We’ve missed the chance to do women's corrections right

Lawmakers deserve our sincere thanks for funding a new $38 million prison for women. The public can learn about and respond to the proposed designs at 6 p.m. information sessions March 10, 12 and 19 in the Brown Building off Pleasant Street in Concord. If the new prison gets proper staffing, it will prepare women for the street much better than we could ever do at the Goffstown prison. Its whole medical department operates from a 500-square-foot space.

However, the legislature lost a once-a-lifetime opportunity to build something more humane and restorative. For about the same price, we might have gotten a small and modern secure prison for the minority of women who need that structure when they start their sentences. The rest of the money could have built a nationally important network of normalizing, less expensive, treatment-rich, and less restrictive halfway houses, clean-and-sober houses, and ankle-bracelet supervision programs. This isn’t a dream. Sullivan County already does something similar.

When New Hampshire closed Laconia State School, an institution twice as big could have replaced it. Instead, we launched a daring revolution in treatment based on area agencies, community care, family care and community residences. The deinstitutionalization from the state hospital followed a similar course. We built a small, state-of-the-art, intensive treatment center and created a network of community mental health centers, group homes and subsidized housing for most people with mental illnesses. Both of these community care networks are under huge stress today from years of legislative neglect. But the core idea remains valid. Activate and strengthen fragile people in the most normal setting.

No matter how well the new prison teaches and trains women and addresses their mental health, post traumatic stress, and substance abuse issues behind razor wire, to my knowledge we lack any realistic plans for new state-funded rehab programs on the outside to keep these inmates from coming back to hard time at the highest recidivism rate in America for women parolees.

We are perpetuating a philosophy of corrections based on vengeance, segregation and the demonization of prisoners out of sight from the public. That’s what our practice of shunning means to the outside world, even when the personnel are as kind, skilled and caring as the staff we are blessed to have in Goffstown; even when the new building has some of the feel of a college quad.

I know it is too late to change this $38 million proposal, and everyone should support it as a vast improvement over the status quo. But we can still delete one feature that sets off red flags among prison reformers. If I understand correctly from corrections officials, there would be a counseling room or classroom where the least trusted inmates talk to each from behind plate glass in separate booths as if they were terrorists or rival gang leaders. The captors tend to get what they expect in the field of corrections. Asking women to socialize from cages sends entirely the wrong message about New Hampshire women inmates. That room belongs in Abu Ghraib.  

One other feature is troubling. The state is floating the possibility of bringing in prisoners from other states to fill our facility from the start. We deserve a public debate on that idea before doing it. Let it be the sort of conversation we never heard before this $38 million prison was already a done deal. 

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, 620-7946, cldornin@aol.com