N.H. corrections commissioner to leave top post in November

  • Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn will resign effective Nov. 9, 2017, after serving 12 years in the position. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn will leave the department’s top post this November after 12 years.

Wrenn, who was appointed to the position in 2005, submitted his letter of resignation to Gov. Chris Sununu in the past week. The news was shared Wednesday morning with the Executive Council, whose members will vote on a new commissioner in the months ahead.

Wrenn is leaving a department that faces several unresolved challenges, including the delayed opening of the new women’s prison due to staffing shortages and an impasse in contract negotiations between the state and a union representing corrections officers.

Today’s challenges mirror some of those faced by Wrenn more than a decade ago when officials recognized the Goffstown women’s prison was inadequate and union relations with the administration were fragile. At that time, executive councilors were looking to stabilize a department that had seen significant turnover in leadership, with several preceding commissioners serving just one term.

Wrenn became commissioner at age 54 after he had retired following 31 years at the Hampton Police Department, where he climbed the ranks to chief.

“When I accepted this appointment, I made a commitment to do my best to set a proper direction for the Agency and to help to instill a sense of pride in the work we do,” Wrenn wrote in his resignation letter. “I believe our work record reflects that we have raised the bar by always demanding that we strive for excellence. It is now time for me to pass on the baton to the next person to continue building upon all that we have accomplished.”

The powers and duties of the commissioner are established by state law. The commissioner, who reports to the governor, oversees a $251 million two-year budget; and day-to-day operations at the state’s three prisons, probation offices and transitional housing units.

Through corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons, Wrenn declined an interview request Wednesday with the Monitor. He has not said publicly why he is leaving or what his plans are after November.

Wrenn last sat down with the Monitor this spring to discuss changes to the visitation policy at the state’s three prisons in Berlin, Concord and Goffstown, as well as the ongoing challenges of curtailing inmate drug use. Wrenn said a stricter visitation policy was necessary in the wake of four overdoses – one of which was fatal – in the state’s correctional system during one January weekend.

Inmates have since noted that the four overdoses did not occur in general population, which serves to lose the most from the tighter visiting restrictions. The administration, however, has declined to discuss the details, other than to say the fatal overdose at a halfway house in Manchester involved fentanyl.

While the lucrative drug flow is one challenge facing the prison system, inmates who previously spoke to the Monitor said there are underlying issues that need to be addressed hand-in-hand. Those include limited drug treatment services, years of budget cuts that have required the department to do more with less, and too few corrections officers mandated to work overtime shifts.

As a result, department overtime spending has skyrocketed in recent years, from $3.3 million in 2009 to $9.1 million in 2015.

The struggle to employ corrections officers reached a new height this year when the department announced it would have to delay the opening of the women’s prison in Concord, in part, because its recruitment strategies had failed. Construction is expected to conclude this November, but the building likely won’t open until spring 2018.

The department requested funding for 75 new positions – including guards, nurses, teachers and other staffers – to be hired over the course of the next two years. The Legislature eliminated one position and left 19 of the 74 positions unfunded. That means the department can hire a total of only 55 new positions in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Wrenn, who is in his third four-year term with the Department of Corrections, earned $125,554 in salary in 2016, and $99,042 in pension from the New Hampshire Retirement System, according to public records.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)