We missed a chance to do prisons right

As you may know, the project to build a new women's prison is running way over budget and planners are going back to the drawing board. That could be a blessing. What if they built a proper community corrections system and a smaller women's prison with the original funding? I wrote this legislative testimony about it a year ago before the designs were finalized. My comments below are somewhat dated now, but lawmakers have a rare second chance to make the best decision for women prisoners, for the state budget and for public safety. 

(Presented March 9, 2014)

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, cldornin@aol.com

We should thank New Hampshire lawmakers for funding a new $40.4 million prison for women. If the facility gets proper staffing, it will prepare offenders for the street far better than we have done in Goffstown. The whole medical department there operates from a 600-square-foot space. But we could have built a smaller prison and a community corrections network for the same price. Those missing new halfway houses and sober houses were vital to helping women offenders rebuild their lives and families. Many of them have addiction, childcare and employment issues that sent them to prison in the first place.

Maybe Medicaid expansion will give these parolees the healthcare insurance they need to buy meds, counseling, preventive care and addiction treatment. Maybe their personal health coverage will create a decentralized aftercare system in response to their new ability to pay for it. Or maybe Medicaid expansion will last two years and sunset.

This continuum of treatment isn’t a dream. Sullivan County solved a similar jail crowding problem by building a community corrections center and renovating the existing jail. The Ricci Green Associates consulting firm advised them to build a $45 million jail. The county did $1.3 million in renovations instead to the existing lockup and added a $5.6 million community corrections center four years ago.  Here’s what county administrator Greg Chanis said about that frugal decision on the county website:

“In Sullivan County, we were able to work with the public and our key stakeholders to go in a direction of developing a strong reentry system and build a smaller facility that met our needs.The leadership from the county commissioners, the superintendent, the county attorneys, and community providers and a strong reentry committee allowed us to build a strong conceptual design that the public could understand and support."

When New Hampshire closed Laconia State School, an institution twice as big could have replaced it. Instead, we launched a revolution in treatment based on area agencies, family care and community residences. Likewise, we built a small new state hospital and a network of mental health centers, group homes and subsidized housing for people with mental illness. Both community systems are under stress now from years of budgetary neglect, but the principle is still valid. Restore people in the most normal setting.

It may be too late to change the plan for this women’s prison, but we can delete that special room where the worst inmates would talk to each other in classes and group therapy from separate maximum security booths as if they were rival Mexican drug lords or residents in a profit-making prison. That space belongs in Abu Ghraib. There’s similar talk of importing women from other states to fill our facility, defray some of its cost, and expand the range of rehabilitation.

We should proceed here with caution. Families of prisoners have told lawmakers many times it is cruel and unusual punishment to imprison their loved ones far away. But prison reformers might be open to housing Vermont or Massachusetts women here instead of in Arizona or Mississippi. That would be much better for them. Likewise, women federal prisoners from New Hampshire should do their time here.

No matter how well the new prison teaches and trains women and addresses their mental health, post traumatic stress, parenting and substance abuse issues behind razor wire, we lack serious plans for state-funded rehab programs on the outside to keep women from going back to prison. Ultimately, we are perpetuating a 19th century philosophy of corrections based on vengeance, segregation and the demonization of prisoners in secrecy. That’s what our practice of shunning unavoidably says to the outside world, even when the personnel are as caring as the staff we are blessed to have in Goffstown, even when the designs allude to a college quad, but with razor wire instead of ivy on the walls. All a passerby sees is the razor wire.

SOURCE:  http://thecitizen.villagesoup.com/p/we-missed-a-chance-to-do-prisons-rig...