What’s the plan behind the women’s prison proposal?

New Hampshire Corrections officials gave out details this week for a proposed $38 million, 224-bed women’s prison behind the men’s prison in Concord. We know the number of cells in receiving and diagnostics, the medical unit and each of three classification tiers. But the top-down, instead of grassroots, planning process for this major capital item has remained opaque until the two weeks.

There was a compelling reason for the secrecy up to now. The state was still evaluating 17 bids from four vendors to construct a prison or prisons and run them for profit or lease them back to the state. It would have been worse than disingenuous to air the state’s real intentions any time this winter. 

The bidders, some of them international players with big legal departments, might have sued for getting so badly used. No doubt the Department of Corrections learned a great deal about building a new prison from the proprietary companies. Our officials pored over all the best ideas that Corrections Corporation of America and its competitors could offer. 

The 224-bed plan hinges on the assumptions behind a published graph of inmate census projections the Senate Capital Budget Committee got to see Monday. The chart says the state would need a 275-bed facility a year and a half from now if the recent rapid growth in the women’s census continues. The $38 million scenario predicts that figure will stabilize at 224 in the next year and stay there. 

There is some reason to favor the optimistic number. According to assistant commissioner Bill McGonagle, the population is rising because the reforms in a 2010 law known as SB 500 have largely been repealed. Also known as the criminal justice reinvestment act, it took away much of the discretion of the Parole Board and forced it to release prisoners sooner and hold them a shorter time on parole violations. 

In written testimony to senators, McGonagle said probation and parole offices now have better training and broader powers to monitor their caseloads and prevent violations and re-incarcerations. Perhaps better yet, the Parole Board is getting technical advice on making scientific and actuarially-based decisions to release or keep prisoners. 

McGonagle said the 224-bed census “represents our best educated guess as to the impact of these initiatives on each element contributing to population growth or reduction.” 

To cover either guesstimate, the smaller prison would be expandable to 300 beds. The core facilities such as visiting room, dining room, treatment areas and classrooms could handle that population from the start. As a precedent, the 500-bed men’s prison in Berlin could serve 1,000 inmates just by adding multiple pods which are already designed. The rest of the complex is big enough to accommodate all of them. 

The construction site for the women’s prison would be uphill from and west of the men’s lockup on North State Street if test pits confirm the state-owned land there has the right soil. Today the state incarcerates some 190 female prisoners in grossly inadequate conditions at Goffstown, at the Shea Farm halfway house in Concord at the Strafford County House of Corrections and in other county jails. The women’s population was roughly 125 a mere 18 months ago. 

Few if any of those prisoners are getting proper services, according to a lawsuit filed by New Hampshire Legal Assistance on behalf of the women plaintiffs. The litigation is on hold while the parties wait to see if lawmakers finally fund a new lockup.

The two adjacent prisons would share the same water supply, sewer line, electricity, computer network, perimeter road and natural gas fired boilers. Teachers, medical and treatment staff, and outside patrols could easily serve both populations while keeping them segregated as a matter of safety. 

The state would use an additional $2.3 million appropriated several years ago for site selection and part of the design work, then seek a construction manager bound to finish the project at or below the $38 million construction target. Former Gov. John Lynch never spent the $2.3 million, which is still encumbered, because he wanted to explore hiring a for-profit firm to build and run our prisons more cheaply than the state could do it. We now have a verdict on that option, a resounding no. 

The MGT consulting firm recently issued a scathing $171,000 report on the 17 bids from four vendors to take over the corrections system. None would have complied with long standing court orders and settlement agreements in litigation over the civil rights of prisoners. And the for-profits were planning to pay half as much as the salaries in current union contracts for officers and treatment staff. That was a formula for personnel turnover, high vacancy rates, excessive overtime, exhausted guards and violent cellblocks. 

What this plan lacks, perhaps understandably, is a long-term vision and the courage to lay out a philosophy of corrections to justify every lock and brick. Let me explain. It’s not just that the census projections stop at the end of 2014. There’s also no coherent idea behind the plan. Maybe it’s naive to ask for one. This is a hot political issue, and the balance of power in the State House has swung wildly in the last three elections. Before Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn came aboard, the state welcomed a new commissioner on a yearly basis. 

But maybe we ought to spend most of the money on relatively cheap halfway houses, sober houses, electronic ankle bracelets and monitoring, home incarceration, and other low security situations, leaving a small high-security core prison with intensive treatment and diagnostic services that the women would occupy as briefly as possible. Sullivan County House of Corrections has substantially implemented that approach, and I’m told it works. 

Women prisoners thrive when they have maximum access to their kids. They also get along pretty well with each other and their officers. So, let rehabilitation and community re-entry become the paramount values in our prison system. 

We could go to the other extreme. We could assume the women are all terribly dangerous, they need great punishment as a deterrent, and they deserve it on moral grounds. Indeed, they have little chance of succeeding on the street when they get out. How do we know that? Because they have a higher recidivism rate than male prisoners, at least in New Hampshire, if nowhere else. That outlook suggests we should warehouse them out of sight behind razor wire the way the state has done for most of the last 150 years. 

Lawmakers should pass the $38 million bill. That’s got to be a no-brainer. But once officials secure the appropriation, we would strongly urge Gov. Hassan and the Department of Corrections to hold a series of public hearings around the state to explain and sell the finest ideas behind the plan. Let them do some listening. Hold a brainstorming design seminar or two to get cool suggestions from a public capable of compassion and savvy. 

Let those leaders say whether they believe in truth-in-sentencing laws that fill prisons. Do they want prosecutors stacking charges on consecutive charges to win the plea bargaining battle, prove they’re tough on crime, and win re-election? What about drug courts and diversion programs suitable for many, if not most, women offenders? Why do we want pot smokers and other addicts and the mentally illl living with gang bangers at the men’s prisons? Do we really believe in two strikes-and-you’re-out laws? Today a parolee who does a felony faces an extra seven to 14 years of enhanced punishment on any new felony charge. Do we solve every critical social problem by incarcerating it? 

When we answer these questions, we will know how big a new prison to build and what it should look like. But set aside the $38 million. We may not have to spend it all. The savings could go to seeding some badly needed state-funded community corrections programs. Today we don’t have any of those. There are some meager federally funded services still in place, but the grants expire soon. That’s with sequestration looming in Washington. 

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, 620-7946