BISMARCK — As the state prison system fights a surge of inmates — and the pressures of the opioid and addiction crisis — North Dakota corrections leaders say they plan to launch a new program at the state penitentiary next year teaching young adults the skills they need to stay out of prison.
The program continues state officials’ pivot to a more progressive criminal justice system, which has come after decades of rising inmate numbers. State leaders have stripped down criminal penalties for first-time, nonviolent offenses and invested in behavioral health programs, all in a bid to make the system less needlessly punitive, they argue, and ultimately more effective.
That’s also true of conditions within prisons themselves, where corrections leaders tout the opportunities prisoners have to build independence, job skills and social abilities before they’re released.
The program, announced Nov. 15, is dubbed “Restoring Promise,” and hinges on training aid from the Vera Institute of Justice and MILPA Collective, both of which are national groups with a focus on criminal justice reform. Colby Braun, who leads facility operations for the state corrections department, said North Dakota’s chance to participate comes after a months-long application process that unfolded earlier this year, and will provide instructional and technical support to help implement the program.
“We know there’s young men that come back to prison, they get out and they make another mistake and they come back to prison,” Braun said. “And it’s so exciting to know that we’re partnering with some people that will give us some insight to help these young men make changes in their life so (prison) can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Braun’s emphasis on keeping inmates out of prison is notable. Though state officials are optimistic that reforms will curb growth, inmate tallies surged more than 30% between 2005 and 2018, despite the state’s population growing about 18%. And there is great concern over limited prison space — which was a key factor in launching those reforms.
A press release about the program describes the program only in broad strokes, and Alex Frank, who directs the Restoring Promise project for Vera, said that the program’s particulars will be tailored to feedback coordinators receive in coming months at North Dakota State Penitentiary.
That makes it difficult to know what the program will look like. But Frank said the program traces its roots to a 2015 trip Vera officials took to Germany with senior leaders from Connecticut, where those leaders were impressed with progressive European prison policies. The result was a forward-thinking program that emphasizes counseling and “peer and self-criticism” that helps inmates grow, according to a feature segment on "60 Minutes."
There are now Restoring Promise programs there, in South Carolina and in Massachusetts, and North Dakota is joining the initiative alongside programs opening in Colorado and Idaho.
Both Braun and the Vera Institute offered further clues on how the program could develop. Braun forecasts a segment of state penitentiary prisoners meeting and building community twice a day — led alternately by staff and by themselves — and participating in group sessions that would help them function more effectively as free men.
“Restoring Promise repurposes existing housing units for young adult mentees (ages 18-25) and mentors (incarcerated people over the age of 25) in prisons and jails,” a state press release describing the program reads. “...Though every Restoring Promise unit is different, young adults and mentors are meant to participate in practices toward self-determination, cultural identity, community strengthening, restorative justice dialogues (and) meaningful activities that promote or restore family and community connections.”
And Frank emphasized two critical parts of the program: an emphasis on the disproportionate amount of young people that are incarcerated and face danger while incarcerated, as well as the racial equity “lens” through which Vera approaches its work.
“The other piece that I think (Vera and MILPA) brings in is the cultural aspect, and the overrepresentation of Native Americans in the prison system, and (it helps us) understand, what are the things we can do to help our young Native American men?” Braun said.
Braun said he expects costs for the program to be minimal — possibly a matter of allocating state employees’ time for training and implementation.
It’s not clear how long the partnership will last. Frank said that, for now, the program plans to partner with North Dakota officials indefinitely.
“It’s not a program, it’s a movement,” she said. “It’s less programmatic than it is a transformed model of corrections.”