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April 06. 2013 9:50PM

State women's prison site called 'prime piece of real estate'

Today's women's prison in Goffstown could become tomorrow's new kindergarten, church or retail outlet.

Although the Legislature has yet to approve a new prison to replace the current site, that prospect is already generating informal requests about potential availability.

"We've heard from a number of people about the prison site," said Carol Holden, vice chairman of the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners. The county owns the cinder block building on Mast Road. "All of them have ideas for it. We've heard everything from informal mentions of churches to possibly a new kindergarten center for the town."

Saturday she added: "That's a prime piece of real estate in Goffstown."

In 1988, the Department of Corrections agreed to lease the building. Surplus money from construction projects at the men's prison was used to renovate the building to meet security standards at the time. The site was to house prisoners for a year, but since 1989, the Legislature on three occasions has rejected requests to pay for a new women's prison.

The lease was extended last summer, and the first year of the three-year extension ends in June. The total cost of the lease is $695,957.

"It was a temporary solution that became permanent with each additional year," said Rep. David Campbell, D-Nashua, chairman of the House Public Works and Highways Committee. "There are many well-documented problems with the building. It's inadequate, and a new building is needed."

Last week, the House approved $38 million for a new 224-bed women's prison and transitional facility in Concord, near the men's prison.

As for the Senate, early discussions suggest there is support for the proposal.

"Though I haven't had any formal discussions with my Senate colleagues, I can say from my personal perspective and those informal conversations I have had that there seems to be strong support in the state Senate for a new women's prison," Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, said in an email. "Senators seem to recognize the need for a new facility, and I suspect there will be an item in the capital budget very similar in scope to what was in the House's capital budget plan."

The Senate must vote on all bills by June 6, and Bragdon said a vote on the capital budget would probably come sometime after May 1.

Five studies have been done in the last 10 years regarding the need for a new women's prison.

"A new prison will bring us into compliance with long-standing court orders that we provide women with the same court-ordered programs and treatment as the men," said New Hampshire Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons. "It would also allow us to implement gender-specific programs and treatment that we simply don't have the space for now in Goffstown."

The prison can hold 105 inmates. As of last Friday, it held 124.

As the House prepared to vote on the prison, a lawsuit loomed. It alleges that every day women are incarcerated in Goffstown they are being discriminated against by the state because they are not afforded the same services and programs as male prisoners.

Campbell argued last week that the longer the state waits, the more the lawsuit hangs over legislators' heads. He cited a federal court order from the 1970s involving the men's prison that still affects the state prison system today.

"The courts have gotten involved in the minutia of running a prison," Campbell said, "and that's nothing we want to happen again."

Not all legislators agree a new prison is needed. Three state representatives tried to remove the $38 million from the capital budget and have lawmakers instead look at alternatives, such as housing women prisoners in county jails.

Said Rep. Steve Beaudoin, R-Rochester: "I think the possibility of expanding and renovating the existing facility exists and should be looked into. Though there have been committee discussions and studies by outside commissions, there has never been a formal House committee formed to study the matter. Our counties have excess bed capacity now and can easily alleviate the overcrowding problem as soon as tomorrow.

He said his amendment would merely delay "the start of prison construction for six months while a formal study committee looked into feasibility of what I've mentioned. Between just three of our counties, we have over 175 empty beds. If the counties can fill these beds, their per-inmate costs drop dramatically, and this lowers the cost to the local taxpayer."

The amendment was killed on a 253-98 vote.

As for the future of the current prison building? Hillsborough County officials expect it won't take long to find a new use for the site.

"It's a unique property, and we would be looking for a unique person or persons to purchase or lease it," said Holden. "We'll wait and see how things go in the Senate, and could put out a Request for Proposals by the summer."

pfeely@unionleader.com


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