Ex offenders ask for seat on policy board - Prison volunteers support them

Three former inmates urged lawmakers April 9 to add an ex prisoner to the Interbranch Criminal and Juvenile Justice Council, chaired by Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau. It studies ways to improve prisons, jails, trial courts, diversion efforts, reentry programs and rehabilitation. Its members include the attorney general, two state commissioners, county prosecutors, jailers, victim advocates, defense attorneys and other stakeholders. None has ever shared a tiny cell with a stranger who might be dangerous.

SB 53 would add only the warden of the women’s prison to the Council, but the bill as filed last fall appointed a woman ex offender instead. At the House hearing for the bill this week, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform offered an amendment that would add to Nadeau’s council “One former prison inmate who is no longer under correctional supervision, appointed by the governor.”

The legislation would also repeal the Interagency Coordinating Commission on Women Offenders, this on the advice of its members. It has completed most of its charge now that a new women’s prison is under construction. 

Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn told Nadeau’s board three weeks ago he opposed naming to it a former offender because none is qualified. He told the Crime Council someone like that might be tempted to use the role to vent about his individual case.

But Wrenn served for years on the similar Interagency Commission of Women Offenders with Eileen Kerwick. She was incarcerated at the Goffstown prison before her appointment as a voting member beside Wrenn. She arguably helped that panel to focus on the critical issue, the overcrowding and warehousing she had seen at Goffstown as an educated woman in a strange place.

Her achievement has remained a well kept secret in State House politics. The press never came to the Interagency Commission meetings, perhaps because there was no one to shame on the front page above the fold.

Nancy Rollins served with Kerwick on that policy group as assistant commissioner of Health and Human Services. Rollins is urging lawmakers to make room on Nadeau’s board for a former woman  offender. Women offenders ought to have “a meaningful voice in policy development,” the former state official said. “They especially need trauma informed treatment services.”

Ideally, the state might name both a man and a woman with a criminal record to the Crime Council. Mark Estes told lawmakers he earned two college degrees behind the wire. Since prison he has published two novels and several plays.

Tom Walsh, who has a law degree, testified that he went to prison at age 55 and suffered cultural shock. He suggested someone with his experience could give policymakers a helpful slant on sentencing, rehabilitation and successful re-entry. 

Justice Nadeau met this Tuesday with advocates from CCJR, the Episcopal Prison Concerns Committee and an ad hoc group against mass incarceration convened by the NH Council of Churches. The judge reiterated what she has said on the Crime Council, that the former offender community ought to have input on policy discussions, but not as members of her board. 

Atty. Howard Zibel, legal counsel for the Judicial Branch, told the House Criminal Justice Committee that court officials support adding only the women’s warden to the Council. 

Helen Hanks, the assistant commissioner of Corrections, opposed the CCJR amendment. She explained that the trustee prisoners on the Inmate Communications Committee already have a strong advisory role in policy. They meet on a regular basis with their warden, Richard Gerry, and with Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn.

Rep. David Welch (R-Kingston) has been meeting at the men’s prison lately with the Inmate Communication Committee on legislation for next year. He said the CCJR amendment was a good idea at the wrong time.

“It’s not going to happen this year,” Welch said. “We should make it a bill for next year.”

Rep. Laura Pantelakos (D-Portsmouth) said no single former offender could speak for all male, female and juvenile offenders and former offenders. She implied that was reason to exclude all of them.

Jean Metzger of Nashua is a long time prison volunteer who still teaches two Bible studies a week at the men’s prison at age 90. She said she knows a number of former offenders who could serve on the Crime Council.

Chris Young is co-chairman of the Kairos Ministry that conducts several four-day ecumenical worship programs a year for 24 inmates at a time. They fellowship with the same number of visitors from churches around the state. 

“It’s a no brainer to appoint a former offender to the Council,” Young said. “It’s just common sense if you want good policy.”

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR