Key crime bills face showdowns this week

The House Criminal Justice Committee votes Thursday, Feb. 28, on a bill to keep for-profit prison companies out of New Hampshire and on legislation to give inmates earned time credits >for educational, vocational and mental health programming. Prison Watch, a broad coalition of organizations, has worked for more than a year to boost the goals behind these proposals: to save money and boost public safety. The idea is to restore offenders so they succeed on the outside. 

North Country officials opposed HB 443, the anti-privatization bill, hoping a new prison might create jobs for idle lumberjacks and paper mill workers. Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn also spoke against the bill and warned he would have to outsource inmates if a disaster closed a pod. The state should leave its options open in the event of long term prison population growth, he added. 

Supporters of the bill have drafted a proposed committee amendment to let the state outsource prisoners temporarily in an emergency. Wrenn is reviewing it. Committee chairman Laura Pantelakos will reportedly introduce the amendment. 

The earned time bills, HB 404 and HB 649, would both reward inmates with time off their minimum and maximum sentences for earning degrees, diplomas, and other certificates of accomplishment in programs. HB 404, sponsored by Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, would give those opportunities to all prisoners. HB 649, sponsored by Rep. Mary Stuart Gile,  would apply only to inmates between the ages of 17 and 25 as a pilot project. The state could find and fix any problems before expanding the program, Gile explained. 

Assistant Corrections Commissioner Bill McGonagle spoke against both earned time bills, but agreed with their intent to motivate inmates to better themselves. He warned the state would be open to lawsuits from prisoners ineligible to benefit through no fault of their own. The bills would create a new “liberty interest,” he explained. 

Parole Board chairwoman Donna Sytek spoke against the earned time bills as a violation of truth in sentencing, an idea she pushed through the legislature years ago as House speaker. In the past an inmate with a 10-year minimum sentence could make parole after six years just by being well behaved. She secured a change to make that person serve all 10 years and get an extra 12.5 days per month for any bad behavior. 

Supporters of earned time said the prison population has burgeoned at great fiscal and human cost under truth in sentencing. It effectively made every sentence 40 percent longer. They urged the committee to retain, study, improve and perhaps merge the two bills. Any problems were solvable, and the gains would be worth the effort. 

Folks who wish to share their views with the House Criminal before it votes his week can use this email list.,,,,,,,,,,,,,, mark.warden@leg.state,,,,

Testimony of CCJR for HB 443 to block private prisons 


Others are going to tell you horror stories from around the country about private prisons, about the way they warehouse people, about their practice of cherry picking the easiest and cheapest inmates to manage. I’m going to tell you a nice little New Hampshire horror story about private prisons. 

The governor, the executive council, and two state commissioners are awaiting an apples-to-apples comparison of the four profit-making bidders to take over the state’s corrections system. A man named George Vose heads the consulting team from MGT Associates that has worked on this report since the summer. His resume on the company website says he is the former commissioner of corrections for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. 

But Vose also sits on the board of one of the worst for-profit prison vendors, Community Education Centers. That company manages a chain of halfway houses in New Jersey that allowed an astonishing 452 escapes in 2011.  It has powerful ties to the New Jersey State House and governor’s office. 

The New York Times published a multi-part expose on CEC as a crowded, violent gulag that profits from violating  constitutional rights. When I spoke with Vose this summer, he downplayed his clout at Community Education Centers and in New Hampshire corrections. 

“We’re not being asked to evaluate if prison privatization would be good policy for New Hampshire,” he told me. “We’re not a political advocacy group for anybody. Our role is to evaluate proposals based on specific criteria. And I’m only one member of a team with five people on this project.” 

Vose was vice president of operations at the for-profit prison vendor CiviGenics from 2002 to 2009, which repaid $3.4 million in overcharges to Massachusetts in 2007. Former Massachusetts state auditor Joseph DeNucci had sought a $10.2 million recovery. He got another $3.5 million of it from Spectrum Health Systems, the company CiviGenics did its disputed work for. Under Vose, CiviGenics built a record of warehousing not unlike the company it merged with, yes, Community Education Centers. 

The bidders to take over most of New Hampshire corrections include the GEO Group, Management & Training Corp., Corrections Corporation of America and the New Hampshire Hunt Justice Group. According to the New Hampshire Union Leader, they had spent a combined $130,000 here on lobbyists as of mid-August. 

Widespread accounts from elsewhere suggest some of these players would bring some baggage here. And rigorous studies show for-profit prisons are generally no cheaper than public prisons, and often more expensive, when you count all the hidden costs. 

A scathing investigative report last year said that male prisoners in New Hampshire get far better treatment than the women. Legal Assistance soon filed a very winnable lawsuit, and the courts in due time will order the state to rehabilitate women aggressively in a proper facility.  

The women’s census has spiked since issuance of the report, according to women’s warden Joanne Fortier. In December she told the Interagency Commission on Women Inmates most of her newcomers are in their early twenties with serious drug issues. Today we’re setting women inmates up to fail at a huge cost to them, their families and the public. Let the state build its own women's prison without delay. 

There is little need for a large and costly new men’s prison or co-ed prison. Many of you committee members have worked for a far better idea. Downsize the inmate population gradually. Then spend the savings on good services for parolees. That strategy works. It has  slashed budgets, recidivism, and crime rates in many states, including lock-em-up Texas.

Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR 620-7946