You can still build the right women’s prison

To members of the Senate Capital Budget Committee:  I’m sorry I had to leave the public hearing on the House capital budget last month before I could testify against constructing a huge new women’s prison. Please build a cheaper one. When the Senate Capital Budget Committee votes on HB 25-FH-A this coming week, I urge you to delete the proposed $12.6 million increase to the cost of the new women’s prison, found on line 22 of page 2 of the bill, and replace it with the following language:

Because construction of a new women’s prison is over budget, the Department of Corrections shall build a smaller prison on North State Street in Concord for the original appropriation of $38 million. The Department shall also create as much bed capacity as possible in halfway houses and sober houses for women prisoners elsewhere at an additional total cost of $12.6 million. The State may either build these new community facilities for women offenders or renovate existing structures for that purpose if it would be more cost effective to do so. 

There is no question the state needs a new prison for women. The whole medical department at the Goffstown jail operates from a 600-square-foot space. But we can build a smaller prison and a modern community corrections network for the latest price. Those missing new halfway houses and sober houses are vital to helping women offenders restore their lives and families. Many of them have addiction, parenting and employment issues that sent them to prison in the first place. Most of these women pose little threat to society and could safely serve much of their sentences in a community setting.

Sullivan County solved a similar jail crowding problem by building a $5.6 millioin community corrections facility and spending $1.3 million to renovate the existing lockup. County officials ignored the advice of the Ricci Green Associates consulting firm to build a $45 million house of corrections.

Here’s what county administrator Greg Chanis said on the county website about that frugal decision:

“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 national revolution in treatment based on area agencies, family care and community residences. Likewise, we built a small new state hospital and a network of community mental health centers, group homes and subsidized housing for people with mental illness. The principle is still valid. Restore people in the most normal setting.

The proposed amendment to HB 25 would create the vital community programs to help women prisoners rejoin society and succeed. To invest every dollar in a maximum security prison would perpetuate a 19th century philosophy of corrections based on vengeance, segregation and the demonization of prisoners in secrecy.

Community facilities for prisoners cost less per bed to build, they are cheaper to operate, and they are more restorative of women who can and should become law abiding citizens again. If the census of women prisoners keeps growing decades from now, the state should build even more halfway houses.