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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Corrections at a crossroads

State House Bureau

October 28. 2017 11:46PM

A public hearing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. on Nov. 7 for the Executive Council to hear testimony on Gov. Chris Sununu's nomination of Helen Hanks to lead the Department of Corrections at a critical time for the state prison system.

Hanks has been tapped to replace Commissioner William Wrenn, who steps down in November after 12 years as the state's chief corrections officer.

If Hanks is appointed, the transition should be fairly seamless, since she has been with the department for 14 years, working her way up the ranks. She started as a social worker in 2003, was named deputy director of Medical and Psychiatric Services in 2005, director of Medical and Psychiatric Services in 2011 and assistant commissioner in 2014.

Wrenn wrote a lengthy recommendation on her behalf, citing her "high level of intelligence, good grasp of common sense and excellent judgment."

That doesn't mean there's no opposition.

Chris Dornin, founder and public relations chairman for Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, says the group is planning a good turnout at the hearing to oppose the nomination.

Dornin, a former correctional counselor and State House reporter, is the founder and first chairman of the organization, a tax-exempt nonprofit dedicated to "a system of justice that protects the community while promoting the rehabilitation of offenders and the well-being of inmate families," according to its web site.

"She has been very responsive to inmate families with concerns about how things are going for their loved ones in prison," says Dornin. "I think she is good at the people skills and responsiveness to inmate needs. That part is good and not all administrative personnel are good that way."

That said, the organization still opposes her nomination on a number of policy issues, according to Dornin, including the ballooning cost of a new state prison for women and the management of prison programs that enable inmates to shave time off their sentences.

"We testified that they ought to build a range of halfway houses and community residences for women, rather than some massive new expensive prison," said Dornin. "It started out at $38 million and ended up in the mid-50s. It was completely mismanaged and they built the wrong thing. She was the number two person when they screwed up on it, and that alone means they should go outside to find someone who doesn't have a loss like that on their record."

Hanks says the organization's timeline is inaccurate. By the time she became assistant commissioner in October of 2014, the cost estimates of $38 million had already been accepted, she said.

"It's a misrepresentation to say I was number two and could have spoken up," says Hanks. "I adopted the project at the point when the construction manager was giving us prices over $38 million. I fixed the project and got it back on track."

The hearing on the Hanks appointment has the potential to become a clearinghouse for a variety of grievances inmate advocates have regarding the Department of Corrections, including delays in the opening of the new women's prison, the management of the sex offender treatment program, and conditions at the Secure Psychiatric Unit in the men's prison in Concord.

It makes one wonder why she wants the job.

"I would say that I'm a person who enjoys the challenge of finding positive solutions, and that's always been what I try to do in my employment with the state," she said. "I believe I have a lot more to offer to help the department overcome these obstacles, by getting creative, taking unique approaches, and creating the right structure."

Sununu submitted two other high-profile nominations last week, including Will Arvelo of Newfields to serve as director of the Division of Economic Development in the newly created Department of Business and Economic Affairs.

Arvelo has been president of Great Bay Community College since 2007, and is widely credited with developing degree and certificate programs that align with the workforce needs in the Seacoast area.

Michael D. Seidel of Nashua was nominated to serve as director of the Division of Higher Education, succeeding Ed MacKay, and appears to be another one of Sununu's unconventional nominees.

Unlike MacKay, who served as chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire from 2009 to 2013, Seidel is an independent business consultant with expertise in "analysis, strategy, procurement, operations improvement, software implementation, project management, and change management," according to his resume.

Contact Dave Solomon at

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