Newbury, N.H., Woman Helps League of Women Voters New Hampshire Study Lives of Female Prison Inmates

Sunday, November 25, 2012
Newbury, N.H. — In the last three years, Liz Tentarelli has been in jail more than 10 times, but she is not a repeat offender.

Tentarelli is the co-chairwoman of a three-year long study conducted by the League of Women Voters New Hampshire that took an in-depth look at the lives of convicted female inmates in the state. As a member of that committee, and as co-president of the New Hampshire league, it was Tentarelli’s job to gather information on the rising number of female inmates, how their time in prison is spent and what the future holds for them upon their release.

A semi-retired teacher from Newbury, N.H., who still works as a substitute in the elementary school in New London, Tentarelli, 68, spoke with the Valley News recently about the prison study. An edited transcript of that conversation is below.

Valley News: How did you initially become involved with the League of Women Voters?

Liz Tentarelli: I got involved when I was living down in Andover, Mass. I was invited to be an “expert” for a study they were doing of user-friendly transportation in and around Andover and North Andover. In other words, bicycle paths, walking paths, connecting neighborhoods with people friendly connector paths connecting us to open space. I was very involved with the Andover Trails committee at that time, so I knew where the property was and I knew where people were able to access it, which was not necessarily from their house or right across the street. So I discovered the league when they asked me to talk to them about those issues and I immediately joined and headed up a group called The Community Paths Study within the league. Our great success was that we finally got to the point where the Planning Board in Andover would automatically ask developers, “So, where are your connecting paths from your new planned development to the open space or to the adjacent neighborhood?”

VN: Were you surprised to learn that the league sponsors those kinds of in-depth studies?

LT: The league is two-pronged and most people know us for our more public face, which is the voter service work. However, equally important to the league is our process of study, developing consensus and then from the position that results from that study, advocating for legislation at all three levels, local, state and national. It’s strictly nonpartisan. So sometimes we may find support among legislators of one party, at times from another party. That’s irrelevant. We never support a candidate or a party. We look for people who are in support of our position to help us lead legislation through, or we testify at hearings at the state house, for example, on various projects. That’s the kind of work that this prison study was.

VN: How did the league happen to pick up on this particular issue?

LT: This was started by the League of Women Voters New Hampshire almost by accident. We attended a hearing at the Statehouse in the criminal justice committee. We heard a report from somebody who was just starting to look at the county houses of correction and we never knew, first of all, how the number of women has tremendously increased. In the 1970s, perhaps 4 percent of offenders were female, and now we have about 10 percent of offenders in New Hampshire who are incarcerated are female. That’s a big jump. In terms of actual numbers, at the state prison level, there are about 150-175 women currently incarcerated at either the prison, the halfway house or one of the houses of correction, which takes overflow.

We started by hearing this little report and one of the things that was mentioned is that two-thirds of these women offenders are mothers of minor children. We suddenly realized that if you incarcerate the mother of minor children, you’ve got to find something to do with those minor children. So the impact on the state is not just the impact of incarcerating the mother but also of possibly finding foster care for the children. And of the children of incarcerated parents, not necessarily mothers, but of parents, they are five times as likely as other children to become offenders themselves. So we realized that this is a huge impact.

We wanted to know several things. One, why are the numbers going up for women offenders who are actually incarcerated? Second, what’s happening when they get to both the county houses of correction and the state prison? How are those facilities coping with those much larger numbers? And third, what are the prospects for these women when they are done serving their sentence? The average sentence in New Hampshire is less than three years. So clearly these are people who are going to rejoin society. What are we doing in the state corrections system to ensure that when they come back they can be productive, law-abiding members of society?

VN: How was the study conducted?

LT: I co-chaired the incarceration study with Peg Fargo, who is vice president of the League of Women Voters New Hampshire. She lives down in Bow. In typical league manner, we set up a steering committee with about a dozen league members, and we set up the parameters of the study and immediately realized we needed firsthand knowledge, so we set up field trips. We’ve been to all the county houses of correction that house females. There are eight of them. We’ve been to the prison, and we’ve also been to the halfway house. The prison is in Goffstown. The halfway house is in the outskirts of Concord.

VN: What did the steering committee do in addition to the field trips?

LT: We started interviewing various people, including the women’s prison warden, Joanne Fortier, who is a marvelous woman. She is doing wonderful things down there with a very limited physical facility. We also talked to the commissioner of corrections at the state level, and then we started investigating some of the other aspects of corrections, which is the probation-parole part of it. We met with two people from that state department. We also felt we needed to understand the courts more. We discovered something very exciting up in Grafton County, which is the drug court. We attended the drug court, where we were given extraordinary access to see it behind the scenes. We were allowed to sit in on the meeting that precedes the actual court session, to see how this very committed team of people actually assess each participant one at a time. And then we were invited to a graduation ceremony. Very impressive program.

We testified in the legislature for legislation that would enable every county to set up drug courts according to that Grafton County model. And that passed.

VN: Were you able to talk the incarcerated women themselves?

LT: We did. We were allowed to do that at both the county houses of correction and at the prison. We even had a session with some released felons who had completed their sentence, They came and spoke very openly and honestly to us about the conditions at the women’s prison.

VN: What did the study discover about the increasing number of women inmates?

LT: Part of the increase is a change in the laws. That is the so-called Rockefeller drug laws. Many of these women are substance abuse offenders. So when the laws were changed to give mandatory sentences for drug offenders, that caught a lot of women. They are not necessarily dealers. They are not necessarily doing anything hugely destructive, but they were caught using drugs, either repeat offenses or in quantities that landed them with these mandatory sentences. The other thing is probably tough economic times for women who do not have a good education, who find themselves singles mothers, and are committing theft and fraud to keep their families going.

VN: And how is the prison coping with these growing numbers of women?

LT: Let me give you the good news first. Just in the three years of our study, we have seen two very small, inadequate, cramped facilities be replaced by totally new county houses of correction. That was Grafton County and Cheshire County. We also saw in Sullivan County, where there was one tiny unit for 13 women, they built an addition to their facility that allowed them to institute a program of gradual release to the community. So the offenders in that county house of correction very eagerly await the time when they can move from the cramped cells out to this place where they get programming during the day, where they are getting jobs outside the facility and then they come back in for more programming in the evening and they stay there overnight.

What is still an issue, because it’s only about one in 10 of the inmates who are females at the county houses of corrections, is that they’ve got wonderful programs that they want to offer, but unless they have a kind of critical mass of females ready to take that program, they can’t offer it. So let’s say UNH Cooperative Extension offers a course in personal and family finance, the men can sign up for it and maybe they sign up now and get enrolled in the next class which starts in six weeks. But if there are only 15 women and only three of them want to sign up for that, they’re not going to offer the class for three women. They are often blocked from programs just because they are a smaller fraction of the population.

The issue at the women’s prison is more an issue of facilities. It was rated for 105 people and typically it holds around 125. They have had to convert some space that might have been used for programming into detention area. Nevertheless, they try very hard to offer GED programming. They now offer high school classes because they work cooperatively with the men’s prison in Concord to share teachers. Only about 50 percent of the female inmates have completed high school.

The other trap with lack of space is a dreadful lack of space for vocational training. The only vocational training that’s going on there right now is some office work and, don’t laugh, painting birdhouses. This is the prison industry that the women right now can participate in. It’s a brand new program that started in October. They can paint birdhouses and sell them in the prison shop.

VN: There isn’t much need for birdhouse painters, is there?

LT: There isn’t. They can earn some money through them, but there is no real vocational program in the prison. Not for lack of desire on the part of the officials. It’s totally a lack of space.

VN: What did you learn about the prospects for these women upon their release?

LT: It’s very hard for them to find a full-time job that pays enough to support them and their family. They often find a part-time job in the food service industry. in the hospitality industry, that is, working at motels and so on. But they are part-time and they are low wage. So we know that when women get back into the community, unless they have tremendous support from their family, they are going to be at a decided disadvantage at finding a job that will support them and their children and finding adequate housing and in furthering their education. The very things they need to try to move forward are very difficult for them to obtain.

VN: Do you see any bright spots for these women?

LT: One of the bright spots is that the prison has recognized that many of these women are not only in prison for the crime they committed, but they have pre-existing trauma. Many of them were abused and they have also co-existing mental health issues. The prison is trying very hard to address those issues in gender specific programs. You can’t simply try to get them to take high school classes so they can better qualify for a job. You have to address those underlying issues so that they feel they can do this. That is the progress that is being made. It’s in gender specific programs addressing substance abuse, mental health, and pre-existing trauma experiences.

Editor’s note: For information about the League of Women Voters New Hampshire, visit www.lwvnh.org. Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-727-3221 or dtaylor@vnews.com.