The new women’s prison is starting to take shape behind the men’s correctional complex on North State Street. But when the new building will open is anyone’s guess, according to the state corrections commissioner.
Construction on the 224-bed women’s prison is on schedule to be completed this fall. The department is unsure, however, how quickly it will be able to hire the roughly 80 officers it needs to guard the female inmates.
“We may be able to open it a month after it’s done, a couple months after it’s done, or it may take us longer,” said Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn. “It just depends on how successful we are in attracting people to apply with us, and getting them through the testing process and training.”
In the state budget, the department is requesting funding for the new positions and asking for a two-year suspension of physical fitness requirements it says disqualify dozens of job applicants. It’s unclear whether the request will be granted. The New Hampshire House is set to start voting on the budget over the coming weeks, before sending it to the Senate for further revision.
The department has struggled to hire enough officers to guard the state’s prisons in Berlin, Concord and Goffstown. In the 2016 fiscal year, more guards left the job than the department hired, leading to a net loss of 11 officers. Currently, the department has a class of 31 trainees, the largest in years, Wrenn said. In the past, most trainee groups have hovered around 10 applicants.
“If we can duplicate that, we’ll be in good shape,” Wrenn said. “If we fall back into the way it’s been ... that is going to be a problem.”
The opening of the new women’s prison has been plagued by delays. In 2015, officials revealed construction costs had run over budget and had to seek additional money. The design was then altered and the project had to be sent out to bid again.
A permanent prison was first promised in the late 1980s after a group of female inmates sued the state and won. Under a court order, the state began incarcerating female offenders in the former county jail in Goffstown. Though billed as a temporary solution, the jail has housed women ever since.
A new lawsuit came in 2012 accusing the state of failing to fulfill its pledge to provide female inmates with housing and services equal to male prisoners. That suit was stayed in 2014 when legislators authorized construction of the new facility.
Wrenn said the department will focus on hiring sufficient guards to open the prison before bringing on program staff.
“We may be able to open it up with security, but we may have to slowly bring in the additional programming,” he said.
(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)