- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - New Hampshire prison officials are concerned the new women’s prison in Concord will already be too small on the day it opens.

Department of Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn has told lawmakers the 224-bed facility may be packed to capacity when it opens in October 2016.

The state had 223 female inmates in various facilities around the state on Nov. 25, up from 195 a year ago, according to corrections department spokesman Jeffrey Lyons. Prison officials recently told lawmakers the number of female inmates is rising, mostly because of crimes committed to feed drug habits.

Construction of the new $38 million prison was motivated by two decades of court wrangling that ordered the state to provide services for female prisoners comparable to what it provides for male prisoners.

“We’re starting to project out numbers that essentially fill the new prison before we even move in,” Wrenn told lawmakers at the Nov. 17 budget hearing. “We’re not sure if the brand new prison is going to have adequate space for our population if it continues to rise like it has been.”

Wrenn said female prisoners often are convicted in connection with crimes committed by their male partners who might be dealing drugs or committing a robbery to support a drug habit. The women might be driving a getaway car, tampering with evidence, impeding an investigation or using the drugs obtained through their partner’s crime.

Chris Dornin, founder of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform-New Hampshire, said the growth in the women’s inmate population points out a flaw in a strategy that puts people in jail first, rather than exploring alternative treatment.

“It’s a tragedy that our incarceration philosophy is going to fill that prison as soon as it opens for business,” he said. “We should have invested in an array of halfway houses, sober houses and community programs for women instead of putting them in a maximum security situation as almost our only option.”

“The science-based principle we’re talking about here is quick intervention and accountability when somebody slips up,” Dornin said.

Most female inmates are housed at the state prison for women in Goffstown, but some are at the Strafford County House of Correction, the Shea Farm Transitional Housing Unit in Concord and the Secure Psychiatric Unit at the men’s prison in Concord. The current plan is to close Goffstown but keep 40 cells available at the Strafford County location.

The Goffstown prison is located in the former Hillsborough County House of Corrections, which the state leases from the county. A 2011 report by the Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights describes the 136-bed facility as “cramped, antiquated and ill-equipped.” It was built to house 103 inmates.

Wrenn is seeking a $47 million increase in his annual budget to staff the new women’s prison and fill vacant positions that are straining his overtime budget.

His total $250 million budget request includes $7.5 million in both years just to fund overtime for employees. The department has lost about a quarter of its workforce since 2007 due to budget cuts, even as inmate population continues to spiral up.

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Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne in Concord contributed to this report.

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