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Monday, July 29, 2013

Visit to women’s prison shows why a new one is being built

GOFFSTOWN – Stephanie Dupont thinks this time she’s really turned the corner. That, this time, she’s going to stay off the drugs, out of the cramped confines of the state’s women’s prison, and with her young son.

This trip to prison, one of several return trips for Dupont since 2008, is different, she said, because she made it into to the Wellness Block at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. The ward houses 24 women in two-person cells with a small common area in the middle. ...

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GOFFSTOWN – Stephanie Dupont thinks this time she’s really turned the corner. That, this time, she’s going to stay off the drugs, out of the cramped confines of the state’s women’s prison, and with her young son.

This trip to prison, one of several return trips for Dupont since 2008, is different, she said, because she made it into to the Wellness Block at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. The ward houses 24 women in two-person cells with a small common area in the middle.

On Thursday, a handful of women were in the common area talking on the phone, reading, doing homework for an accounting class or talking. Country music played from the flat screen television on the wall – paid for by a surcharge on inmates phone bills for a recreation fund. A white dry erase board is covered with quotes like “I am responsible for my self. I am accountable for my own actions,” and “Many receive advice, only the wise profit from it ... .”

These women have access to all of the prison’s other resources and services but also extra and dedicated mental health and substance abuse treatment, counseling and group therapy sessions. It’s been essential for Dupont, she said, and hammered home that she needs similar support once she is released early next year.

“It’s a big deal to me because there’s more availability for groups and things,” said Dupont, who is from Concord. “I need that for me. I need the groups. I think the wellness block is a huge thing for the prison. If you’re serious about it, it’s a really good place to be.”

But in a population of women who have a mental health illnesses, addiction issues and often both, barely 20 percent live in the wellness block and the waiting list is long.

It’s one of dozens of examples of why corrections officials have asked legislators for money to build a new facility for half a decade. The newest state budget includes $38 million to build a 224-inmate women’s prison in Concord.

At least part of the decision to finally fund the project is a federal lawsuit filed last summer by four inmates in Goffstown, including one Nashua woman, accusing the state of violating the law by not offering comparable services at the men’s and women’s prisons.

The prison in Goffstown, which the state rents from Hillsborough County for around $230,000 a year, is small. The average population is 125 women with a variety of needs and security levels while the design capacity of the prison hovers just over 100 people, according to Warden Joanne Fortier.

Another 28 women are housed at Strafford County jail, DOC spokesman Jeff Lyons said, which has even fewer resources for long-term inmates.

Most all of the rooms in the building not given over to prison beds, serve two or more purposes.

The space shortage is evident in every nook of the prison. There are two classrooms were a smattering of classes are offered through Granite State High School. At the New Hampshire State Men’s Prison, full-time teachers offer a much wider variety of courses, and more at a time, allowing male prisoners to earn their diplomas or GEDs more quickly, Lyons said.

There’s no better example than the large, relatively speaking, visitors room.

Fortier, whose own office is missing ceiling tiles because the roof leaks and has large sheets of plastic to protect her computer, had to try three times to open the visiting room door because it stuck.

There are a lot of mothers among the prison population and that means a lot of kids on visiting days. On weekends, some are turned away because there’s just no room inside. A security officer in an adjacent control room supervises visiting time, but there’s not enough staff to have an officer inside the room. There’s also nowhere in the building for no-contact visits, so those are conducted face-to-face like any other visit, Fortier said.

But the room is for much more than visits. It’s also the chapel, meeting room, salon and programming space.

“We just don’t have any other large spaces,” Fortier said.

The medical services space is another example of why a new facility is needed, Fortier said.

There’s one tiny exam room where the nurse practitioner also has a desk. It’s separated, barely, from the rest of the office which is packed with desks and equipment for two nurses, an occupational and physical therapist, and nursing coordinator Tom Marsh.

“We are definitely looking forward to a new facility,” Marsh said.

There’s also no overnight medical coverage which, if over-the-phone triage doesn’t work, more expensive trips to the local emergency room, Fortier said.

Then there’s Charlie Block. Eight cells house inmates in maximum security, protective custody, medical quarantine, those pending administrative review and those being disciplined. All of them have different schedules for yard time, different handcuffing protocols, and have to be segregated from another.

“It’s a difficult population to manage,” Fortier said. “We utilize every space, every day to the maximum possible.”

In a report the New Hampshire Commission of Civil Rights that lambasted the state and DOC in 2011, the job training facilities at the women’s prison were described as “three sewing machines in the corner.”

There’s a little more than that, but not much. On Wednesday, a pair of women were making and bagging popcorn in advance of a softball game that afternoon. Another was weaving, by hand, the tops of clothes hampers that sell for more than $300. Another was using one of those “three sewing machines” to darn some prison uniforms.

It pales in comparison to opportunities male prisoners have in Concord. They have elaborate work spaces for woodworking, upholstery, license plate and sign making, bulk mail preparation, furniture making and more.

Lyons said the two prisons’ mental health and substance abuse intervention services are similar, although, again, there’s much more room at the men’s prison, allowing more inmates to schedule appointments at a time.

Elliot Berry, a New Hampshire Legal Assistance, said the lawsuit filed on behalf of the female prisoners in the state was stayed when the House of Representatives approved Gov. Maggie Hassan’s first biennial budget. It will likely stay that way as long as the state is moving toward building a new facility.

“For now we’re quite satisfied with the approach that the department is taking,” he said.

So is Dupont.

“I don’t plan on going to the new prison, but I’m glad we’ll get it,” she said. “We definitely need it.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415 or jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Cote on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).