NH woman in old murder case talks about prison

By Kathy McCormack
Associated Press Writer / March 12, 2010

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CONCORD, N.H.—A New Hampshire woman who served 15 months in prison for her role in the murder of her stepfather more than two decades ago told a committee addressing women's prison issues Friday that she had inadequate access to psychiatric care and little privacy with her attorney.

The state opened the women's prison in Goffstown 20 years ago as a temporary facility. The Corrections Department has made a new, larger women's facility a priority. In February, state officials put the project on hold indefinitely, citing the poor economy.

Melanie Cooper, 40, said she was fortunate enough to have enough money to afford her own counseling from outside the prison; other women couldn't. She said it was difficult finding privacy, whether it was to have time to deal with her own mental breakdown, or getting one-on-one time with her attorney, even though staff tried to accommodate her.

"It's really stressful," said Cooper, who was released from prison in March 2008. "You just get shuffled around. ... It always came down to space."

Earlier Friday, Joanne Fortier, warden of the Goffstown prison, said there are still challenges regarding space for inmate visitations, but she said the prison has added full-time psychiatric services and has expanded its programs dealing with substance abuse issues. Cooper doubted whether that was enough to help the inmates.

Cooper served time on a charge of hindering arrest for her role in the murder of her stepfather, Danny Paquette of Hooksett in 1985. She had denied any knowledge of the murder, which went unsolved for 20 years.

In 2005, she cooperated with prosecutors and was the state's primary witness against her friend, Eric Windhurst, who is serving a 15-to-36-year prison sentence for fatally shooting Paquette.

She seldom referred to the case itself, except to say that "no one would touch me with a 10-foot pole" when they found out she served prison time for a felony. She had difficulty getting a job, contemplating whether she should turn to prostitution.

Cooper, who was living in Evanston, Wyo., with her husband and five children before she went to prison, lost a family business, divorced, and decided to re-establish her life in New Hampshire. She is now works for the city of Lebanon's information technology department.

Cooper spent her childhood in fear of rapes and abuse by Paquette that went unnoticed, and later, unreported by her mother. After divorcing in 1981, her mother took Cooper to Alaska, but Cooper returned to live with an aunt and uncle in Hopkinton in 1984. Cooper said it was fear of being found by Paquette after her return to New Hampshire that prompted the then-15-year-old to confide in Windhurst, a 17-year-old high school classmate. She told him Paquette had sexually abused and raped her and feared he would hurt her again.

The advisory committee, which is reporting to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, heard from a series of Department of Corrections officials, social service representatives, and attorneys on programs and services for women at the Goffstown prison.

The consensus is that the prison is overcrowded and is unable to provide women with services such as vocational training, which the men's prison in Concord has. Defense attorneys testified that there is minimal rehabilitative programming available to the women.

"Additional and more comprehensive, holistic rehabilitative programming, such as parenting skills and education courses, intensive substance use treatment and education, and a wider array of educational and vocational programs, could only increase the likelihood of a healthy and successful re-entry," said Brianna Sinon, a public defender.

The prison has 122 inmates, with another 24 housed at the Strafford County Jail and another 44 in transitional housing.