CONCORD – NH Prison Watch, a coalition of organizations opposed to the proposed privatization of New Hampshire’s prison system, drew a large audience Tuesday night to a screening of “Billions Behind Bars,” a documentary program detailing the pitfalls of the private prison industry.
The screening, which was held at Red River Theaters in Concord, was followed by a panel discussion that included Margaret Oot-Hayes, a professor at Regis College, Pastor Alice Roberts, of Bethany Church in Newport, and Randy Hunneyman, a professor in the NH Dept. of Corrections. The discussion was moderated by Arnie Alpert of the NH chapter of the American Friends Service Committee.
Alpert, who has played a key role in the Prison Watch coalition, explained that the outside consultant evaluating proposals from private prison corporations had failed to meet the report deadline twice already and has received another extension. Ultimately, though, the decision on whether to advance one of the prison plans will rest with the Executive Council.
Roberts, who is the former chaplain of the State Prison for Women and chair of the Prison Concerns Committee of the Episcopal Church, began the discussion by highlighting the role that money plays in prison privatization.
“I really do think that if we keep putting money ahead of people, we’re headed for doom in this country,” Roberts said. “There’s no reason why we as citizens in this state can’t take care of our own problems. These are people we are dealing with, our citizens, and we need to stand up and take care of it properly, and also bring them back into society as good citizens.”
Hunneyman concurred, and warned of the pitfalls of abdicating social responsibility.
“We need to be very careful of any alliances with private companies,” said Hunneyman, a member of the State Employees’ Association. “This is the responsibility of the State of New Hampshire. This is all of our responsibilities, the citizens of the State of New Hampshire. And we need to let the elected officials know there are just some things you can’t reduce to a monetary formula.”
While Oot-Hayes said she was disappointed by what the documentary left out, she was pleased with the inclusion of a special court program run by Judge Robert Francis in Texas that aims to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison through direct intervention and counseling.
“I want to say ‘way to go, Judge Francis,’ but that would never happen here if we do go with privatization,” she said. “Because when we go with privatization, they’re going to cut costs. So there goes any form of rehabilitation. There goes any programming.”
Hunneyman noted that cuts have gutted the prison system here, and said that even if privatization is rejected, there is still a prison problem that needs to be addressed.
“What happens beyond this point? We do have to take a look at alternatives to incarceration, such as SB 500,” he said, referring to legislation aimed at providing the rehabilitation and parole enforcement tools needed to help prisoners re-enter society successfully and build a new life.
“Get them out in the community, supervise them while they’re out there, and provide the supports that are necessary to make good decisions,” he said.
Diana Lacey, president of the State Employees’ Association, said the documentary provides a call to action, and NH residents should follow the lead of protestors shown in the program.
“This is our obligation to take this story public and make our voice heard,” Lacey said. “We can help write the narrative in New Hampshire, we can help right the values that we want the Granite State to stand for, but we have to bring our voice to it no matter what.”
If you missed out on this screening, several more are planned around the state. Dates and times are still being determined. Watch for details in upcoming SEA publications. If you’d like to learn more about prison privatization in New Hampshire, you can visit www.nhprisonwatch.org. While you’re there, you can sign an online petition telling Gov. John Lynch and the Executive Council that private prisons are wrong for New Hampshire.