Corrections faces suit for inequity

Last modified: 8/14/2012 12:00:00 AM

Four female inmates have filed what they hope will be a class-action lawsuit against the state corrections commissioner for the state's failure to provide female inmates the same education, training and treatment opportunities it does male inmates.

The inequality of incarceration in New Hampshire has been well-documented in at least four studies over the last 10 years. The most recent, released in October by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, concluded that the disparity in treatment raises constitutional concerns.

Male inmates, for example, can receive treatment for substance abuse. Female inmates at the Goffstown prison can get the treatment only if they also have a co-occurring mental illness, according to the lawsuit. Male inmates can study building trades, two kinds of vehicle trades, culinary arts, and computer and business education. Female inmates, meanwhile, have only two choices of study: business and computer education.

The discrepancy is a problem even prison officials have recognized.

Jeff Lyons, prison spokesman, said he could not comment on the pending lawsuit. But he noted the Department of Corrections has asked the Legislature three times in the past six years for the money to build a new women's prison. Each time, the $37 million request has been rejected, Lyons said.

And while the Legislature is considering privatizing the state's prisons and building a new prison for male and female inmates, there is no certainty that will happen. For one thing, there is a lot of opposition to the plan, including state workers and some gubernatorial candidates.

That's largely why Elliott Berry, an attorney with New Hampshire Legal Assistance, and two lawyers from the Devine Millimet law firm in Manchester filed the lawsuit now, Berry said. They are not overly optimistic the Legislature will improve incarceration for women without the force of a court order, he said.

The attorneys, who include Peter Beeson and Leigh Willey of Devine Millimet, have asked a judge to certify their filing as a class-action lawsuit to include all female inmates. Beeson and Willey are helping represent the women at no charge, Beeson said. He is on the board of New Hampshire Legal Assistance and said he has watched the Legislature cut the legal assistance budget, especially this session.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne, like Beeson, is a shareholder of Devine Millimet but was not involved in deciding whether to take the prison case, Beeson said. Lamontagne could not be reached yesterday for comment on his position on the status of the women's prison.

This is not the first lawsuit brought against the state for its treatment of female inmates.

Before 1987, female inmates were sent out of state because there was no place for them in New Hampshire. A group of female inmates sued in federal court and won. Under a court order, the state began incarcerating female offenders at the former county jail in Goffstown.

The judge said the state had to provide female inmates a building and services "on parity with those provided to male New Hampshire prisoners."

In the lawsuit filed yesterday, Berry, Beeson and Willey argue the state has not fulfilled that order. "It's far past time for the state to make a firm commitment to the creation of a facility that offers female inmates the same rehabilitative, vocational and treatment programs that are offered men," Berry said in a written statement.

In an interview yesterday, Berry said treating and training inmates continues to fall off the state's top priority list because inmates are not seen as a sympathetic group. It's easier, he said, to spend money on people who do not create their own problems.

Each of the four plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit represents a different failing of the women's prison, according to the filing.

• Janice Hutt was a licensed practical nurse before her arrest in 2007 on charges of identify theft and theft by deception. She is "extremely unlikely" to work again as a nurse given her felony conviction, the lawsuit said, and therefore needs additional training before her release.

Hutt would like to learn furniture making or study culinary arts but can't at the women's prison. She'd also like to take additional college classes at the prison like male inmates can but can't because women are offered only correspondence classes.

• Danielle Woods arrived at the women's prison in 2011 following a criminal threatening conviction. She has a history of childhood sexual abuse and ongoing emotional trauma, the lawsuit said.

As a result, Woods couldn't adjust to prison life and has been found guilty of 27 violations. In the summer of 2011, Woods spent 55 days in punitive segregation and was allowed outside only once in that time - for an hour, the lawsuit said.

Following a suicide attempt, Woods was transferred to the psychiatric hospital at the men's prison, but she stayed there longer than necessary because the women's prison does not have a safe place to keep inmates as they transition back to their cell. The men's prison does.

• Martha Thibodeau came to the women's prison in 2010 after pleading guilty to having sex with a minor boy. Thibodeau arrived with an eighth-grade education and the reading level of a first or second grader, the lawsuit said.

She was ordered by the court to enroll in sex offender treatment prior to parole but has been denied admission, the lawsuit said, because she cannot adequately read the material. Thibodeau enrolled in GED courses but has failed because of her inability to read. She's never been provided a special education teacher, but male inmates are, the lawsuit said.

• Michelle Vanagel was convicted of drug offenses in 2009 and sentenced to the women's prison. She is now housed at the Shea Farm halfway house in Concord and is working at Dunkin' Donuts.

Vanagel asked to take the culinary arts classes at the men's prison but was not admitted because it's not available to female offenders. Vanagel has also not been able to get substance abuse treatment because she does not have a co-occurring mental illness, the lawsuit said. Male inmates can get substance abuse treatment without also having a mental illness.

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)'

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