WINDHAM — The Executive Council on Wednesday approved a $2.4 million contract for the design of a new women's prison in Concord, but not without several councilors using the opportunity to voice their view that the move is long overdue.
The contract with SMRT Inc. of Portland, Maine, will set the stage for construction of a 224-bed, $38 million women's prison adjacent to the existing state prison for men.
"I was very pleased to see this item come before us today," said Councilor Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua. "Some of us have been working very hard for the last 10 years or so to make sure we have a facility for our women prisoners that is at least adequate."
Pignatelli described the existing women's prison in Goffstown as "totally inadequate." Women prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit last year claiming they do not receive the same services, counseling and work opportunities available to men at the state prison in Concord.
By building the new women's prison on land behind the men's prison, corrections officials hope inmates, male or female, can share many of the same services sought in the lawsuit.
Michael Connor, deputy commissioner of administrative services, told the council to expect a vote on the construction contact within the next couple of months.
"There is a real, clear need for building this facility, and I'm glad to see it come before us now," said Councilor Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord, but he expressed an interest in learning more about how Concord will be affected and how local officials will be involved in the planning and construction process.
"Having a prison in Concord brings both economic benefits and some costs, particularly the cost in the release of prisoners and the burden on the city that relates to that," he said. "I'd like to get a sense before we see the construction bid on what happens to the prisoners that are getting released from the (men's) state prison in Concord."
In response to an earlier request from Van Ostern, as well as concerns expressed by the mayor of Concord and members of the city's legislative delegation, the Corrections Department prepared an analysis of past releases of female offenders.
"We don't believe that the dynamics of location upon parole or release will change markedly with the (women's) prison in Concord," said William McGonagle, assistant commissioner for the Department of Corrections.
According to the data compiled by McGonagle, in the three years from 2010 to the present, the state has released 584 women from confinement. Of that number, 93 were released to Concord, where 65 had ties to the city prior to their incarceration.
Of the 106 women released to the Greater Concord area, (Allenstown, Boscawen, Bow, Canterbury, Concord, Pembroke, and Penacook), 102 were from the same area towns.
After the meeting, Pignatelli said she doubted having the prison in Concord would cause the city to bear a disproportionate share of ex-convicts. "I think they go where their family is, and where they know people," Pignatelli said.
McGonagle assured Van Ostern that the prison development process would be transparent and inclusive moving forward.
"We've compiled a list of stakeholders and interested parties," he said. "It will be a cast of thousands."
Councilor Ray Burton, R-Bath, commended the design firm, SMRT, for its work on county jails in the state. Burton worked with SMRT in his role as a Grafton County commissioner. "They involved elected officials in the process and used as many local craftsmen and suppliers of material that they could," he said.