New Concord prison seeks ‘hope’ and ‘dignity’ for incarcerated women

  • Christopher Keating (right), a member of the Citizens Advisory Board of the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women, looks over the new general population area as Capt. Nikki Plante (center) talks with U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan during the tour of the new prison facility for women in Concord on Monday, March 26, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The entrance of the new women’s prison in Concord on North State Street. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Monday, March 26, 2018, and the women will be moving over in the coming months. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Participants in the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women in Concord walking tour look around the maximum-security area of the prison Monday, March 26, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Capt. Nikki Plante of the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women staff shows the general population area of the prison on the tour of the facility on Monday, March 26, 2018 in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Christopher Keating of the NH Correctional Facility for Women Citizen Advisory Board and Capt. Nikki Plante of the prison staff talk during the tour of the facility on Monday, March 26, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/26/2018 3:12:56 PM

With construction of the new women’s prison complete, inmates and staff will soon begin the transition from the aging Goffstown building to a state-of-the-art correctional facility in Concord.

The move will occur over the next few months and conclude before July 1, New Hampshire Department of Corrections Commissioner Helen Hanks said during a tour of the new prison Monday.

Hanks outlined several programs to be prioritized in the new facility, including culinary arts; gardening; physical fitness; hobby craft; and technical vocations such as learning braille, graphic design and screen printing. Traditional classroom space is also available for inmates earning high school diplomas.

Through their participation and successful completion of these programs, women will gain important skills and, in some cases, career certifications that they can then use upon their release, officials said.

“Women are capable of doing the same things as men, and we need to create that equity here,” Hanks told the Monitor at the start of the tour.

For the first time, women will also have access to 24/7 health care services on site. The Goffstown prison does not have an infirmary, and therefore women are taken to the Concord men’s prison for care.

On Monday, Hanks was joined by Gov. Chris Sununu, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald, Executive Council members, state legislators, corrections wardens and staff, and others instrumental to the project’s completion.

“It’s been a long but rewarding journey,” Hanks told the dozens of people gathered in the prison’s gymnasium. “Many of us wondered when would this day come, and it’s here.”

The transition from Goffstown to Concord has been a yearslong process that had been expected to wrap up last fall but was met by wide-ranging delays, including ballooning costs and, more recently, a departmentwide staffing shortage.

The 101,000-square-foot women’s prison in Concord is triple the size of the existing Goffstown building, which the state has leased from Hillsborough County for decades. The latest $2.5 million annual contract expires June 30 and will not be renewed.

Constructed just beyond the men’s prison on North State Street in Concord, the new facility has beds – mainly in two-person cells – for more than 200 women. The current site in Goffstown houses nearly 140 prisoners in several large rooms. The new space not only accommodates more women but provides them with enhanced services and educational opportunities.

The new facility also provides women with a formal place to worship. The nondenominational chapel also hosts daily programs for those who want to practice with other members of the same faith.

State leaders who spoke prior to the late-morning tours highlighted the importance of a modern facility for women, many of whom will one day return to the local community.

In his keynote address, Gov. Sununu said the challenge isn’t in building a prison, but rather in designing and staffing it. He explained that the goal of a modern facility isn’t just about reducing crime, but reducing recidivism – and that means ensuring that women have the resources and support they need to succeed once they’re beyond the prison’s walls.

“We wanted to really design and build something that was going to give these individuals a new opportunity, that was going to give them hope, that was going to give them dignity,” he said. “It’s about the outcomes, not the institution.”

A new facility for women is long overdue. Female inmates were promised a permanent prison in the late 1980s after a group of them sued the state and won. The lawsuit was filed after concerns arose about inadequate conditions in out-of-state prisons, and about women being so far from their families. Per a federal court order, New Hampshire opened the Goffstown prison, allowing for many women who had been incarcerated outside the state to return.

A new class-action lawsuit was filed in 2012, alleging the state failed to fulfill its obligation to provide female prisoners with equal housing and services available to men. The lawsuit was shelved two years later after legislators authorized construction of the new facility.

Today, staffing the state’s three prisons with enough officers remains the Corrections Department’s greatest challenge. Officials recently launched a new marketing campaign in an effort to recruit officer candidates.

Hanks said Monday the campaign seeks to dispel societal myths – often perpetuated by television and film – about what it’s like to be a corrections officers.

“If you’re going to make a difference in our community in New Hampshire, change the life of someone who is incarcerated,” she said, adding that corrections officers are key to sending “people home healthier” and making “our communities stronger.”

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

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