February 01. 2013 9:54PM

For League of Women Voters, prison system is a shambles

Union Leader Correspondent

Residents packed a small meeting room at the Hollis Social Library Wednesday night to hear the first of three lectures about the plight of women in New Hampshire's state prison.

Sponsored by the Hollis Women's Club, "Take the Keys and Lock Her Up," is the result of three years of research by members of the League of Women Voters of New Hampshire, who are now sharing what they've learned.

The talks offer some background on the state's decision to defend against a lawsuit filed by four women inmates at the State Prison for Women in Goffstown, alleging the state is violating their constitutional rights by failing to treat them the way male inmates are treated.

"There's a vast expanse of difference in how we are treating men and women," said league co-president Liz Tentarelli, who headed up the study with league vice president Peg Fargo.

According to Tentarelli and Fargo, men at the state prison on Concord have access to medical care when they need it. But at Goffstown, state budget cuts now mean there's no back up for a staff that's already stretched thin. If the Goffstown nurse calls in sick, there's no infirmary that day and inmates who are sick stay in their cells.

At Concord, a mental health staff provides consistent care for male inmates with structured group treatment and activities, crisis intervention and a special unit for the mentally ill.

"They are not providing adequate treatment for mental health and substance abuse at the Goffstown women's prison," said Tentarelli.

Fargo said there's a tremendous need for those services.

As many as 90 percent of the women in the prison have drug- or alcohol-related issues, said Fargo. A large majority have trauma-related problems. They have been abused physically or emotionally at some time in their lives.

At Concord, men can attend classes and study for high school diplomas four days a week. Teachers spend the fifth day at Goffstown.

An industrial training program at Concord offers inmates a chance to learn trades such as building wooden furniture, upholstering, graphic arts and cooking.

"This is what women learn for skills," said Tentarelli as she clicked a button on a laptop that flashed an image of crocheted baby blankets and hand-painted birdhouses on the screen above her head.

For the women there is no training for skills that would provide a competitive wage, she said.

Part of the problem is the old building at Goffstown, which doesn't have space for those types of programs. It also doesnt have space for the inmates. The building has room for 105 inmates. There are currently 127 women there but, in the past, there have been as many as 140.

At one point there were 60 women sharing three toilets, said Fargo.

The League of Women Voters is the fourth group to study the conditions at Goffstown, and no one denies there are problems. And just about everyone agrees that a new system with better services is the key to helping inmates rebuild their lives and avoid returning to prison once they are released. But for years, the state Legislature has voted against spending $37 million to build a new women's prison, Fargo said.

The cost of construction has risen to $42 million, and the state is waiting to hear from a consultant hired to review bids from private companies interested taking over the entire prison system.

The League is researching the privatization of prisons and, so far, members aren't optimistic about what they've learned.

"It's our great hope that this might be our year," said Tentarelli. "We are hoping that a new group of legislators will begin to look at a better solution. It's still a very punitive system when you put people in a facility where there is no hope."

The League has looked at different solutions and when members return to Hollis on Feb. 6, they will talk about alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders.

The last talk of the series will focus on the option of privatizing prisons and on education and training and how to help women become self-sufficient.

For Fargo, the immediate goal is to start the conversation on the impact incarcerating women has on those individuals, their children and families, and their cities and towns.

"This is a time when New Hampshire should be sitting down as a group trying to figure out what we want to do here," she said.

"What do you want to do?" she asked the small crowd in Hollis. "These women will be released and they are coming back to your community."