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Editorial: A new women’s prison in Concord

Building a new state prison for women in Concord on the grounds of the existing men’s prison makes perfect sense. Doing so will allow the Department of Corrections to share resources between the two institutions, minimize the need to duplicate services, save taxpayers money and presumably end litigation over conditions and lack of programming at the crowded and antiquated women’s prison in Goffstown.

The House Public Works and Highways Committee gave its support to a $38 million plan for a new, 240-bed prison last week. The full House, Senate and governor should do so as well – that is, as long as the preferred site for the prison continues to be uphill of the current prison and not on land near the Merrimack River. Concord has made some drastic mistakes in its relationship with the river. Siting a major landfill on its banks, failing to persuade the feds not to cut the city off from its river with Interstate 93, and permitting the backside of a strip mall on the riverbank at one of its most visible locations. Locating a prison where it could prevent the creation of a greenway along an undeveloped stretch of the Merrimack would be another such mistake.

We also hope the Legislature sees the construction of a new women’s facility not as the end to its prison problems but as the beginning of a newer, smarter approach to corrections that turns around more lives, reduces recidivism and saves taxpayers money. Lawmakers should also do far more to recognize that two of the state’s cities, Manchester (where there is a halfway house and affordable housing) and Concord, bear the cost of absorbing released inmates into their communities and need far more in the way of state resources to do so successfully.

The state released 1,552 inmates in fiscal year 2012, 1,360 men and 192 women. The vast majority were paroled and thus under some degree of supervision, but 79 “maxed out” and were on their own. Many of those inmates had a mental illness, substance abuse problem or both. Some were poorly educated; others were sex offenders who were extremely difficult to house or employ. Despite plans that require parolees to have someplace to live upon release, some become homeless and some turn to the city welfare office for help.

The state stopped giving released inmates “exit money” years ago. They leave prison in donated clothes with the savings they’ve manage to accumulate on prison pay. They are given leads for potential employment, but the state has no one charged with recruiting employers willing to hire convicts and no employment service for inmates reentering society. It’s not uncommon for a released inmate to be jobless, broke and without a place to stay. That, along with a shortage of openings in substance-abuse treatment programs, counseling and other services, contributes to a 42 percent recidivism rate. Nearly half of all released inmates find themselves behind bars again.

It costs, on average, $33,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate, making it far cheaper to provide parolees with the services they need to make it on the outside. Funding for those services is chronically inadequate. That shortfall adds to the burdens faced by Concord, which has a major prison and three halfway houses. Measures to address inmate issues begin in the 20-member House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Four of the members of that committee are from Manchester, but not one representative is from Concord. Many members of Concord’s legislative delegation are in leadership positions, so the city’s concerns are being heard. But since more released inmates settle in Concord than anywhere else, the city should always have at least one representative on the criminal justice committee.

Concord should welcome the building of a women’s prison here, but the city needs a much greater effort on the part of state government to ensure that released inmates do not become a burden on local taxpayers.

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