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Report Criticizes New Hampshire’s Treatment of Female Prisoners; Lawsuit Filed

A two-year investigation has concluded that the New Hampshire Department of Corrections is guilty of “inexcusable neglect” of female prisoners, according to a report released on October 17, 2011.

The New Hampshire State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said the 103 prisoners incarcerated at the State Prison for Women in Goffstown lack adequate educational and vocational programs, mental health and substance abuse treatment, outdoor recreation and private space for family visits.

“The failure of the state to provide comparable programs and services ... seriously affects the ability of women offenders to maintain appropriate family relationships, impairs their mental and physical health, and inhibits their ability to prepare for productive and self-supporting work upon their eventual release from prison,” the Advisory Committee noted in its report.

The Committee wrote that disparate conditions at the women’s prison could amount to a denial of their equal protection rights under the U.S. Constitution, and likely contribute to New Hampshire’s dubious distinction as one of the few states where women prisoners have higher recidivism rates than men.

“Constitutional requirements, sound public policy and basic human decency all dictate what the state must surely understand already,” said outgoing Committee Chairman Jordan C. Budd. “It is past time for New Hampshire to take immediate steps to close the Goffstown prison and transfer the women there to another facility that can accommodate the provision of minimally comparable services and programs.”

Over the past six years the state legislature has turned down repeated requests for up to $37 million to build a 300-bed facility to replace Goffstown, despite similar findings of neglect in seven reports since 2003. In 2007, for example, the Concord Monitor described Goffstown as being severely overcrowded, without sufficient toilets and showers for the prison population, and where prisoners couldn’t sleep because lights were kept on 24 hours a day.

Goffstown was originally intended to be a temporary facility after a federal court held in 1987 that the state couldn’t ship its female prisoners out-of-state. See: Fiandaca v. Cunningham, 827 F.2d 825 (1st Cir. 1987).

“In a tough economy, it’s easy to understand why politicians are reluctant to spend money in general – and on inmates in particular,” the Monitor wrote in an editorial. “But their penny-pinching may be costing the state in the long run.”

The Advisory Committee report stated that the only industry program for women prisoners at Goffstown consisted of “a handful of sewing machines,” while male prisoners at the State Prison for Men in Concord have work space for upholstery, license-plate making and bulk-mail preparation, plus six vocational programs such as auto mechanics and culinary arts.

In addition to being overcrowded, Goffstown was cited for having a loud and chaotic environment. “I was struck by the sheer noise, the constant noise that was there from the moment we walked in to the moment we left,” said Committee Chairwoman JerriAnne E. Boggis.

The report noted that New Hampshire’s failure “to address the deficient conditions facing incarcerated women 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.”

State prison officials reportedly agreed with the Advisory Committee’s findings.
On August 14, 2012, four female prisoners filed a class-action lawsuit in Merrimack County Superior Court, claiming the New Hampshire Department of Corrections had failed to provide services and programs comparable to those provided to male prisoners.

The plaintiffs, Danielle Woods, Janice Hutt, Martha Thibodeau and Michelle Vanagel, argued in their complaint that female prisoners are subjected to unequal treatment in areas that include educational and vocational programs, work assignments, substance abuse and mental health treatment, and housing. They are represented by New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the law firm of Devine Millimet.

“We just think there are fundamental differences in the program services and facilities [available] to female inmates and male inmates,” said New Hampshire Legal Assistance attorney Elliott Berry.

“I strongly believe that these kinds of vocational and work programs and mental health programs that men have certainly give people a leg up in living a productive life after they get out of prison,” he added. “We want to make sure all inmates have those opportunities, male or female.” The lawsuit remains pending. See: Woods v. Commissioner of the NH DOC, Merrimack County Superior Court (NH), Case No. 217-2012-cv-559.

Sources: Nashua Telegraph;; Associated Press; “Unequal Treatment: Women Incarcerated in New Hampshire’s State Prison System,” New Hampshire State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (Sept. 2011)

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Related legal case

Woods v. Commissioner of the NH DOC