New Women’s prison likely in Concord (Revised)

Lawmakers heard some artfully vague plans Mar. 19 for a $38-million new women’s prison and transitional housing complex with 328 beds. Members of the House Public Works Committee pressed corrections officials for specifics, especially the construction site.  They got evasiveness.

Bill McGonagle, the assistant commission of Corrections, said the state is still reviewing the offers from four profit-making vendors to build a large men’s or co-ed prison and run it or lease it back to the state. It would be bad timing to announce just now where the state hopes to build its own women’s prison. 

“That decision has not been made,” McGonagle said. “It will be made soon.” 

Committee chairman David Campbell (D-Nashua) said lawmakers need some candid answers now. 

“This is the biggest baby in the capital budget,” he warned. 

Private prisons vendors might sue the state

Atty. Mike Brown of the Attorney General’s Office represents the state in litigation over the inadequacy of the women’s prison in Goffstown. 

“I’m truly sympathetic,” Brown told Campbell. “The department cannot reveal any level of detail about the RFP process (on prison privatization) as a matter of law. To avoid legal risk, we are limited. There’s a real threat of litigation (from the bidders).” 

Mike Connors of the Department of Administrative Services said ditto. 

“If it looks like I’m stonewalling, I am,” Connors said. “I cannot answer your questions without getting into the minutia of the prison privatization proceedings.” 

It is public knowledge none of the firms wanted to build a stand-alone women’s prison. There was no profit in such a small facility. 

Where did the numbers come from?

Nobody on House Public Works questioned the dollar figure and bed count for the long-awaited women’s facility. Both figures were included without further explanation in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s capital budget. 

Some opponents of private prisons are pushing for the state to build a smaller women’s prison within a long-range plan for restorative justice that reduces prison populations. The extra money not spent on such a large facility could go instead to community services for folks on parole and to diversion programs that prevent incarceration. The proposed women’s prison would almost triple existing capacity, an open invitation to judges and prosecutors to fill those cells.

Bet they build it in Concord

McGonagle said the department would pick a construction site soon. Everyone understood what he was saying between the lines. 

“It will preferably be adjacent to an existing prison,” he said, “most likely the one in Concord. It has a lot of state land behind it.” 

The department has no money for land acquisition, the deputy explained. Both the Berlin and Concord men’s prisons would have water, sewer, electricity, communications hardware and power to share with a women’s facility. Most of the women prisoners are from southern New Hampshire, he noted, and they hope to reunite with their kids when they get out. If the moms moved to Berlin, some might never see their children until parole. 

Lawmakers asked about a partnership with county jails in lieu of taking out a $38 million bond. McGonagle said none of those arrangements would make sense. The jails only house short term prisoners and lack the vocational, educational, medical, counseling and clinical services the women are suing about in Wood v. Commissioner, filed last year. A women’s prison beside a men’s prison would provide staffing for all these services nearby. 

Parties agree to a stay in lawsuit over Goffstown

Atty. Elliott Berry of New Hampshire Legal Assistance represents the women plaintiffs at the Goffstown prison.. He said they have agreed to set aside the lawsuit temporarily because Gov.. Maggie Hassan included the new prison in her budget. 

The NH Advisory Board to the US Commission on Civil Rights issued a scathing report two years ago on conditions at the Goffstown prison leased from the county on a temporary basis for the last two decades. The study warned that male prisoners get far better care and training than the women, raising equal protection issues. Brown told lawmakers the state has long recognized Goffstown is inadequate. 

“Either side can withdraw the stay by giving a 60-day notice,” Brown said. “We hope not to litigate the case. We want a settlement that leaves us some discretion in how we run our prisons. We don’t want judges running prisons.” 

Chairman Campbell asked if the state could fund the $38 million over two legislative terms. 

“It would be easier for us,” he said. 

 “If you don’t fully fund it now,” Brown said, “there will be a reckoning.” 

Berry made clear the plaintiffs are running out of patience. They have waited 20 years for the state to carry out a federal court order to do better by women inmates. 

 “We are willing to hold off in the belief you will do everything you can,” Berry told the committee. “Any delay would be extremely detrimental to the stay agreement.”

House votes to block prison privatization

In related State House action, lawmakers passed a bill on Thursday to block private prisons. In an electronic vote without a roll call, HB 443 prevailed by 197-136. It defines incarceration as a fundamental duty of the state, but would allow short-term transfers of inmates to profit-making firms in an emergency, such as a fire. 

The legislation goes now to the Senate Judiciary Committee, part of a legislative body with a 13-11 Republican majority. The House GOP caucus opposed the bill, but with some defections.. If the Senate debate becomes partisan, supporters of HB 443 would have to swing at least two Republican votes. 

Privatization study postponed again

The Executive Council on Wednesday approved yet another deadline extension on a report originally due in October from the consultant reviewing the competing prison privatization bids on an apples-to-apples basis. The vote was 4-0 with Councilor Debora Pignatelli (D-Nashua)  abstaining. 

The study is now due Mar. 31, and the consultants from MGT Associates will be available to answer questions until the end of April. Executive Councilor Raymond Burton (R-Bath) asked if the consulting report would be public.

“Will it be available to anyone who asks to see it,” Burton asked, “including the capital budget committee?”

“Yes,” said Mike Connors of Administrative Services.

In a later interview with me, he clarified what he meant.

“We will present a public report to Governor and Council,” Connors said. “Some portions of the RFP process will not be disclosed. But there will be a public report.”