CONCORD, N.H.—New Hampshire may be violating the civil rights of its female prisoners by not giving them access to the same programs as male inmates, according to a two-year study released Monday.
The New Hampshire Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said in its report that the inexcusable disparities warrant action by New Hampshire to end the unequal treatment of female inmates. A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said the agency supports the committee's findings.
Committee Chairman Jordan Budd said the group lacks enforcement power to ensure that happens and hopes New Hampshire will act because it is morally and legally bound by the U.S. Constitution to ensure that women and men are treated equally and to correct an intolerable situation.
"If the matter were to be litigated, all we can say is there are very serious questions that would have to be considered," he said.
Budd said the state needs to build a new women's prison to address the problem. He said it would save money in the long run since the rate women return to prison, typically on parole violations for drug abuse, is higher than that for men, who have better treatment programs.
Budd noted that the state ignored past studies -- seven listed in the report dating to 2003 -- drawing attention to the same inadequacies at the women's prison in Goffstown. Budd said the Goffstown prison was designed for short-term detention and was made into New Hampshire's prison for women more than 20 years ago after a lawsuit forced the state to stop sending female inmates out of state.
"New Hampshire has failed to pursue this obligation for over two decades," Budd said.
One of those studies, released in 2004, said the lack of services contributes to a cycle of incarceration.
Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons called the report a fair and accurate assessment.
The department has tried to win $37 million to build a new 300-bed women's prison but failed to win legislative support. Lawmakers approved $2.3 million in the 2010 budget for site design, but the appropriation was later frozen. Goffstown has 103 inmates. Eight women are in the Strafford County jail under a contract with the state, 41 are in a halfway house, nine are out of state and two are in the secure psychiatric unit at the Concord prison.
Later this month, the state plans to issue requests for bids to privately build and possibly operate a 3,000-bed men's prison and a 300-bed women's prison. Gov. John Lynch and lawmakers want to know if they could save money by privatizing some prison operations
"The Constitution does not apply only when it hits the positive side of the ledger," Budd said.
The Goffstown facility was not intended for long-term use as a prison and has almost no space for mental health treatment programs, training programs and room for inmates to visit with families, he said.
Budd said the differences in resources available to women with the men's prison in Concord are "stunning" and largely attributable to the design and size of the Goffstown facility.
An example of the disparity was the industry program, which for women consists of three sewing machines in a small room, Budd said. Men have far more choices in rooms with equipment to learn woodworking, upholstery and other trades, he said.
The report also found that the women's prison had no space for vocational training except for limited computer access for basic training in word processing and data entry. The men's prison has eight different programs, including auto mechanics, building trades and culinary arts. The report noted that the limited offerings for women also prepare them for jobs that pay substantially less than those available to male inmates.
The report said the disparity in educational offerings is so great that a 2009 report found only two women received high school diplomas during the two decades the women's prison had been operating.
The report concludes that the state's failure to address the deficient conditions "reflects on the state's acquiescence in the kind of sex stereotyping that has long consigned women to an inferior place in the American workplace and economy."