brainer. But once officials secure the appropriation, we would strongly urge Gov. Hassan and the Department of Corrections to hold a series of public hearings around the state to explain and sell the finest ideas behind the plan. Let them do some listening. Hold a brainstorming design seminar or two to get cool suggestions from a public capable of compassion and savvy.

Chris Dornin is founder of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform.

Categories: Opinion