New Hampshire is out of money. Legislators were looking at casinos, a capital games tax, suspending tax credits and other measures to keep the state in the black, but they decided not to do any of those; instead they bumped up driver’s license fees and other random things a little bit and decided to make deep cuts.
One of the services they cut is the Department of Corrections. They closed a prison in Laconia and moved inmates to Berlin and Concord. There were layoffs in Berlin that will take effect July 1. Eight people with less than 10 years in the prison system will lose their jobs that day, and 10 people from the Laconia will take their place. Seniority matters in the prison system.
Overall, however, the prison will still be overcrowded and understaffed. Two additional staff won’t make much difference, according to staff. Several people who worked at the Concord maximum security wing in the 1990s told me it had similar problems that resulted in several assaults and two inmates killed.
Corrections officers have been grumbling about conditions, but none will go on record to talk about the issues for fear of retaliation. They don’t want to wind up losing their jobs or the chance of being hired back in the future. The jobs aren’t there right now, but when the federal prison opens and experienced personnel move there the openings will be available. Even people laid off now don’t want to lose that chance a year from now.
Which comes to the problem with prisons. Why are so many positions being cut there? Why is the DOC a place where jobs can be cut?
Prisoners’ rights is not a popular issue. Housing and protecting people who broke the law is never going to garner wide support for advocates who would like to increase spending. Corrections officers and prison staff are fighting an uphill battle. They need more money to keep inmates safe, but inmates are at the bottom of the list of priorities as budgets are slashed across the state.
There are about 100 inmates sleeping in bunk-style accommodations in the gym at the prison. The prison was set up to have corrections officers watching areas continuously, but because of staffing cuts they are now performing roving patrols. Some programs are losing positions as well, so staff are watching inmates instead of corrections officers.
The result? At this point it is unclear. One person reported more intimidation and more inmates that have to transfer to different facilities due to safety concerns. There have not been increased reports of violent exchanges with corrections officers yet, but some people have expressed concerns that there could be soon.
But it is unlikely the state will find the money to address corrections officers’ concerns anytime soon. In fact there are rumors of more job cuts to deal with the budget gap. According to union representatives, moral is down and people are scared they will lose their jobs. Legislators and commissioners have been looking for more ways to cut the budget, and prison staff feel trapped.
Or, to put it another way, like they are in prison.