Editorial: Mid-Course Corrections for Women

In 1831, two young French lawyers embarked for America, commissioned by their government to study the prison system here. This they did during a nine-month-long stay in the United States, including visiting Sing Sing and the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, while also undertaking much other travel and investigation. Upon their return home, one of young men, Gustave de Beaumont, with a little help from his companion, wrote On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France, which was widely acclaimed in prison reform circles in Europe. The other one wrote Democracy in America.

That Alexis de Tocqueville’s book remains an unrivaled classic and de Beaumont’s is long forgotten does not detract from the observation that the American penal system, at its best and its worst, has long been a subject of inquiry and debate. We were reminded of this over the weekend by a Concord Monitor story, appearing in Saturday’s Valley News, which detailed plans being made for a new 224-bed state prison for women in Concord, projected to cost $38 million. It appears to give physical form to the best of correctional impulses and promises to be a model facility if it is built along the lines being currently discussed.

According to the Department of Corrections, it will consist of a main building housing classrooms and a state-of-the-art medical wing, with a series of smaller dormitory-style housing units nearby to which inmates will be assigned based on their security status. (A small maximum-security unit will be adjacent to the medical wing.) Natural light will stream into the buildings. Other planned features include a gym, a library and a chapel; an open-air atrium for family visits; music, hobby and exercise rooms; and classrooms for science, computer, parenting and culinary arts instruction; and an industries wing for vocational training.

No doubt these plans will strike some as expensive coddling of people who, after all, have broken the law. Perhaps a little context will put the matter in its proper perspective.

The impetus for this plan, as with so many other initiatives in New Hampshire, was a lawsuit. It was filed in 2012 on behalf of four female prisoners who alleged that the educational, vocational and treatment opportunities provided them in the obsolete and overcrowded women’s prison in Goffstown did not remotely resemble the services and opportunities available to male offenders in New Hampshire’s corrections system. We wondered at the time why the state would want to keep women incarcerated at a cost estimated at $34,000 a year without giving them the best possible chance of becoming productive citizens when they are released. This question is especially relevant in light of the fact that New Hampshire is one of the only states in the nation with a higher recidivism rate for female offenders than for males.

These sorts of arguments had previously failed to sway the Legislature, which three times in six years rejected a Department of Corrections request for $37 million to build a new women’s prison. It finally approved the proposal in 2013. We infer that the change of heart had something to do with the lawsuit, which is now being held in abeyance by New Hampshire Legal Assistance.

The endless debate about whether the primary purpose of prison is to punish or rehabilitate will never be settled conclusively, but either way, it makes eminent good sense to create conditions inside that afford inmates reasonable hope of success when they return to society. In our view, this is best done by providing vocational training and addiction treatment and fostering family ties in an atmosphere that does not mimic the harsh conditions many inmates endured outside of prison but demonstrates life they might aspire to.