July 24. 2017 10:21PM

New women's prison will sit idle until staffed

State House Bureau

A view of the new Correctional Facility for Women in Concord is shown in February. The prison, which is next to the men's prison, was slated to open this fall, but has to wait to be staffed. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE)

CONCORD — A shiny new $48 million state prison for women will be ready for occupancy in October or November, but it will sit vacant for months as the state struggles to fill 74 new positions, with recruitment efforts that didn’t start until July 1.

Hiring has been so difficult for the Department of Corrections that the agency will soon go to the Executive Council for approval of a contract with an outside advertising and marketing firm to promote the opportunities and assist in recruiting.

A request for proposals on marketing and recruiting was posted on July 3, with a deadline of Aug. 25 for submissions.

“No dollar amount was specified,” said Department of Corrections spokesman Jeffrey Lyons. “We are waiting to see what the bidders offer. The vendor that is approved by the Executive Council would have to be paid from other Corrections budgetary accounts.”

The construction project itself is on schedule to be completed in mid-October, but the challenge is the staffing, said Lyons. “And some of the positions were left unfunded in the budget approved by the Legislature.”

Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn alerted lawmakers to the likely delay during budget deliberations in January. “Our recruiting efforts to date have led us to believe that opening the women’s prison in the fall when it will be completed will be problematic,” he said in testimony before the House Finance Committee.

Hiring plan rejected

The Department of Corrections wanted to hire more staff for the new prison, and start the hiring process much earlier, but was rejected by the state Legislature on both counts.

It asked the Legislature for 75 new positions and was authorized for 74 (a full-time chaplain position was eliminated), but only 55 can be hired over the next two years, leaving 19 approved but unfunded, according to Lyons.

“We sought permission from the Legislature to go to the Legislative Fiscal Committee to hire for the unfunded positions if we were able to fill all of the positions that were authorized, but were denied,” said Lyons.

During the 2016-17 session of the Legislature, the department requested permission to begin hiring in late 2016 and early 2017.

“We were going to start hiring for these positions, integrate them into our current operations and transfer them to the new facility when it opened,” says Lyons. “That was turned down, and we were not allowed to hire for new positions until the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.”

The new prison is much larger than the current women’s prison in Goffstown and will house more inmates, some of whom are now incarcerated in county jails, halfway houses or out of state. It will also offer much better access to health care, job training and other programs that will put women prisoners on equal footing with male prisoners.

The unequal treatment of male and female prisoners in the state was the basis for a 2012 class action lawsuit by New Hampshire Legal Assistance over the lack of parity in programs, services and conditions of confinement for the women compared to men.

The lawsuit was put on hold after lawmakers in 2013 approved funding for a new women’s prison to be built in Concord, next door to the men’s prison. When the initial cost estimate of $38 million fell short, they approved another $12.6 million for its construction in 2015.

Lawsuit could be revived

NHLA attorney Elliott Berry says the lawsuit could be “reactivated.”

The decision to put the lawsuit on hold on the condition that the state build and staff a new women’s prison was approved by the judge in 2012.

“It wasn’t just a promise,” Berry said. “By the time the suit was put into abeyance, the Legislature had already committed the capital budget to build it, and quite frankly I did not anticipate that the Legislature would not come up with the money to staff a prison whose cost is now up to $48 million.”

Berry stopped short of saying the lawsuit would be reopened. A lot will depend on how long it actually takes to open the prison doors. “I’m not saying we are going to reactivate the lawsuit, but we are seriously considering it,” he said.

The proposed contract with a marketing and recruiting firm is not expected to be approved by the Executive Council until October, which is when the hiring would theoretically begin in earnest.

Newly hired corrections officers take months to train and fully deploy. They have to complete a nine-week training academy and participate in a four-week field training program in which they shadow an experienced officer.

“Even if they pass the academy, you’re still talking 12 to 13 weeks before they can hold their own shift and do their own assignment in the prison,” said Lyons. “And at the same time, we are trying to fill positions at (the men’s prisons) in Concord and Berlin.”