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Editorial: Making a difference in the lives of female inmates

With little fanfare, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan and the 2013 Legislature summoned the will to do what three decades of past governors and legislators could not: commit to building a modern, efficient prison for women where inmates have the same services and opportunities available to men. Had lawmakers not acted, no doubt a judge would have forced their hand. But the achievement is nonetheless critically important – not only for incarcerated women and their families but also for public safety.

The prison will cost $38 million and will likely be built in Concord behind the men’s prison on North State Street. The goal is to open it in late 2016. In the meantime, legislators and corrections officials should think hard about how best to use (and staff) the new building. After decades of inadequate space, education, job-training and mental health services, the state has an opportunity to create an institution that truly gives female offenders the best possible chance to restart their lives and succeed on the outside. What will it take? For starters:

∎ Serious job skills training. Preparing ex-cons for a life flipping burgers is not a winning strategy. The new prison must include enough space and expert staff to give women a decent shot at sustainable jobs when they get out. At the men’s prison, inmates can study information technology, culinary arts, automotive repair, print making and more. Some of the training includes sophisticated computer work. Some of it allows them to do real work for real clients and earn a little money for their effort. Some of it exposes inmates to the workings of a real business. The state need not offer precisely the same programs to women – but it must make a comparable range of good options available.

∎ Serious education programming. Some inmates arrive with extremely remedial reading and math skills. Some have no idea what it takes to write a resume, land a job, function in a workplace. At the other end of the spectrum, some are hungry for post-secondary education. The men’s prison offers an opportunity to earn college credits (which they pay for). Similar programs should be provided for the women.

∎ Adequate mental health and substance abuse treatment. Both problems are at the root of many of the crimes that land people in prison. More often than men, female inmates have been not only perpetrator but also victim – often of domestic or sexual abuse or trauma. If the state is sincere in its desire to rehabilitate inmates and cut the especially high rate of recidivism among women, these two programs (and programs for inmates with simultaneous mental illness and addiction problems) are critical.

Today, female inmates considered a danger to themselves or others are placed in the secure psychiatric unit in Concord. But those with serious mental illness who don’t meet that level of risk do not have adequate access to intermediate care. Such a unit is, finally, in the works at the current women’s prison in Goffstown. It is a must for the new facility.

∎ A real minimum-security unit for women. Today, minimum-security inmates live at the Shea Farm halfway house in Concord, along with those who are transitioning back into the outside world. They are, however, two different populations; the new prison, like the men’s, should include a true, separate minimum-security unit with its own programming.

Back in 1983, when the first lawsuit was filed to force the state to create a prison for women, there were just 23 female inmates. Today, there are close to 160. That’s an enormous increase, but the overall numbers are still small. The challenge of creating an efficient, forward-looking, rehabilitative prison for women should not be an overwhelming problem. So far, the lawyers who sued the state on behalf of the female inmates are encouraged by the work under way at the Department of Corrections.

Approving the construction of a new prison was a big first step. Sufficient staffing and programming to make it succeed will be the Legislature’s next critical challenge.

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