Lawmakers eye Concord for new women’s prison
A view of the State Prison for Men in Concord; September, 2011. (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)
Concord will get a second prison, this one for just women, if lawmakers stick with a capital budget adopted yesterday by the House Public Works and Highways Committee.
The 224-bed prison would go behind the men’s prison on North State Street, on 400-plus acres the state already owns. A prison that size would be big enough for the state’s nearly 190 current inmates. But the prison must be designed to allow for expansion.
Gov. Maggie Hassan included the $38 million project in her capital budget proposal last month. But it was the House committee that added the requirement that it be built adjacent to the Concord men’s prison. If that location proves unworkable, the state could return to lawmakers and request permission to use a different site. And while the committee considered naming the former prison site in Laconia as a second option, members ultimately decided not to identify an alternative site.
“We didn’t want Laconia to be a distraction,” said Rep. David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat and chairman of the House public works committee.
Reached after the committee meeting yesterday, Jeff Lyons, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, said the department prefers having the women’s prison in Concord because it would allow the department to more easily share staff and other resources. The department already uses some of the land behind the men’s prison for a firing range and training space, Lyons said.
The new women’s prison, which lawmakers have declined to approve for at least the past six years, still needs the support of the full House and state Senate. But Campbell said there’s an additional selling point this time: The state is facing what may become a class-action lawsuit for failing to provide female inmates housed in the aged Goffstown prison the same education, training and treatment options given male inmates.
The lawsuit, filed in Merrimack County Superior Court in August, has been stayed pending the Legislature’s action on a new women’s prison, Campbell said. Campbell had hoped to stretch the expense of building a new women’s prison over four years but changed his mind after considering how doing so would jeopardize a legal settlement and the construction schedule.
“We don’t want the courts running the women’s prison the way they’ve been running the men’s prison since the 1970s,” Campbell said, referring to prior lawsuits that forced the state to change the way it cared for male inmates. New Hampshire Legal Assistance brought those lawsuits and is helping represent the four female inmates who filed the pending lawsuit.
Alan Linder, a Legal Assistance attorney who represented the male inmates and is now representing the female inmates, watched the committee discussion and vote closely yesterday.
The state would not need the city’s permission to build the women’s prison behind the men’s prison because it already owns the land and is maintaining the site for a prison. But Michael Connor from the state Department of Administrative Services said the state would meet with city officials regularly if the project moves ahead.
“We would work with the engineering group for the city,” Connor said. “We would make a formal presentation at planning board. (The board’s vote) is not binding, but we would try to . . . incorporate any recommendations. We try to be good neighbors.”
If the Legislature approves the $38 million budget request for the women’s prison, construction would begin next year. The state can begin the design work immediately, however.
City officials have voiced concerns in the past about male inmates from outside the city settling in Concord after being released from the prison and relying on city welfare services to survive.
Concord Mayor Jim Bouley said yesterday the city will work with the state if the women’s prison is approved. He did have a request, though.
“I hope (the corrections officials) provide the necessary supports to folks in their facility so that when they leave they are given a chance to go back to their community to continue with their lives,” he said.
Bouley also said he’d have “serious concerns” if the state instead proposed building the prison across North State Street, on state-owned land nearer the Merrimack River. “The community has been clear that access to the river is very important and I would hope we wouldn’t do anything to inhibit that.”
The committee’s vote yesterday came as state officials prepare to release an overdue report evaluating the pros and cons of privatizing the state’s prisons. The state solicited bids last year from private prison companies to build and/or run new prisons for men and women at the direction of the last Legislature and former governor John Lynch.
Support for privatization has since declined, however; Hassan has said she opposes giving the care of inmates over to a private company. And the House last week passed a bill prohibiting the state from letting a private company run prisons.
The bill, which is headed to the Senate, would still allow the state to run a women’s prison owned by a private company, but that option seems unlikely. None of the four companies that submitted bids put forth a proposal for just a women’s prison, said Lyons.
The private companies proposed instead building a larger prison that would house both men and women, Lyons said. It was unclear yesterday how the committee’s vote will affect the privatization conversation.
Two of the four private companies have lobbyists in the state, but those lobbyists did not return calls yesterday.
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323,
firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)