Attorney Warns Of Legal Action After Opening Of New N.H. Women's Prison Delayed Again

Jul 31, 2017

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An attorney representing a group of female prisoners says he's considering reactivating a lawsuit against the state after further delays in the opening of a new women's prison in Concord.

Department of Corrections officials say they're having trouble finding people to work at the new $48 million prison. The facility will be complete by this fall, but officials say it won't open until sometime next year due to staffing issues.

New Hampshire Legal Assistance brought a class-action lawsuit in 2011, on the grounds that programs, services and training available at the Goffstown women's prison were not on par with those offered to men. That prompted lawmakers to set aside the funding needed to pay for a new prison. That suit was stayed after funding was approved in the capital budget for the prison.

Elliott Berry, managing attorney of the Manchester branch of NHLA, says he's "very concerned" about the delay, and warns it could open the state to further legal action.

“Even looking through the end of Fiscal Year 2019, there is still no guarantee that they’ll have sufficient staff to have a prison that can be in parity with the men’s prison.”

Berry says filling the jobs will happen, with time; his larger concern is the state legislature funded 55 of the 75 additional positions prison officials said they need to run the prison.

He wants state lawmakers to fund the additional positions through a supplemental appropriation.

“So that the facility can be staffed and open in a reasonable period of time,” Berry said. “If that doesn’t happen, again, we have a very serious decision to make about whether we will reactivate the lawsuit.”

You can read Berry's entire interview with Morning Edition below:

This project has already seen its share of delays, but with the opening now being pushed back a year, how concerned are you about where this project is headed?

I’m very concerned. And the issue for me is not the difficulty the department is having filling the slots that have been funded because that’s going to be taken care of in a reasonable period of time. The bigger problem is that the department told the legislature that they needed I believe it was 75 additional positions to adequately run the facility and provide the programs and services that were required, but only 55 were actually funded. Even looking through the end of Fiscal Year 2019, there is still no guarantee that they’ll have sufficient staff to have a prison that can be in parity with the men’s prison.

Where is that disparity coming from with these numbers?

Quite frankly, this is a problem between the department and the legislature. I believe the department’s representation that they need all of those positions to provide a prison with adequate security and adequate programs and services. The legislature appears not to believe that, or thinks this is something that can continue indefinitely.

Is it possible there could be further legal action?

Yes.

If so, what would be the circumstances?

There is an action pending right now in Merrimack County Superior Court that was stayed by agreement of the parties once the capital budget provided the money to actually build the new prison. Quite frankly, we didn’t anticipate a situation in which the state would provide the funds to build the structure and then not provide enough money to adequately staff it. One option would be to reactivate that suit and that’s something we’re seriously considering.

How closely are you monitoring the Department of Corrections hiring efforts?

Well again, the issue for us isn’t their hiring efforts. We’ve been in discussions with the department and it seems like they’re doing everything they can. A lot of this has to do with wage levels and low unemployment rate, a lot of larger economic forces that they don’t have much control over. The concerning problem for us is that there simply aren’t enough funded positions so that even if they fill the vacant ones, there’s still not going to be an adequate number to provide the necessary programs, services, and security that the new prison requires.

Can you speak to what the current conditions are for women prisoners in Goffstown?

The major issues that we raised were the severe lack of programs for vocational training and the lack of industries programs where women actually engage in jobs that are anywhere near comparable to what the men have and, more importantly, are adequate to help train them for jobs once they get out. There has been no meaningful change in that because of the limitations of the building.

So you do feel that once this facility is built and fully staffed, it would be on parity with the men’s?

We’re certainly hopeful. Obviously you never know until it’s up and running, but it certainly has that potential and we’re optimistic that would be the result.

What are the next steps, as you see it?

I hope there are serious discussions between the department, hopefully the governor’s office, and the legislative leaders to see if there is a way to get a supplemental appropriation so that the facility can be staffed and can open in a reasonable period of time. If that doesn’t happen, again, we have a very serious decision to make about whether we will reactivate the lawsuit.