Bar News - July 19, 2013
Legislature Approves $38 Million Women’s Prison
By: Kristen Senz
Lawsuit Stayed as Settlement Talks Continue
More than 25 years after a federal court ruled that women sentenced to prison in New Hampshire were being denied their constitutional rights, the NH Legislature has approved spending $38 million to build a 224-bed women’s prison.
A cell in the NH State Prison for Women in Goffstown.
Photo by Emily Corwin of New Hampshire Public Radio.
After the NH Department of Corrections tried unsuccessfully to secure the funding for a new women’s prison in the last four legislative cycles, the Legislature acted this year, in the wake of a new lawsuit, Woods v. Commissioner of Corrections, filed in August 2012.
The case and a petition to certify all female prison inmates in New Hampshire as a plaintiff class are now on hold in Merrimack County Superior Court as settlement talks continue, in light of the capital funding appropriation by the Legislature.
Elliott Berry, who manages the Manchester office of NH Legal Assistance, is the lead plaintiff’s attorney in Woods. He and Alan Linder, senior staff attorney in the Concord office of NHLA, along with co-counsel, Peter Beeson and Leigh Willey of Devine Millimet, are representing four female inmates as named plaintiffs. Laura Lombardi and Lynmarie Cusack of the NH Attorney General’s office are representing the state.
Berry and Linder also represented incarcerated women in New Hampshire in the 1987 federal case, Fiandanca v. Cunningham. At the time, New Hampshire had no women’s prison, so female inmates were housed in federal facilities outside the state. As a result of that suit, an abandoned men’s prison in Goffstown was converted into the women’s prison in what was meant to be a temporary solution – one that has been in place for the past 25 years.
“It has remained a major problem to this day, so it took another lawsuit to bring the issue back to the front burner,” Linder said in a recent interview. “We’re hopeful. We have been working very cooperatively with the attorney general’s office and the Department of Corrections.”
The Woods lawsuit argues that programs and services for incarcerated women should be comparable to those available to male inmates at the state prison in Concord. The men’s prison has extensive educational and vocational programs, as well as physical and mental health services, substance abuse treatment and a minimum security unit designed to ease reentry and community reintegration.
The parties in the Woods case have begun discussions about the design of the new facility, which is planned for land behind the men’s prison in Concord, and how to best make equitable programs and services available to women there, Linder said.
“There could be an agreement, and the case could be resolved that way, but we don’t know that yet, because the discussions are still going on,” he said. “It’s possible that there could be agreement on some items and not on others, and if there were open items, then the judge would decide that.”
Jeff Lyons, spokesman for the NH Department of Corrections, said the department intends to provide equitable programming and treatment for women and that by locating the new facility near the men’s prison, the state will realize cost efficiencies. The two prisons will be able to share transportation services and security personnel, as well as clinical and other staff, he said.
Working with the NH Department of Administrative Services, which oversees plant and property management for the state, the DOC hopes to get approval in September from the Governor and Executive Council for an engineering and architectural contract, Lyons said. A tentative project schedule calls for building schematics to be in place by next February and construction to begin in April 2015.
In the meantime, female inmates remain in the cramped facility in Goffstown, where space and staffing limitations make most vocational and other programs next to impossible.
Betsy Paine is a member of the NH Interagency Coordinating Council on Women Offenders and works as a domestic violence specialist for the circuit court. Having sent female offenders to the Goffstown prison in the early ’90s as a Merrimack County prosecutor, Paine began advocating for a new women’s prison after hearing from inmates at a listening session in 2004. “It was incredibly eye-opening for me, especially as someone who had incarcerated women at Goffstown.”
While she’s thrilled that the funding has been approved for the new facility, Paine said the pace of change has been frustrating. “For me, it’s been a real education in how slow this kind of change is, and some of it is because you’re dealing with some of the most disenfranchised and marginalized parts of the population,” she said.
The plan for the new facility is to build it with the potential for future expansion to 350 beds. Ultimately, though, the hope is that expanded treatment and programming for incarcerated women will reduce the 46.7 percent recidivism rate among the state’s female prison population, and the need for more prison beds.
“It’ll be a real benefit to the female incarcerated population in the state, to provide them with the programs and treatment they need to be rehabilitated,” Lyons said. “We hope it will lead to better public safety and lower recidivism.”