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Hassan: It’s time to build a new women’s prison

A few sentences in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s budget address yesterday may be the state’s best defense yet against a lawsuit that accuses it of mistreating female inmates. Hassan included $38 million in her capital budget for a new women’s prison.

“For too long our corrections system has woefully neglected women,” Hassan said to applause from many lawmakers in Representatives Hall. She continued, “It is time. We cannot delay this any longer.”

And while state officials are considering privatizing the state’s prisons, including a new one for male and female inmates, Hassan’s staff said she envisions the new prison remaining in the state’s control.

Corrections officials have asked for the money for a new prison three times in the last six years, without success. In August, four female inmates filed what they hope will be a class-action lawsuit against the state corrections commissioner for the state’s failure to provide female inmates the same education, training and treatment opportunities it does male inmates.

The lawsuit is pending in Merrimack County Superior Court.

The inequality of incarceration in New Hampshire has been well-documented in at least four studies over the last 10 years. The most recent, released in October by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, concluded that the disparity in treatment raises constitutional concerns.

JerriAnne Boggis of that group issued a statement yesterday after Hassan’s budget address.

“We applaud the governor’s bold leadership and encourage the Legislature to begin to address this decades-old inexcusable neglect,” she said. “We will continue to monitor the developments to ensure that the women of Goffstown get equal treatment.”

Hassan’s inclusion of a women’s prison in her budget was welcome news yesterday to Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn and attorney Elliott Berry of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which brought the lawsuit against the state.

“It’s great news for the women who will be able to ultimately have greater rehabilitation opportunities,” Berry said. “It’s great for their families. And it’s really gratifying that after only one month (on the job) the governor has committed to undertaking a constitutional obligation that the state has been unable to take on for 20 years.”

The prison was the largest expense in Hassan’s capital budget. But it remains to be seen if lawmakers will keep it in there or move as quickly as Hassan hopes.

Rep. David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat and chairman of the House committee that will likely take up the capital budget first, said he favors a new prison but isn’t sure the state can afford to do it in one year.

“We have to build a women’s prison,” Campbell said after Hassan’s budget address. “I hopefully think there’s a way to fund that over two bienniums. (That two-year approach is) certainly something that’s going to be considered, simply because of the impact it has on a very skinny capital budget.”

Sen. David Boutin, a Hooksett Republican, is chairman of the Senate Capital Budget Committee, which will take up those budget request after the House. “I haven’t counted noses, but I suspect that people recognize that we need to do something,” he said yesterday. Boutin said he’d like to resolve the lawsuit before the court does.

“We are better off as a state to fix the problem rather than to allow the court and the attorneys to determine public policy,” he said. “I’ve been to that women’s prison several times, and it’s just a disgrace and it needs to be replaced.”

Reached after Hassan’s address yesterday, Wrenn said, “I think the governor recognizes, as we’ve said all along, that this is the right thing to do. It’s time that the state took care of this issue once and for all. We recognize that we can’t do things with our women inmates that we can do with our men inmates because of problems with the (women’s) facility.”

Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican who serves on the House Finance Committee, said yesterday he believes there is more support now for a new women’s prison than there has been before.

“When a major decision has to be made by a family or by the state, it takes a long time to get the information needed to be comfortable with making a decision,” he said. “It’s gotten to the point where we’ve accepted the need, and for me, I think it’s time to build a new women’s prison.”

What wasn’t clear yesterday is how lawmakers will weigh this request with the state’s pending decision on privatizing the state’s prison. State officials are reviewing bids from four private prison companies as well as keeping the prisons in state control.

They had expected to release their analysis and recommendation weeks ago; Wrenn said yesterday he does not know when that report will be out. He said he’s viewing Hassan’s budget request and the privatization debate separately.

“I think what the governor is doing is placing a priority on this issue and saying it needs to be addressed,” he said.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins. Ben Leubsdorf contributed to this story.)

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