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Ayotte tours prison, works to get it open

August 24, 2011
BERLIN - Last week, U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte toured the massive, extravagant -- and still empty -- federal prison. For over an hour, she walked leisurely through a facility that cost nearly a quarter of billion dollars to build. The freshman Senator peered in cells, looked across a vast recreation yard and marveled at the shinny kitchen and unused dinning hall. She saw everything but not a single prisoner.

"It is ridiculous," she said, "to have a top-rate facility where there is a need (and) an over-crowding of the prison system." As the newest member of the Senate Budget Committee she's trying to untangle the mess that has left this prison without operating funds. Yet, she was one of a couple dozen Senators to cast votes against the debt ceiling compromise that recently passed the U. S. Senate.

The tour was lead by Prison Warden Deborah Schult and included State Senator John Gallus, as well as a pair of local news reporters. The operating funds for the prison have been caught up a federal snag. Unable to pass a federal budget last year, the government has been running on a "continuing resolution" This allows all existing operations to be funded, but since this prison was not operating, "This a new facility so the funds are not in place." Ayotte said.

Gallus is frustrated by the delay, but still excited by the economic boost that it will bring.

"It's absurd," he said, "(Federal) government approved [it, but is] not prepared to fund it." He recounted the efforts to win both the state prison, which sits nearby, and this one. Prison are a growth industry in rural areas, he said.

"We're so grateful to get this prison," Gallus said, "it will contribute so much to the community." The prison when fully operational will house 2,052 inmates, employ 332 employees and contribute $38 million back into the community, mostly in wages, but also in local purchasing. Ayotte is pushing for an increase in the 37 year-old maximum age requirement for most of the jobs. But now, they're waiting for funding and hoping that when Congress returns in the fall the funding will be secured.

"Where ready to go," said Schult. Once funding is in place it will take six months to fill core personnel and 8-9 months to house inmates. Even sitting empty it cost $4 million a year to maintain.

A brand-new, empty prison hardly packs the sobering punch of one filled with prisoners and human misery. On the surface, it seemed almost luxurious compared to most housing in cash-strapped Coos County. It sits high on 700 secluded acres with the rolled-razor wire reflecting brightly against the summer sun. The building is handsome, stately and boasts air-conditioning, an expansive recreation area, full-service medical, dental and pharmacy, handicapped-access cells. Required to accommodate religious affiliation, they offer Kosher cuisine and a sweat lodge.

The prison is separated into 64 pods (formerly known as cell blocks) that have 32 units each, plus special housing for segregated prisoners and those being transitioned out. The Medium Security prison is for inmates serving a maximum 15-year sentence, mostly for drug related crimes.

Warden Schult said the goal is rehabilitation. "When they hit the front door," she said, "they are enrolled in a nine-point program, and we track it." Inmates are required to work in shoveling snow, landscaping, food service, and the trades.

Ayotte had several stops in the region, including a town meeting in Lancaster. She said people are very concerned about the economy.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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