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An op ed: Helen Hanks a bad choice to head Corrections

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Helen Hanks was sworn in as the new Assistant Commissioner. (Tony Schinella/Patch)
The Executive Council is hearing testimony Tuesday about Helen Hanks for the job of commissioner of Corrections. The hearing starts at 9 a.m. in the Executive Council chambers on the second floor of the State House. Helen Hanks was part of the worst decision the New Hampshire Department of Corrections has ever made. It built a $38 million women's prison that will cost $50 million when and if it opens two years late. A school superintendent who runs $12 million over budget and way past deadline for a new school would lose his or her job. The same blunder in New Hampshire Corrections is partly the fault of Hanks as the assistant commissioner when it happened. That mistake alone disqualifies her for the job of commissioner. The Executive Council should hold her accountable. The department needs new leadership.
The state could have done something far better. The Cheshire County commissioners rejected a consultant's advice to build a $45 million jail several years ago. For $7 million instead, they renovated the existing lockup and placed many prisoners in a community corrections program. The state similarly could have have set up its own network of halfway houses for women on parole. Dismas Home, a nonprofit halfway house in Manchester, costs $200,000 a year to operate with no state funding and serves seven women parolees at a time. That's what should have happened at the state level. Downsize the prisons. Build halfway houses instead. Hanks is committed to a costly 19th century philosophy of corrections. Most women on parole go back to prison for lack of inexpensive community supports.
Hanks misspoke about the large number of sexual offenders missing parole.
On Sept. 15, 2014, Hanks told members of Families Now Involved, a support group for the loved ones of prisoners, that only six convicted sexual offenders were on track to miss their earliest parole dates. We told her that number was ridiculously low. She insisted it was accurate. Commissioner Bill Wrenn gave us the same figure six months later in front of 50 people at a meeting of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform. We secured a performance audit of the sex offender treatment program, which showed 200 sexual offenders had missed early parole every year since 2014. Hanks and Wrenn strongly opposed doing that audit.
In light of the audit, we recruited 10 co-sponsors for HB 192 requiring Corrections to get all of its administrative rules approved by lawmakers the way other state agencies do. The sex offender treatment rules had never gone before the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. Hanks told a House Committee last month those rules had already been filed with JLCAR. We checked with the employee writing them. He had not submitted them to JLCAR yet. JLCAR confirmed it had not received the rules. The House retained our bill, HB 192, based in part on this information from Hanks. She will continue to fight that legislation if she gets the job of commissioner. A different commissioner might welcome the proposed oversight as something healthy. You can read an intimate view of Helen Hanks in the performance audit of the sexual offender treatment program. She insists it says the program was improving between 2014 and 2017. Eight sexual offenders made parole at their earliest date in 2014. That figure rose to 12 percent at the height of an audit by two researchers working on it for six months. Hanks has said most of the people who missed parole failed to earn it. We have heard a very different story about the program from scores of men held beyond their minimum sentences. They have said the head of that program was disorganized, unethical and abusive.
The Parole improperly deferred to the prison on releasing sexual offenders.
The audit confirmed that for many years the Parole Board has taken without question the recommendations of a little known board within the prison called the Administrative Review Committee. That group serves as the de facto Parole Board for sex offenders. Sex offenders never go before the Administrative Review Committee, and they don't know when it meets, who serves on it, what information it looks at, or what its rulings say. But the Parole Board almost always takes the recommendations of the Administrative Review Committee on sex offenders seeking parole.
That is a key finding of the performance audit last November. The Office of Legislative Budget Assistant said that prison officials have long withheld from the Parole Board vital material for making parole decisions on sex offenders. The report noted on page 33 that parole officials ought to receive sex offender "..assessment scores, treatment progress, level of participation in treatment, and whether they showed signs of accepting responsibility for their crime. However, this information was not directly provided by the ISOT (sex offender treatment) program."
That is stunning news. This winter Hanks promised lawmakers she would ask them to approve the prison sex offender treatment program as rulemaking. She has postponed the filing of those rules so long that she meets with the Executive Council today long before she meets with JLCAR on the rules I'm talking about.
Hanks sought to let victims testify in secret at Parole hearings.
Hanks testified for SB 338 last year, a bill to let crime victims or their advocates testify in secret against prisoners at Parole hearings. That dubious practice was common four decades ago at the Concord men's prison. Many prisoners over the years have missed parole because they were unaware of recent and damaging victim statements against them. Lawmakers killed SB 338 after defense lawyers explained several Supreme Court decisions giving prisoners full due process. Victim advocates had met in 2015 with the Parole Board seeking its support to let victims to give this secret testimony.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nadeau, a member of the Parole Board, said at that meeting two years ago that inmates have a fundamental right to know all the same information that the Parole Board has. On his advice the victim advocates in attendance agreed to let inmates hear that victim testimony. But the prisoner would never get a hard copy of it. Three months later Hanks sat next to two crime victims giving their testimony for SB 338. The woman who seeks to be the next Corrections commissioner tried to restore the unlawful practice of secret victim testimony at Parole Board hearings.
Hanks heavily inflated the cost of a prison reform bill.
Hanks gave financial misinformation on HB 544 this winter, a bill to let a few more prisoners earn up to 21 months off their sentences. Prison officials, to their credit, have worked since 2014 to pass two earned time laws granting up that 21 months to prisoners who work very hard for it. Neither law had any reported fiscal impact. But many inmates are still unable to take the needed classes or training to win reductions.
Hanks told lawmakers that HB 544 would force the state to hire five more teachers and five case managers, perhaps a million dollar annual impact. Officials would also need $53,000 to reprogram computers for the change in policy. Hanks finally told lawmakers last week she had overestimated the cost of HB 544. She told a subcommittee that none of those new positions were actually needed. The next commissioner must give scrupulously accurate testimony at State House hearings.
Other problems have gotten far worse with Hanks as deputy.
The prison is so short of staff that many officers are working two, three and four double shifts per week. They are exhausted under dangerous conditions which are unfair to guards and inmates alike. Work for 16 hours, drive home, sleep, eat, shower, drive to work. Follow that routine three or four times a week. The personnel are badly underpaid compared with the federal officers in Berlin and the state guards in Massachusetts. Staff turnover here is rampant. Manpower is so low that all the gyms shut down at 2 p.m., and they are closed on the weekends. The next commissioner must be free to confront this funding and staffing problem.
Commissioner Wrenn watched or allowed these terrible conditions to worsen for many years, and his deputy was Helen Hanks when it happened. If this erosion was not his fault, he should have resigned in protest. Helen Hanks should have resigned with him. The Executive Council should ask the governor to launch a broad search for a new commissioner of Corrections. Helen Hanks is probably the wrong person to solve major problems her department allowed to grow. But by all means let her apply for the job with a strong group of competing candidates.
Audit section on the administrative review committee
Program Operations 26 Observation No. 4 _____________________________________________________________________
Establish The Administrative Review Committee In Rule And Develop Policies And Procedures
_____________________________________________________________________________
Even though the ARC had a lot of power in granting sexual offenders a discharge or terminating and removing them from ISOT, the DOC did not formally establish the ARC in rule or document its operations in policy and procedure directives.
While the ARC did not review sexual offenders recommended for community treatment, it performed an external review to ensure ISOT participants satisfactorily met their treatment goals and, if necessary, recommended further treatment. The ARC was also responsible for determining whether participants should be terminated and removed from the program, as well as when they may return. If the ARC determined treatment goals were met, it granted the participant a discharge and submitted its recommendations for parole restrictions or further treatment to the Adult Parole Board (Board). According to Board members, it did not grant sexual offenders parole unless the ARC granted a discharge from the ISOT program. Additionally, the ARC's recommendations were usually incorporated into the offender's parole conditions.
RSA 21-H:13, III, required the DOC to promulgate administrative rules relative to management and operation of rehabilitation related programs, including counseling and therapy. Administrative rules are meant to prescribe or interpret agency policy, procedure, or practice binding on persons outside the agency, whether members of the public or personnel in other agencies. Formal rulemaking provides the opportunity for public and legislative oversight, and provides greater certainty and accountability in agency interactions with outside parties. The contract ISOT participants signed indicated any violation of program rules may be referred to the ARC and its role was discussed in the handbook given to all ISOT participants. However, the ARC's role in the sexual offender treatment process and its responsibilities were not formalized in administrative rules or DOC policy and procedure directives.
Without rules, policies, or procedures describing the ARC's roles, responsibilities, and scope of authority, the DOC risks uncertainty and irregularities when performing its function. One Board member stated the Board was under the impression the ARC reviewed all sexual offenders including those who were recommended for community treatment. In addition, ARC members reported that because there was no manual or document outlining its responsibilities, they learned their duties through participating in meetings and asking other ARC members.
Recommendations:
We recommend DOC management formally codify the ARC and ensure policies and procedures outlining its role, responsibilities, scope of authority, and practices in the sexual offender treatment process are developed. The DOC should consider:
*the population of sexual offenders subject to the ARC's review;
*its authority in terminating and removing participants from, as well as returning participant to, the ISOT program;
*its role in granting a discharge from the program; and
*its responsibility as it pertains to interactions with the Parole Board.
Agency Response:
We Concur. We will codify the Administrative Review Committee in rule and policy.
- Chris Dornin,
co-founder, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, cldornin@aol.com
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