Thirty years ago, New Hampshire Legal Assistance began representing female inmates in the state prison system. This month, that work is featured in NH Magazine:
At that time, there was no prison at all for women; they were shipped out of state to serve their sentences, as far away as Colorado and Maryland.
“It was appalling, both morally and legally,” says Elliott Berry, managing attorney at NHLA’s branch in Manchester. “So many had children and family here. How do you keep families together, have a family to come back to, with that kind of distance?”
In 1987, a federal court found in favor of an NHLA client who claimed the state had violated the equal protection rights of female prisoners. The judge ordered New Hampshire to provide a prison for women in the state, and two years later, the women’s prison in Goffstown opened.
The facility was said to be inadequate from the start, not equal to what the men had. In 2009, the League of Women Voters studied the men’s prison to the women’s in relation to preparation for release. The disparities were alarming: Men had eight vocational programs; women had three. Men had a large space to work in, while the space for women was small to nonexistent. Men had classrooms to pursue GEDs, high school diplomas and college-level courses, with general and law libraries as resources; for women, there was limited classroom space and an emphasis only on GEDs.
Only two women had earned a high school diploma at the prison in 20 years.
The first time Michelle Vanagel was released from the Goffstown facility, she moved in with her sister because she had no money and no job. “With felonies on my record, I couldn’t pass a background check,” she says. “No company would even look at me.”
It wasn’t long until she heard the call of her old life. She moved into a rooming house in Nashua — a “crack shack,” she calls it. She started using and selling drugs again, and soon got caught and back in prison. The third time she was in prison, she took part in an intensive drug treatment program. It helped. She’s clean and sober today and determined to stay out of prison.
Her success is no thanks to a vocational program at the women’s prison. Unlike the men’s prison, the women’s prison has a dearth of vocational programs that teach marketable skills, because there is no space for it.
“When the men get out, they have a trade,” says Vanagel. “They can earn $15 or $16 an hour. Women end up waitressing or something like that for $8 an hour.”
Crocheting, sewing, painting bird houses, and some business and computer classes is about it.
“Goffstown is such an inappropriate physical environment to provide anything close to equal conditions for vocational training opportunities,” Berry says.
In 2011, Berry represented four female inmates — Michelle Vanagel was one of them — in a class-action lawsuit to require the state to provide equal protection in several aspects of prison life, including educational and vocational programs. That prompted action to get construction going on the new prison. Groundbreaking happened in August 2014. It’s slated to open this fall, with programs that prison officials say will provide the skills most transferable to the community.