'Let's hear about prisons, candidates'

Last modified: 7/3/2012 12:00:00 AM
Ask a candidate for governor to name the top few issues facing the state, and you'll rarely hear about the future of New Hampshire's state prisons. Voters - except perhaps those with a family member behind bars - don't often make prisons a priority, and any talk of spending money on inmates doesn't typically go over too well on the campaign trail.

Nonetheless, the significant expense of the prisons, the urgent need for modernization both in Concord and at the women's lockup in Goffstown, the state's discouraging rate of recidivism, the prospect of privatization, and an encouraging example from Vermont all make it incumbent upon the candidates to school themselves in the issue. They should make clear to voters how they would rein in costs and slow the revolving door that brings inmates in and out of prison with regularity.

A recent state report made clear how little "correcting" is actually being done by the Department of Corrections: Nearly half of the inmates in the state prison system are there on a return trip - many for reasons related to substance abuse. In other words, after serving time on an initial infraction, many inmates return to the outside world for only a short period before ending up right back in prison. Fix this issue - in part by helping inmates and ex-inmates with drug and alcohol dependency - and the cost of repeat offenders will slow.

If that sounds like fuzzy math, Vermont offers some proof that it works. That state, which once had a recidivism rate similar to New Hampshire's, started spending money on increased supervision of ex-inmates in the community, more drug and alcohol-abuse counseling and more transitional housing. The hope was that an upfront investment would save money - and improve lives - in the long term. Recently, the Council of State Governments Justice Center studied Vermont's program and reported that the recidivism rate there had dropped substantially - saving the prison system significant money and negating the need for some new construction.

If Vermont's experience is worth looking at, the candidates for governor should also think hard about how it would jibe - or clash - with a proposal to privatize the construction and perhaps management of the state's prisons.

State officials are considering several proposals from for-profit companies interested in constructing new prisons in New Hampshire and then running them for the state. Public participation in this process has so far been slim, but the implications are profound. Can a company that requires the presence of inmates in order to make money simultaneously help New Hampshire cut down on its inmate population? Can a private firm's financial incentive to keep staffing levels low coexist with improved emphasis on counseling?

All of these issues will land on the next governor's desk. Candidates would be wise to let voters know what they think before they arrive in the corner office.


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