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Federal prison in Berlin ramping up hires, inmates

FILE- In this Tuesday Jan. 13, 2009 file photo construction workers piece together the new Federal Prison in Berlin, N.H. More than a year after it opened, the new federal prison has pumped some life back into the city's depressed economy. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

FILE- In this Tuesday Jan. 13, 2009 file photo construction workers piece together the new Federal Prison in Berlin, N.H. More than a year after it opened, the new federal prison has pumped some life back into the city's depressed economy. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

A year after it started taking inmates, the federal prison in Berlin is about three-quarters staffed, and regional business and labor officials say many of the jobs are going to locals.

As of this week, 263 people were working at the prison out of a total of 343 expected when it is fully staffed, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. There are now 499 inmates at the medium-security prison that has capacity for 1,152. An additional 94 inmates are at a minimum-security camp that can hold up to 128.

Mark Belanger, manager of Berlin’s New Hampshire Employment Security office, said grumbling about the federally mandated maximum hiring age of 37 hasn’t appeared to be the deterrent people feared.

“We’re thrilled to death with the amount of local hires that have been made,” he said. “It’s been beyond my expectations.”

Officials hoped the prison, with its anticipated annual payroll of about $20 million and another $20 million in spinoff benefits, would be a boost to a region hard hit by the demise of the paper industry. Half a dozen mills have shuttered over the years, and as they closed, jobs and population slipped away, too, cutting the number of residents from a high of more than 22,000 nearly a century ago to fewer than 10,000 now.

And while the unemployment rate in the area has ticked down from 10.3 percent in January to 7 percent this month, it remains higher than the state average of 5.1 percent.

Some of the new jobs are being filled by federal prison veterans who came here to help launch the new facility. Belanger said there will likely be “back-end” hiring of local workers when these prison professionals move on to another posting.

“They had skilled workers transfer in from all over the country,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t looking to make this their permanent home.”

Most of the jobs pay $38,619 to $43,964, above the town’s median household income of $38,107, according to the latest census figures. That’s still below the state median household income of $64,664.

The federal Bureau of Prisons declined to make employees available for interviews.

Joanne Roy, co-owner of the Northland Restaurant and Dairy Bar and the president of the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce, has seen an uptick in her business and watched as prison employees have blended into the community.

“The economy is not that great to begin with, so the prison is only helping,” she said.

Roy said the biggest benefit may come in the next generation: Young people who want to stay will have a better chance to find work.

“I have children who would fit that criteria,” she said. “It would be nice to see them be able to stay in their hometown and make a good living.”

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