New Hampshire Senate grants tentative approval to keep troubled juvenile prison open for two more years

The state Senate tentatively approved legislation on Thursday that would keep New Hampshire’s ailing juvenile prison open for nearly two more years.

The debate over the future of the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester started years ago but has come to a boil amid horrific allegations of sex abuse that span decades. Frustrated at spending $13 million a year to operate a 144-bed facility for about a dozen teenagers, lawmakers in 2021 ordered it to close by March 2023. But disagreements over how the facility could be replaced made it impossible to meet that deadline, and lawmakers are now considering extending several bills.

The proposal, sent to the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, would require the state to bid on the project by March and construction of a new facility to be completed by November 2024. The new center would be built for 12 residents with room for up to 18 if necessary.

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The bill would allocate $15 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for design and construction, although the Department of Administrative Services estimates the cost at $25 million and construction could take until 2028.

The New Hampshire Senate has authorized a juvenile detention center in the state to remain open for two more years.

The New Hampshire Senate has authorized a juvenile detention center in the state to remain open for two more years.

Lawmakers have not yet decided where the new facility will be built, but have mentioned Manchester, Concord or Hampstead as possibilities. In 2021, the State bought Hampstead Hospital with the aim of converting it into an inpatient and psychiatric treatment hospital for children and young adults.

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Two senators voted against the bill: Sen. Daryl Abbas of Salem and Sen. Regina Birdsell of Hampstead.

“My biggest concern right now is security,” said Birdsell, noting that Hampstead is a 35-minute drive from the nearest state police barracks. Last week it took 12 hospital workers and four or five local police officers to treat a girl who ran away, she said.

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Republican Senator Sharon Carson of Londonderry acknowledged those concerns but stressed that unlike the hospital, the new facility would be safe. And Democratic state Senator Becky Whitley of Hopkinton urged colleagues to remember the trauma faced by many children inside and outside the facility.

“We have come to this point after decades of documented and deeply disturbing abuse,” she said. “Money is important. Safety is important. But for me, children are most important. Although these children are often difficult, we know that they deserve our passion, support and commitment to do better.”

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