Senate Finance votes against bill to ban private prisons

House budget officials pushed hard for a new $38 million women’s prison at a Senate hearing April 16. The proposed 224-bed facility next door to the men’s prison on North State in Concord is the largest line item in the capital budget the House passed along to the Senate. The project would employ a construction manager to ensure cost and quality control
Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, chairs the House Public Works and Highways Committee and said it was impossible to spread the cost of the project over four years, as first hoped, due to litigation. Women inmates filed suit last year because their treatment services are inferior to those of male inmates. As a result, the women have a higher recidivism rate as well.
“It’s all a single construction project, and all the costs have to be encumbered up front,” Campbell explained. “The Attorney General’s Office has given us a sense of urgency with the lawsuit pending. Nobody wants to legislate with a gun to their head, but nobody wants to have the prisons run by the courts either.”
Campbell said two major lawsuits against the prison system have been underway for decades, and the state has spent millions of dollars on legal fees.
This writer testified for the women’s prison project on behalf of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, but urged lawmakers to work for smaller prison populations in general. The savings on the cost of incarceration should go to badly needed programs that help parolees to succeed, and the state should do a very public long-range planning process the way the Department of Transportation designs a major highway.
Atty. Elliott Berry of NH Legal Assistance watched the hearing without giving testimony. He represents the women inmate plaintiffs.
Senate Finance blocks for-profit prisons
The Senate Finance Committee voted 4-2 on party lines today against HB 443, a bill to block private prisons from taking over cellblocks in New Hampshire. Republicans Senators Chuck Morse, Peter Bragdon, Jeannie Forrester and Bob Odell voted to kill legislation, which received strong support at its recent public hearing from public employee unions, church denominations and nonprofit advocacy groups, including Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform. Democrats Lou D’Allesandro and Sylvia Larsen voted for the bill, which would have locked the door on for-profit prison firms the same way Maine has excluded them.
The state recently rejected all the bids to assume control of the corrections function after researching 17 competing proposals with the help of the MGT consulting firm. None of the bids would have complied with state requirements, particularly some court orders to serve the disabled and mental ill. Arnie Alpert, statewide coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, spoke for the bill at its Senate hearing.
“We would not be the first state to do this, Alpert testified. “New York and Illinois have passed similar laws. It would send a clear signal New Hampshire should waste no more time and resources on this issue.”
At the time, Sen. Bragdon, the Senate president, made clear he would oppose the bill.
“What’s the point?’ he asked. “The next legislature with approval of the governor can still privatize the prisons.”
HB 443 would need at least two Republican votes to succeed on the Senate floor. But it would make prison privatization all but impossible for many years. Republicans would have to control both houses of the legislature, the governorship and the Executive Council at the same time in order to privatize our cellblocks or auction inmates off to the lowest out-of-state bidder the way Vermont still sends 600 unhappy inmates to Kentucky. Hundreds of Vermont prisoners rioted some time ago over the warehousing and violent conditions they face far from their families.