As North Dakota slashes its prison population amid pandemic, other states lag behind

Outside Chances Corrections officer Calvin Kamara
Corrections officer Calvin Kamara performs a routine check on occupied cells at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in May 2019. Forum News Service file photo
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FARGO — North Dakota has done more than any other state in the U.S. to reduce its prison population during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a nonprofit group's analysis.

North Dakota state prisons housed 1,461 inmates as of late April or early May, which was down 333 compared to Dec. 31, according to the findings of the Prison Policy Initiative, which researches incarceration . That means the state cut its prison population by 19%.

“They’re doing something right,” Prison Policy spokeswoman Wanda Bertram said, noting that North Dakota is a standout state that prepared for the virus in the most realistic way.

North Dakota took several early steps that likely helped reduce its prison population faster than other states, North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Leann Bertsch said Friday, May 22.


The agency started formulating contingency plans before the coronavirus hit North Dakota. The state parole board released more than 100 inmates to help with coronavirus mitigation, and prisons suspended intakes in early March before slowly accepting new inmates on a case-by-case basis.

Other states implemented similar strategies, but many did so after the virus was introduced into their facilities, Bertsch said.

“It was better to be proactive versus waiting till you have the virus in your facilities in a widespread manner,” she said.

Across the country, local governments on average have done more to reduce jail populations, Prison Policy's analysis concluded. Of the 607 U.S. jails examined, the group found the median jail reduction was 31%, while the largest drop was 63%.

Overall, states have reduced prison populations by only 5%, Prison Policy said.


Communities have used a variety of methods to bring down their jail populations, Bertram said.
Law enforcement agencies have issued court summons or citations for some crimes instead of arresting offenders. Courts have reduced bail or, in some cases, issued more promise-to-appear orders. Jails have also released some nonviolent offenders.

North Dakota jails were not listed in the analysis, but several counties told The Forum their jail populations have dropped since the pandemic began.


Fargo's Cass County Jail had an inmate count of 276 in mid-March. As of Friday, it had about 187 inmates.

The Stutsman County Jail in Jamestown, N.D., cut its jail population by half, with about 35 inmates remaining as of last week.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota has called on the DOCR and jails to reduce inmate populations, noting that prisoners can't practice social distancing.

Confined spaces, people going in and out of jails and prisons, limited ventilation and lack of hygiene in the facilities make jails and prisons “highly conducive" to spreading the coronavirus, the ACLU said.

“Of the 100 hot spots in this country for coronavirus, 57 are in jails and prisons, and seven of the top 10 clusters are in jails and prisons,” North Dakota ACLU Advocacy Director Dane DeKrey said.

DeKrey noted that the Cass County Jail conducted testing and found six inmates and five jail officers were infected.

In North Dakota's prison system, testing detected 10 infected inmates — five in the state penitentiary and five in the Missouri River Correctional Center.

The state penitentiary housed a total of 618 inmates as of May 19, while the Missouri River Correctional Center had 117 inmates.


South Dakota and Minnesota were two of nine states not included in Prison Policy's analysis.

As of Thursday, May 21, Minnesota had a prison population of 8,223, a 7% reduction since Dec. 31, according to numbers obtained by The Forum.

Minnesota will implement a temporary policy to expedite the release of low- to medium-risk inmates who are within 90 days of their regularly-scheduled release date, Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesman Nicholas Kimball said.

Minnesota also has begun efforts to test all prisoners. Of 2,347 tests completed in Minnesota prisons, 116 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, according to state figures.

South Dakota's prison population has dropped by 6% since Dec. 31, according to numbers obtained by The Forum. With 3,585 inmates as of Thursday, the state has not changed any releasing practices or guidelines, prison spokesman Michael Winder said in an email.

South Dakota has had at least three positive cases in its prisons, but has not done mass testing. Winder declined to say why South Dakota has not conducted mass testing in its prisons or whether it had plans to test all state inmates.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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