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In Berlin, prison is slowly coming to life

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 14. 2012 12:42AM
The new Federal Correctional Institution in Berlin sits on a hill north of the city proper. (COURTESY)

BERLIN - It's a big place, a village unto itself, and soon the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Berlin will be busy with activity, as more than 1,000 go about living their lives within its walls.

As of noon Thursday, the prison had 24 inmates at its minimum-security satellite camp. More were expected to arrive as the day went on.

It was media day at the prison, with a two-hour tour of the sprawling complex, empty except for the staff and a scattering of prisoners in dark brown, minimum-security uniforms. The few prisoners encountered during the tour quietly went about their work.

The three housing units for the medium-security prisoners are still empty. Each unit has four pods, each with a capacity of 100. Inmates for those units aren't expected for several months.

Also still empty are the dining hall, the three gymnasiums, the classrooms, the visiting room, the private consultation rooms, the law library, the recreation room, the chapel/auditorium space and most of the spacious hallways.

The prison will have a psychology department with a staff of 10 and a housing pod dedicated to a residential drug abuse program.

It's got a laundry, a special housing unit for prisoners that need to be away from the general population, medical and dental facilities, and a recreation room with chess/checker boards already painted on. The outdoor exercise yard is 13 acres, and has several playing fields, a walking track and basketball courts.

In the indoor program area, there are classrooms for English as a second language, GED, Pre-GED, adult basic education, and a computer lab. Inmates without a high school diploma must be part of a GED program, Judith Nichols, executive assistant and satellite operations administer at FCI Berlin, said.

Inmates also are expected to work, which they should be physically fit to do, since FCI Berlin is a Care level 1 facility, rated so for the healthiest prisoners in the system.

'Even for us,' Nichols said, 'this is a really big institution.'

Nichols, the facility's public relations officer, too, gave the tour with the assistance of Mark Williams, the safety manager.

The facility sits among 700 acres, much of it woodland, with 680,000 square feet in the buildings, including the satellite camp and warehouse. FCI Berlin's rated capacity is for 1,152 medium-security inmates, and 128 minimum-security inmates.

Nichols said the average sentence of offenders in medium-security prisons is 10 years, mostly for drug offences.

The inmates will come primarily from the Northeast, as the Federal Bureau of Prisons tries to keep inmates within 500 miles of their release residence.

As of Thursday, the prison had 125 employees, with eight more projected to come onboard by the end of September. About 30 of those, Nichols said, are from the North Country.

In the front parking lot, vehicles from Oklahoma, New York, Texas, Illinois, California and Washington sat beside vehicles with New Hampshire plates.

'We feel like we're getting there,' Nichols said of the hiring process.

The public will get a chance to tour the facility Friday, Sept. 21, from noon to 6 p.m. Prison officials said anyone over 18 is welcome.

Visitors are asked to arrive between 11:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., bring an ID, and leave cameras, cell phones and other electronic devices at home.

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Sara Young-Knox may be reached at

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