Although North Dakota Senate decision lies ahead, House puts prison reshuffling proposal on hold
BISMARCK — One of Gov. Doug Burgum's major initiatives has suffered a setback — at least temporarily.
The North Dakota House on Tuesday, Feb. 19, voted 89-7 for an interim study on a state prison reshuffling, in effect denying the request for funding this year to begin implementing Burgum's plan.
That plan calls for moving prisoners from the Dakota Women's Correctional Center in New England in western North Dakota to the Missouri River Correctional Center near Bismarck, which now houses low-risk male prisoners and is separate from the men's state penitentiary that opened in 2013 at a cost of $64 million. Then, the low-risk male prisoners would be moved to the campus of the State Hospital in Jamestown, adjacent to a satellite prison that houses medium-risk male inmates.
The Burgum plan also calls for a new $35 million 80-bed state hospital in Jamestown, replacing a facility that dates back to the 1980s, when treatment methods were much different than today.
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Tuesday that a conversation would continue with the state Senate to explain the need to make the changes.
The Senate could resurrect Burgum's plan, then go to a conference committee with the House for a final decision.
However, that looks like some rough sledding after the lopsided House vote.
The House vote made one official in Hettinger County, where the women's prison is located, happy. County Sheriff Sarah Wagner, one of two female sheriffs in the state, said she supports the study, as she felt things were moving along too fast.
In an earlier House hearing on the prison reshuffling and closure, Wagner said the concerns she heard most about was the programming at the women's prison in New England. She still believes it would be less of a cost to work on improving the programs, such as medication-assisted addiction treatment efforts and medical and rehabilitative services, than to spend money on new facilities. Currently the women inmates have no access to medical or dental services in New England, meaning they have to be transported many miles for care at a large expense, which Burgum noted in his plan.
However, another concern by Warner and others in Hettinger County are about the job losses in New England, although one consideration gaining steam and supported by a committee chairman, Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, was to keep the New England facility open and housing about 100 minimum security male inmates there with a focus on job training.
However, Warner said most of the employees are women and if men were to be moved there, it would require a big change.
As for the argument that about 90 percent of the women prisoners are from eastern or central North Dakota, and the drive for family members and children to New England is far, Warner said "this is North Dakota, we drive everywhere."
She also said the warden told her that many women inmates don't want their children to see them in the prison environment or that the kids are under Social Services care or in foster homes. Three in four of the women in the prison have children under age 18.