Berlin prison at risk in state budget


March 23, 2011
BERLIN — If the Department of Corrections is mandated to reduce its personnel budget by five percent the Northern N.H. Correctional Facility in Berlin could be on the chopping block. The closure could take with it approximately 185 jobs.

In a letter sent from Department of Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn, to the House Finance Committee Division I, Wrenn outlines the cuts he has been asked to make and makes his argument against them. "After much review, analysis and discussion, my senior staff and I have determined that the Department cannot continue to operate in a safe, effective and efficient manner if the proposed cuts take effect," he writes.

In the end, however, he lets the committee know, that should they require these cuts actually be made in the final budget he sees no way to make them short of closing the Berlin facility, though that is not a solution he advocates. "I conclude, after careful consideration, that this can only be accomplished with the closure of the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility…"

Although he puts the closure on the table, Wrenn argues against it. "To be clear, it is not my recommendation that this facility be closed," he said. "This option was discussed with the Governor at length during the Governor's phase of the budget process and was determined not to be a viable option to address the budget concerns," Wrenn told the committee.

Larry Blaisdell, warden at the state's northernmost prison, admitted that these are tough times, but said he is behind the statements made by Wrenn in the letter. "I certainly support the commissioner and what he's trying to do," Blaisdell said. He noted that the letter makes it clear to the legislature that the Department of Corrections has been cut so much in recent years there are few places left to trim.

Blaisdell pointed out that the Department of Corrections had seen massive cuts two years ago with the closure of the Laconia prison, that took with it 200 positions. "Commissioner Wrenn doesn't take any of these positions lightly," he said.

That sentiment was echoed by DOC spokesman Jeff Lyons who said the letter was in response to being asked by the committee to meet a certain budget goal. Since safety is paramount, he explained, Wrenn did not deem it prudent to cut adequate staffing and programming already in place, so this was the only option left.

"The commissioner is very clear that he doesn't want to do this," Lyons said.

Should the closure take place, the state would be looking at contracting with out of state facilities to take the overflow of prisoners.

"Do I want to see this place closed? Absolutely not," Blaisdell explained. But, he noted, should the legislature push the issue, there seems to be few options.

Blaisdell lauded his staff, calling them incredibly professional, but added that they are "now just sitting tight and waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Lyons pointed out that the state budget is still a work in progress. "It's still a couple of months out," he said. With the budget proposals just being reviewed in committee this week, he said, they will likely see revisions as they go through the full oversight process. Only when they have gone before both the Senate and the House will we know what the true fate of the prison will be.

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