Executive Council agrees to renew women's prison lease | New Hampshire
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Executive Council agrees to renew women's prison lease

State House Bureau

August 24. 2017 10:42PM
The state's Correctional Facility for Women in Goffstown. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader File)

The Executive Council has agreed to renew the state’s lease with Hillsborough County for continued use of the old county jail in Goffstown as the state’s women’s prison, at a cost of $2.5 million, even though a new $48 million prison for women in Concord is scheduled for completion in a matter of weeks.

The new prison should be ready for occupancy by late October or early November, according to the Department of Corrections, but the department is way behind schedule in hiring the people needed to run it.

“The challenge that we face is recruiting the staff that has been authorized,” Assistant Commissioner Helen Hanks told Gov. Chris Sununu and the five-member council at their meeting in Keene. “Our forecast is to be in and fully functional around the spring of 2018.”

Councilor Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, said the lease extension approved on Wednesday will be the last. “You should assume that we won’t vote for another contract with Hillsborough County to continue kicking the can down the road,” he said. “The council and this governor have had frustrations in the past with the pace of recruitment. We understand that there are difficult circumstances. We find a number of state agencies are having a tough time recruiting the people they need.”

Hiring has been so difficult that the Executive Council recently authorized the Department of Corrections to retain 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.

Commissioner William Wrenn requested 75 additional positions for the new women’s prison, which is much larger than the existing facility in Goffstown, and wanted to start the hiring process earlier this year. Instead, the state Legislature would only fund 55 new positions over the next two years, and would not allow hiring to begin until July 1.

Wrenn informed the governor by letter on Aug. 16 that he would not seek reappointment to a fourth term when his current term expires on Nov. 9.

The council was informed of Wrenn’s decision on Wednesday, which Pappas alluded to in his comments to Hanks. “While the leadership of the department is in flux, we look to you to make sure that you are the steward of that (hiring) effort and are doing everything you can to get us there,” he said.

Hanks said she appreciated the comment and agreed. “As much as spring is our target, we want to be in there as soon as possible, and will keep you apprised of where we are on a regular basis.”

The new lease with Hillsborough County includes an escape clause allowing the state to cancel with 60 day’s notice “in the event the state makes available state-owned facilities.”

Councilor Andru Volinsky asked Hanks if she had the tools to get the job done. “Are the pay scales adequate to recruit?” he said.

Hanks alluded to contract negotiations between the state and the union representing prison guards, which are now at an impasse and into fact-finding.

“As far as pay scales, that is certainly a topic in the collective bargaining discussions, and we’ll see where that comes out,” she said. “We haven’t had people come through the door and say specifically it’s an impediment.”

Finding young men and women who can pass all the necessary background checks, testing and clearances is also a challenge, according to Hanks.

“We may have 400 applicants come in but after looking at criminal backgrounds and engaging them in the recruitment process we may have 50 applicants at the end of that 400,” she said. “So it’s getting the right people to our institutions to safely manage other human beings so we know that there aren’t going to be any untoward events.”

Jeffrey Padellaro, chief officer of the Teamsters union that represents prison workers, says it’s all about the pay.

“The entire state prison system is in deep crisis because of an inability to attract and retain correctional officers,” he said. “Starting salaries are $10,000 a year less than the average starting pay at local police departments. The gap is even larger — as much as $22,000 — when compared to officers at New Hampshire’s federal prison or in nearby Massachusetts.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com; Correspondent Meghan Pierce contributed to this report.

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