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N.H. Corrections Chief Focused on Staffing, a New Women's Prison, Inmate Services

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  Helen Hanks began her first four-year term as commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections in November. She'd served as assistant commissioner previously and she comes into this new role at a time when the department is struggling to retain staff. It's a problem that some say is exacerbated by comparatively low pay for corrections officers. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on NHPR. I'm Peter Biello. Commissioner Hanks joins me now to talk about the state of the department.


 Welcome to All Things Considered.

Thank you very much. Happy to be here. 

So you received unanimous confirmation from the Executive Council in November and all agreed that you would be the best person to handle some of the things that the Department of Corrections is facing. Among them staff retention and recruiting new folks. So let me ask you about that first. What steps have you taken or do you plan to take to improve staff retention and recruit new folks to the Department of Corrections?

Well, I think the important thing I offered to the department is a true look at the data and what we have available to us. And I think in the past people did a lot of anecdotal conversation but I actually pulled data and looked at specifically retention and when were people leaving our employment and learned what number of years we needed to have someone on board - really to get a long term investment out of them - and started sharing that information with executive leadership and all staff. 

And what was the answer to that? How long do you have to keep some to make it worth your while?

We needed to get someone to stay on board with us about three years before we see a long term investment really toward their own personal retirement. And in the first year more than 50 percent of people hired were leaving. And we understand that information now. Now we need to understand "the why" are they leaving. So we've engaged executive leadership to meet with all new employees through out the start of that first year to stay on track in that on-boarding process. What do we do with new hires and what do we do to continue to monitor their adaptation to our environment. And what we can learn about doing better by them. We hear a lot that people leave to go to local law enforcement. We hear a lot that people leave because of the amount of overtime. Well, we need to stop hearing a lot and we need to really know what are the critical catalysts and are they all of those things? And what can we do differently.

Pay is a conversation that a lot of people have. So if we're losing a lot of people literally to law enforcement because of a pay difference we have to actually know that and stop anecdotally talking about that.

Credit NH Department of Corrections
Helen Hanks, commissioner of N.H. Department of Corrections.

So on the pay question: To what extent was that a reason people were leaving - if the department has been criticized for paying less than local police departments and comparing of course to Massachusetts which seems to have a higher starting pay for similar work?

A lot of people have talked about that and part of what I'm working to better understand is not just your hourly wage but your benefit package. And when you compare what we offer via the hourly wage and our benefit package in comparison to higher hourly wages what are their benefit packages and how is that equitable. I think the stronger message should be: working in corrections is a tough environment. It's a unique environment. And let's look at the type of work that we're asking people to engage in and ask nationally where we stand in New Hampshire as it pertains to wage and benefits and are we investing enough in that profession as a state.

Regarding the opioid crisis - it affects people both inside and outside prisons. What is the state Department of Corrections doing to help people struggling with addiction?

That's a great question and I'm very pleased to say several years ago we implemented medication assisted treatment before many corrections departments did and have engaged in that practice now for several years as well as trying to learn from our engagement in that practice. We also implemented what's called a focus unit on the men's side which is a modified therapeutic community just for individuals with substance use. What we were finding in the prisons is we would write people up and we would increase their housing. It wasn't changing their pattern of behavior. So instead of just what, you know, the community might be experiences, you can't you can't arrest your way out of this problem. Well, we can't right discipline report out of this problem and we did several years ago say, let's give treatment as an option, and let's create this modified therapeutic community. And again learning from that and improving that process. We're right on the cusp of being able to say that we've changed behavior. 

Gov. Chris Sununu said last February that the women's prison, that is under construction in Concord, is a desperately needed asset. What's the status of the women's prison?

So the construction is still on time and within budget. And as I've said both to the Executive Council and other parties, invested parties, that we are targeting end of March, early April, to literally move existing Goffstown services into the new campus and right now we're about five positions away from being successful. Meaning five new positions that we need to fill to meet the right staffing pattern to open that facility.

In rules drafted last month, the Department of Corrections struck a number of instances of the word 'inmate' from its rules and replaced it with a phrase 'persons under departmental control' so I wanted to ask you about the word inmate. Is is is that disappearing from our language as more people are aware of the stigma it carries?

That's our intent. And we've seen that nationally. When doing the research around the term inmate or offender you'll see other departments of corrections starting to refer to people who end up incarcerated as 'returning citizens.' And that's what they are. Most people who commit a felony who end up incarcerated are returning to their communities and our job in corrections is to recognize that everyone is a person and that each person needs a certain level of intervention to help return them in a more safe and healthy way to their communities. 

Helen Hanks, thank you very much for speaking with me.

My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Helen Hanks is the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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