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Berlin's Federal Prison: A Huge Economic Resource Waiting To Be Tapped
Photo by Chris Jensen
A lot of attention has been focused on the economic boost the North Country would get from a biomass plant in Berlin.
But another group has been quietly working on a project that has far more potential for the North Country.
It is the new federal prison in Berlin.
As NHPR’s Chris Jensen reports, the group’s goal is to give North Country residents their best shot at those jobs.
Deborah Schult is the new warden at the federal prison in Berlin.
She came here after running a federal prison in New York.
Recently, she spoke to a team in Berlin working to help people get jobs at the prison, and to help local businesses sell services to the prison.
“We anticipate that about $38 million will go back into the local community every year.
Twenty-eight million of that is going to come from the staff and the salaries.”
Schult anticipates those people will buy everything from groceries to cars and houses.
The remaining $10 million will be used to purchase services and supplies, ideally locally.
“Fully activated we are going to house about 1,700 inmates and employ about 332 staff.”
All that means the federal prison is going to be a big deal for the North Country.
About 200 employees will be new hires.
Correction officers can start with a salary ranging from just under $40,000 and reach just over $51,000, plus benefits.
But getting a job at a federal prison is extremely complicated.
And for Berlin, there’s a great deal at stake.
Kathy Eneguess is President of the White Mountains Community College in Berlin.
“The last time that we saw something that was going to bring this number of jobs was when the mills were both up and running.”
That’s why the White Mountains Community College and New Hampshire’s Department of Employment Security got together with about two dozen other groups to form what’s called “The Talent Team.”
Modeled after a successful program in West Virginia., it’s designed to give people throughout the region their best chance of getting a job.
The Talent Team is sorely needed.
Take the application.
First – with rare exceptions – federal law prevents hiring anyone older than 36.
Applying includes an in-depth background check as well as passing a physical fitness test.
John Dyer, with White Mountains Community College, says one mistake with the online application means an excellent chance of not passing “Go.”
“So, understanding how to fill it out in a way that it can be electronically scored satisfactorily so it will eventually end up in the hands of a human being in an HR department that will look at it is the great challenge.”
That course takes fifteen hours.
There’s also a course on writing skills.
A huge part of the process involves a background check.
James Michalik, with the Family Resource Center in Gorham, is part of the Talent Team.
“The Bureau of Prisons puts every single applicant through a very vigorous - and I say with no disrespect – intrusive background investigation.”
It includes everything from a credit history to previous employers and residences.
The Family Resource Center helps applicants work out any problems with their credit history and shows them how to collect the needed documents.
Meanwhile the state’s Department of Resources and Economic Development has been working with small businesses to give them their best chance of selling goods and services to the prison.
David Pease runs the state’s program.
“The federal government does business, first of all, completely differently than business-to-business transactions. It is governed by a completely different body of law, lots of regulations.”
The 245 million dollar prison sits on 700 acres.
A dozen or so employees are working there but there isn’t a prisoner in sight.
It’s in a kind of correctional limbo, because Congress declined to provide the funding in the last budget.
Just having the prison empty still costs about $4 million a year.
To have it operating would cost about $24 million more.
The latest hope is that the funding will be included this October in the 2012 fiscal budget.
John Dyer, of the White Mountains Community College, says there’s upside to the delay.
“From my perspective it is great and that may sound counter-intuitive but it gives us more time to get the workforce ready, it gives us more time to get businesses ready.”