Editorial: Staff the new women’s prison, pay fair wages

  • Construction of the new women's prison continues behind the men’s correctional complex on North State Street in Concord on Friday, March 17, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Exactly 30 years ago, shocked at the disparity between the state’s treatment of male and female prison inmates, a federal judge ordered New Hampshire to provide women inmates living conditions and services on par with those afforded men. The state has yet to comply.

Though a new prison for women in Concord should be ready for occupancy this fall, lawmakers have failed to provide the funds needed to fully staff the facility, which is three times the size of the crowded, antiquated Goffstown prison. That means the new prison won’t be opened until sometime next year.

The gap between the state’s treatment of male and female inmates may have narrowed a bit, but only because inadequate funding of the Department of Corrections has forced the men’s prison to reduce training and rehabilitation programs for want of enough prison guards.

The lack of funding means corrections officers are forced to work overtime in what is by its nature a highly stressful job.

As usual, the problem is money or, rather, a reluctance to spend it on people who’ve committed crimes.

Gov. Chris Sununu, for example, proudly announced that he was sending $30 million of surplus state revenues back to cities and towns to be spent on infrastructure repair. Better roads are a worthy goal, but some of that money should be used for prison staffing. As things stand, the state is returning to communities convicts who, for want of adequate substance abuse treatment, job training and counseling, are more likely to re-offend.

It will take 75 people to fully staff the new prison, according to the corrections department, but the Legislature authorized funding for 55. Employing rather cracked logic, some lawmakers contend that the department doesn’t need money for more positions because it hasn’t been able to fill the jobs that have already been approved. There’s a reason for that. Starting pay for a corrections officer, who must first complete nine weeks of training at the police academy plus a month of further training in the field, is $34,000. That’s to work in a city where, using the standard 30 percent of income for housing costs, it takes an income of $37,400 to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

Miserly pay compounds the staffing problem. Training corrections officers at taxpayer expense is costly. That money is lost when guards leave as soon as they can get a better-paying job, as many do. It’s costly in other ways as well.

Nationally, more than half of all female inmates have children. Failing to do as much as possible to rehabilitate incarcerated mothers fails their children as well. It helps to make problems of drug addiction, crime and educational failure generational. We all pay for that.

The lawsuit that led to the construction of the new women’s prison has been on hold because the state was taking action to eliminate the inequity. Reinstating the suit, like training guards who soon quit, would waste even more money.

Female inmates deserve equal treatment. It’s high time they got it. The governor and Legislature should fully staff the new prison and pay its employees fairly.