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Column

Bonding, and the building  of a new women’s prison

June 6 ’s State Senate session was the longest one of 2013 and it was filled with long debates over Medicaid expansion, the proposed state appropriations budget for the next two years and issues of procedure. There were many roll calls votes with most being along party lines. It was a long and tough day for senators.

For House Bill 25, however, there was consensus and agreement on the bonding plans for the state of New Hampshire for the biennium beginning on July 1. HB 25 is the bill that deals with the state’s capital budget for construction and renovation of buildings and roads and investment in infrastructure that will be of value to the state long term.

The amount of money is large with $125 million in spending supported by the general fund which gets its money from a wide range of business and other taxes and fees.

Another $120 million is being bonded for highways and other state subdivisions with other revenue sources.

Some of the investment will strengthen our own revenue growth in the future. The Liquor Commission, for example, will be building new stores including one at exit 9 in Warner. That will be a convenience to customers traveling up and down I-89. And the Liquor Commission also gets $10 million for necessary credit card processing software to ensure compliance with federal regulations. Investments in new stores and technology for the Liquor Commission should help increase sales and profits that go back into the state’s general fund.

On the other hand, a crucial $10.4 million bond authorization to the Department of Safety for a new marine patrol headquarters building in Gilford is time sensitive. The current headquarters is slowly sinking into Lake Winnipesauke. This bond will be supported by boat registration fees.

Other bonding will provide $3.5 for electronic systems to expand public access to the judicial system, $5 million in matching funds for clean drinking water systems and $5 million to leverage $25 million in federal funds for repairs to the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge that connects Maine and New Hampshire. The State of Maine will also be making a $5 million match commitment.

About one fourth of the capital budget, $38 million, goes to one project, a new 224-bed women’s prison. No one questions the need. No one disagreed with making the $38 million commitment. And everyone knows this should have been done long ago.

In 1983, 23 plaintiffs went to court to return New Hampshire women prisoners who were incarcerated out-of-state. A court order required the state to provide women offenders with a “facility, conditions of confinement and programs and services on parity with those provided to male offenders.”

In 2003, 20 years later, the National Institute of Corrections found no improvements and continued disparities between women and men in prison. That year Gov. Craig Benson asked for a study that found there was no state money for life skill training and programming “… despite an overwhelming prevalence of trauma, substance abuse, addictions and mental illness.”

The current prison in Goffstown is inadequate and some prisoners are sent to a county jail because of the lack of space. In 1983, there were 23 women prisoners, 59 in 1998, 182 in 2003 and 205 as of a few days ago.

Senator Sylvia Larson of Concord has chaired the Interagency Council on Women Offenders, an effort to improve conditions and strengthen programming. She pointed out that “because the vast majority of female inmates in the state are mothers, women in particular face a ‘double jeopardy’ upon release, forced to provide not only for their own support but for that of their children. Women particularly experience a double jeopardy of losing their children and being returned to prison when housing and work opportunities do not materialize after their release.

“With this vote,” Senator Larson continued, “we set a new path to end the cycle of double jeopardy. A new facility with space for the educational, vocational and training that offers the hope to break the cycle of failure and to end the ‘cycle of repeated incarceration’ for women offenders in our state.”

When the time to vote came, there was no need for a roll call. A unanimous voice vote did the job. We will have a new women’s prison in a couple of years.

The passage of the capital budget is part of a two-year process that works however slowly. Past governors have seen the need but the legislature lacked a plan from the Department of Corrections. This time from Gov. Maggie Hassan on down, everyone did their job. It is proof that when there is common ground the legislature can build a consensus and do good work.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire
senator representing Antrim,
Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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