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Officials at odds over impact of new Concord women’s prison

Two months before ground is officially broken on a new $38 million women’s prison, state and Concord officials appear at odds over just how much the 225-bed facility will affect the city – notably its social services.

Speaking at a meeting of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce on Friday, Assistant Commissioner William McGonagle of the corrections department told a small crowd including Mayor Jim Bouley that the city should not see a dramatic spike in its former-inmate population.

Where an offender goes post-release is influenced less by the location of a prison than by that of a halfway house, and Concord already houses the state’s only female transitional unit, McGonagle said. Women there develop community ties by working locally and meeting area volunteers.

McGonagle noted that women in Goffstown, where the women’s prison is now located, don’t typically stay there once they are paroled.

“They don’t stay in Goffstown, and I don’t believe they will stay here,” McGonagle said. For context, he noted that as of last month there were 70 women on parole through the Concord parole office, and 39 of those lived in the city.

But at the meeting, Bouley dismissed the comparison, saying Concord is larger and offers more low-income services – such as a food pantry and substance abuse and mental health treatment – than Goffstown.

“Everything I’ve heard from the social service community is these women will stay in the community,” Bouley said.

Inmates who are released also have a tendency to commit new crimes within three years – the state’s recidivism rate today is about 42 percent for female offenders alone.

Building the new prison “is absolutely the right thing to do,” Bouley said. But he said the city’s human services budget continues to creep up, and “a lot of it has to do with folks coming out of your facilities and the impact they have here.”

The state operates a men’s prison and two male transitional units, in addition to the women’s halfway house. The new prison will be built behind the men’s facility on North State Street. It is expected to house up to 225 women, with the potential to one day expand to 350. The Goffstown prison houses about 125 women.

McGonagle has said the added beds could be used to house inmates who are presently out of state or at the halfway house because of overcrowding at Goffstown. It could also be used to take in out-of-state offenders.

The department has yet to say how large a staff it plans to employ at the new facility; that will depend on how much money legislators assign it during next year’s budget negotiations.

McGonagle acknowledged that many of the men stay in Concord, but he said that is partly due to the same halfway house influence and partly due to subtle differences between male and female offenders. Female offenders tend to have strong family and other personal connections, he said.

So when asked by Bouley how the city should prepare for the prison, set to open in fall 2016, he replied, “It’s not an easy question to answer, Jim. I don’t know what to say in terms of how to plan. I just don’t see (the women’s prison) as increasing your demands in any kind of substantial way.”

Bouley stressed after the meeting that his office and the corrections department have been working well together. Going forward, he said, the city’s job will be to closely monitor what, if any, strain the new facility places on local providers – and if it does, to then seek out more money from the state.

“There’s going to be a learning curve,” Bouley said. “And hopefully (the state) will really fund those services to get the people back out into the community in a healthy way.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

Correction: An earlier version misstated the number of female parolees as of last month. There were 70 parolees supervised through the Concord field office, not in the entire state. There are actually nearly 270 female parolees in the state, according to corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons. Also, to clarify, McGonagle did not say during Friday’s meeting that the new facility could be used to house out-of-state offenders. But that has not been ruled out as a possibility, Lyons said.

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