The inmates’ relatively scenic view of a tree-lined hill just behind the men’s state prison in Concord won’t be there much longer.
Brush is already being cleared out, the first step in transforming the hill into the site of a new women’s prison that will replace the current Goffstown facility, a cramped and crumbling former Hillsborough County Jail building that was meant to house female inmates temporarily but has held them for the last 24 years.
Over the years, the state had rejected multiple requests by the Department of Corrections for funding a new facility, even though evidence (including, for example, that recidivism rates for women released from prison have increased faster than the increase in recidivism rates experienced by men, according to DOC recidivism studies) has suggested that the lack of resources for programming was raising the state’s annual price tag for corrections.
But in 2012, the DOC received $38 million to build the new prison after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of four female prisoners who claimed New Hampshire wasn’t meeting requirements to provide parity between the men’s and women’s prisons.
“There are so many ways that that [Goffstown] facility is inadequate that it’s not useful to try to compare that with anything we would want to do [to build the new facility],” said Bill McGonagle, assistant commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.
The location behind the men’s prison has its pros (for example, much of the infrastructure, like sewers, storm water, gas lines and electricity, is already in place, and synergies with the men’s prison operations are possible) and cons (the proximity to the men’s prison could potentially cause “problems”). As former inmate Becky McGuire put it, “I saw how goofy the women got when some of the men’s prison came over. It was so silly and ridiculous. ... Maybe financially it makes sense, but there is going to [be] a whole nother bag of issues. It’s nature.”
McGonagle said this problem of men and women interacting with or even seeing each other could be avoided with good design.
Designing for women
Fulfilling the legal requirement of parity with the men’s prison is necessary, but not the most important goal, said McGonagle. The department wants to create a gender-specific environment that’s sensitive to women’s needs.
“It’s intended to be what the architects call a ‘normative environment,’” McGonagle said. “While prison is always an abnormal environment, we’re trying to make it bring more normal types of activity to women who are housed here.”
Like the men’s prison, the new women’s prison will avoid a monolithic design that features a single building and provides no opportunity for inmates to go outside, which is the case at the Goffstown facility. Officials are designing a “village” plan with three housing units and a courtyard that women will travel through to get to another building that will house the visiting room and recreational, medical, educational and dining facilities.
McGonagle said that if you ignore the razor wire and the fence, the facilities will look more like a college campus. The men’s prison is set up this way too, except without a communal courtyard. For the women, the courtyard will function as a place to mingle and build community — something that’s not emphasized as much in a men’s prison, McGonagle said.
“Women respond best when there is an opportunity to develop a sense of community. So it’s a place where inmates come together during good weather to gather, to renew friendships,” he said.
In some ways, the architectural ability to create a new structure could mean the development of a superior facility to the men’s.
The women’s prison will be built to capture as much sunlight as possible, with large windows throughout. The culinary arts facility and family connections center will feature some amenities not available in the men’s prison. A hospice care unit, which the men’s site doesn’t have, will be built for inmates who need daily medical aid, or are pregnant and nearing childbirth.
In fact, one of the biggest investments will be the new medical facilities — a whole wing dedicated to health. Like the men’s prison, it will include outpatient, dental, mental health, and inpatient care, as well as a pharmacy and on-site medical records. At the Goffstown facility, only extremely basic medical service is offered, and if the women need a higher level of care, they’re transported to the men’s prison or the hospital.
“If anyone needed [anything] other than a Band-Aid, they had to be sent out,” McGuire said.
To control design quality, attorneys at New Hampshire Legal Assistance who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have been kept in the loop. They’ve been able to comment on the process so far, said Elliot Berry, an attorney who represented the plaintiffs.
“They’ve got a series of difficult decisions to make,” he said. “I wouldn’t make them all the same way, but I am appreciative of being included. That $35 million hard limit of what they can spend is another barrier.”
Berry wouldn’t comment on the elements of design he wishes they did differently, but he said, “We have the right to go back to court any time we want, and if I thought we were stuck with a blatantly inadequate footprint and design I would do that. But it’s not anywhere clear enough. Hopefully my concerns would be overwrought.”
Getting with the program
At the end of the day, the operating budget is more important than the facilities budget, Berry said. The chronic issue of parity isn’t the building but the level of services and programing for female inmates.
Because of infrastructure inadequacies at the Goffstown prison, resources like mental health treatment, vocational education and industries programs have been severely deficient. Year after year, decisions were made to avoid replacing the facility for the women, McGonagle said. Resources were allocated elsewhere, like to a new men’s prison in Berlin.
McGuire, who spent three years at the Goffstown women’s prison on embezzlement charges from 2009 to 2012 and now advocates for prison reform, agrees with Berry. A new building is nice, but without industries programs in place, women cannot learn the skills or become mentally prepared for reintegration into the world outside prison walls, she said.
“[In the current building] you could make things, like crochet or knit or sew, and they used to have a store where you could send things to and get a percentage … but a lot of women don’t do that kind of stuff. The men on the other hand, they could make furniture, or people would commission them to make furniture, versus someone making a quilt for a baby and getting 40 bucks,” she said.
The goal is to offer the same amount of career and technical opportunities that the men have available (there are currently about 300 of these types of jobs at the men’s prison), but not necessarily the same ones. Some skills that will likely be useful to men when they leave might not be useful to women, and vice versa, said public information officer Jeff Lyons. They will both have a culinary arts program, but the women won’t likely have a license plate shop or a wood shop. Other industries, like furniture refurbishing (which the men have now) could potentially be offered in both prisons. The DOC is still looking into what types of programs might best suit women.
Men and women should be able to advance toward a high school degree at the same pace, Mcgonagle said. Historically, men have been able to advance through the educational system more quickly because in Goffstown there was not enough classroom space.
Programming for the new prison hinges around the Department of Corrections budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal biennium. In January the DOC will meet with the governor to make a case for its needs. It will factor in staff increases, particularly in the areas of medical workers and officers to staff the separate housing facilities, Lyons said.
Because the new women’s prison will be directly behind the men’s, the department is planning to synchronize and share some of the services so that women have access to existing ones, which may save costs. Emergency response, school and vocational technology at the men’s prison will expand women’s access, McGonagle said.
One of the challenges the women’s prison won’t encounter, at least not yet, is overcrowding. There are currently 145 female prisoners in the state, according to the Department of Corrections website, and the population of female prisoners has been level for the past few months. The new prison will be built with the capacity to house 224 inmates, with the possibility of extending that to 350.
In the men’s prison, it’s another story. As of Jan. 1, 1,481 men were housed in the aging facility that has a maximum capacity of 1,205. In the lower-security dormitories, bunk beds line the walls of communal space otherwise filled with tables and workout equipment because there aren’t enough two-bed cells. Beds in the communal space are least desired by inmates and are assigned to new arrivals, Lyons said.
The overcrowding also causes problems for inmates at the lowest and highest levels of security. When male prisoners are ready to transition back into the community, they’re supposed to go to one of the state’s transitional housing units, where they wear their own clothing and are expected to go out and look for work. But because of overcrowding, many inmates don’t get this opportunity and are released straight from the Concord facility.
At the other extreme, not enough C4 housing (the second-highest level of security) means that maximum security C4 prisoners must stay at the C5 level until a bed opens up. C5 prisoners are locked in their single wet cells (cells with toilets in them) 22 hours a day. They aren’t allowed to intermingle with other prisoners, and whenever they move they must be handcuffed and accompanied by a guard. C4-level prisoners kept in the C5 unit are treated as maximum security inmates, Lyons said.
Extra beds in the women’s prison sets up the possibility of receiving women from out-of-state correctional facilities with overpopulation problems. It’s not set in stone, but it’s a possibility, Lyons said, and would generate some income for the prison. Ironically, the state’s female inmates were shipped out of state until a 1970s lawsuit ended in a ruling that the prisoners must be kept in-state, where they can be closer to their families (resulting in the move to Goffstown).
While generating money could be helpful, McGuire balked when she heard the new prison would be so large. Prisoners should be close to their families, she said, and introducing out-of-state inmates could mean a less safe environment for New Hampshire’s inmates.
“My first gut reaction is, you have got to be kidding me. Great, they need a better space, but going for a space for 125 women to 225 women, you’re just going to put more people in there,” she said. “I hope this new prison doesn’t become something like they do see on TV… because bigger means lots of other things could happen. There are people who have done some really horrible things.”
Prison reform advocates: missed opportunity
Local prison reform advocates think that when the lawsuit came up, the state had a “once in a lifetime” chance to create a space based on a restorative model of correction, said Chris Dornin, founder of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform.
The restorative model focuses on rehabilitation and victim and offender needs, and uses drug and mental health courts. Dornin said advocates wanted the state to build a modern prison for 100 women and halfway houses and sober houses for 150 more, similar to the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, NY.
When the $38 million was approved by the state legislature, the Department of Corrections could have asked for it to be spent on that model, he said.
“It was a missed opportunity. On the other hand they have been asking for a new prison for 20 years. Maybe beggars can’t be choosers here. Any new prison for women would be 100 times better than what they have now,” he said.
Lawmakers have considered elements of reform in the recent past. In 2010, legislators attempted to reduce crowding and foster societal reintegration by passing SB500, which assured prisoners at least nine months before their maximum sentence. It also stated all inmates would have a parole officer and supervision as they reintegrated into the community. But the law garnered continual criticism and was ultimately overturned in 2011.
“I suspect if they hadn’t gutted Senate Bill 500, the department might have been more free to build the other kind of women’s prison. We like a punitive philosophy — it makes us feel good and feel safe,” Dornin said.
As seen in the April 10, 2014 issue of the Hippo.