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Editorial: New prison, new dignity, new hope

  • The entrance of the new Concord Women’s Prison that is above the State Prison on North State Street in Concord. The ribbon cutting ceremony was held on Monday, March 26, 2018 and the women will be moving over in the coming months. GEOFF FORESTER


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

It will have taken two decades, multiple findings of fault, including one by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and several lawsuits for the state to provide equal treatment to female prison inmates, but now it’s about to happen.

Monday marked the ribbon cutting for the new state prison for women, which was built just up Rattlesnake Hill from the men’s prison in Concord. The 140 or so inmates who have been living in Goffstown, in brick buildings erected in 1894 to house the county’s poor, are slated to move to the new prison next month.

Parity for the state’s female inmates should not have taken so long to achieve. Blame lies not with the state’s Department of Corrections, which has long advocated for a new facility, but with New Hampshire’s famously cheap Legislature. In fact equal rights might still be playing second fiddle to lawmakers’ reluctance to raise and spend revenue were it not for the efforts of Alan Linder and Elliott Berry, two legal assistance lawyers who’ve devoted much of their careers to the pursuit of fair treatment for inmates.

Their success, and that of the female inmates they represented, means equal opportunities for the treatment, counseling, activities and education that can change their lives for the better.

Both men were present at the ribbon cutting. Their doggedness will translate into fewer repeat offenders, which means savings for taxpayers. A year in state prison costs $35,000 and much more if the inmate needs significant medical care.

In 2010, the federal civil rights commission, in a damning report, found that New Hampshire was one of the only states where the female recidivism rate exceeded that of male inmates. The reason: inadequate conditions at the cramped and aged Goffstown facility, limited educational opportunities and, most of all, difficulty receiving adequate substance abuse and mental health treatment.

The new prison, capable of housing more than 200 inmates, is three times the size of the old one. It will, for the first time, provide on-site medical treatment for women, have a gym for exercise and activities, classrooms and art work courtesy of the state’s Percent for Art program.

It will be interesting to see how, compared to being housed in a moldering old former poor farm, the new facility affects the aspirations, behavior, rehabilitation and recidivism rate of its occupants.

Gov. Chris Sununu got it exactly right when at the ceremony, he said: “We wanted to really design and build something that was going to give these individuals a new opportunity, that was going to give them hope, that was going to give them dignity. It’s about the outcomes, not the institution.”

A decade ago, New Hampshire’s prisons had a recidivism rate that often topped 50 percent. In 2008, half of all released inmates were back behind bars less than seven months after their release. Such statistics reflect a failure to invest in outcomes. The recidivism rate has been declining, but it’s still in the low 40s.

The new women’s prison should be celebrated as one more step toward providing inmates with the help they need to succeed in life and stay on the right side of the law.