Hanks confirmed as N.H. corrections commissioner

Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The Executive Council unanimously confirmed Helen Hanks as New Hampshire’s new corrections commissioner Wednesday morning.

Hanks will succeed William Wrenn, who is set to step down Thursday after leading the Department of Corrections for 12 years.

The five-member council backed Gov. Chris Sununu’s appointment of Hanks the day after a three-hour public hearing at the State House. Staff retention and recruitment, excessive overtime and delays in opening the new women’s prison in Concord were among concerns raised during that hearing, and they resurfaced in the Executive Council chambers Wednesday prior to the confirmation vote.

Councilor Chris Pappas, a Manchester Democrat, said he supports the appointment of Hanks as commissioner but said staff recruitment and retention have been ongoing issues that Hanks needs to prioritize this term.

“I hope she continues to be very aggressive on that front,” he said.

Pappas also noted that “the pay scale has been a real barrier for us,” and offered his support for raising it to make the Granite State more competitive.

New Hampshire corrections officers’ starting salaries begin at $34,424, with the addition of $1,300 in hazardous duty pay. Comparatively, a new officer at the Concord Police Department, who is uncertified and has no prior experience, makes $48,609. The pay discrepancy is ever greater when compared with corrections officers working at New Hampshire’s federal prison in Berlin and in Massachusetts facilities, according to public records.

However, dozens of corrections officers earn more than $100,000 a year by working overtime shifts, payroll records show.

Hanks, of Lochmere, told the Monitor in late October that the corrections department plans to work with a marketing and advertising firm to assist in the search for qualified applicants. As commissioner, she said, she would seek the Executive Council’s approval this month to contract with an unidentified firm.

Despite the challenges ahead, Councilor Joseph Kenney, a Union Republican, said Wednesday he is confident Hanks is the right person for the job. He cited her years of service to the state, including as assistant commissioner and as director of medical and psychiatric services for the corrections department.

“Being the commissioner of corrections is probably one of the toughest jobs in state government,” Kenney said, adding that Hanks has the experience and leadership skills to be successful.

The powers and duties of the commissioner are established by state law. The commissioner, who reports to the governor, oversees a $251 million two-year budget, as well as day-to-day operations at the state’s three prisons, probation offices and transitional housing units.

While other women have previously served in the role of acting commissioner, Hanks will be the first female to hold the full title. Her term, which begins Friday, is for four years.

Hanks’s predecessor, William Wrenn, announced his resignation in August. Wrenn retired as police chief in Hampton in 2005 and has collected a pension and a salary ever since. Over the past 12 years, Wrenn made more than $2.5 million from his two sources of income.

Unlike Wrenn, Hanks will not be collecting a pension and a salary at the same time. She’s eligible to retire and collect a pension at age 60.

Last year, Wrenn made $224,597 from his pension and salary. Hanks earned $119,225 in 2016, according to state records.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)