BISMARCK — With North Dakota's prison populations swelling and troublesome racial disparities persisting in the criminal justice system, top correctional officials knew something had to change.

A few years back, leaders with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began having difficult and uncomfortable conversations, leading them to a new way of thinking that emphasizes a greater sense of dignity and respect for incarcerated people, said agency director Dave Krabbenhoft.

“It didn’t make sense for North Dakota to keep building prisons and just accepting the fact that we’re going to incarcerate more and more people," Krabbenhoft said. "We started really focusing on humanity, and then the shift became more about the people and more about making our community safe.”

The latest step on the long journey to reform the prison system is beginning to take shape. The department is teaming with nonprofit-led initiative Restoring Promise to turn part of Bismarck's State Penitentiary into a new-look housing unit inspired by progressive European criminal justice practices by the end of the year.

Instead of nailed-down furniture and blank walls, the reconstituted housing unit might contain a colorful interior with art hanging up, a meditation space, a computer room and a library, said Clinique Chapman, a senior program associate with Restoring Promise. In other words, the unit might look more like someone's home.

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"If they have to live there, let's make it a place that they can heal," Chapman said.

Those living in the unit may also have greater access to loved ones and classes on life skills, while staff may receive education on Black and Native American history and culture, Chapman said. Inmates and staff will also have input into what the unit ultimately looks like, she said.

Exact details on the size and makeup of the unit still need to be ironed out, but prison units usually range from 20 to 70 inmates. A central goal of the new housing arrangement is to provide positive influences to inmates under 25, so the organization aims to have a ratio of eight staff members and older mentoring inmates to each younger inmate.

Restoring Promise, a joint venture between nonprofits MILPA and the Vera Institute of Justice, will provide technical assistance and consultation on the unit while conducting research on prison demographics and inmate attitudes, but the facility will be owned and operated by the department and its staff. There is no financial agreement between the organizations, and the department will not receive any state funding outside of its budget to implement the plan, Krabbenhoft said.

Behind "restorative" housing units is the philosophy that treating incarcerated people with dignity while holding them accountable is a more effective and humane rehabilitation strategy than punishing them and forcing them to live in the restrictive housing traditionally found in prisons across the country, Chapman said.

"We don't need to double down on the punishment," Chapman said. "We need to double down on the healing and prepare them to go home to address harms."

Krabbenhoft notes that 97% of inmates in the system are due to return home at some point, and giving them a say in how they live in prison increases the odds they'll be ready for life after incarceration.

The approach, still unconventional in an American context, has been successfully applied in countries like Germany and Norway, where those who leave prison are less likely to reoffend and more prepared to reenter society, Chapman said.

Over the last few years, Restoring Promise has partnered with a jail in Massachusetts and prisons in Connecticut and South Carolina to create housing units. Chapman said the organization has observed drops in violence and greater sentiments of safety and fairness among inmates in the units, but the project's adolescence means there's not enough data to know whether the units are tied to reduced rates of recidivism.

The endeavor is expanding this year to North Dakota, Idaho and Colorado, which the organization selected over a dozen other states that applied. Chapman said the Peace Garden State made the cut because of corrections officials' strong demonstrated interest in culture change and the deep racial disparities that exist within the prison population. Native American and Black North Dakotans are four times more likely to be imprisoned, on parole or on probation than their white counterparts, according to figures released last year.

Krabbenhoft insists the new restorative unit is not a pilot project for the state, but rather a foreshadowing of the system's future. In the years to come, the whole prison system will likely look to mimic the Restoring Promise unit as the department further applies the organization's philosophy of adding humanity and dignity to incarceration, he said.

"We hope this is going to be transformative for our system, and the result of that is you're going to see less people coming back to prison," Krabbenhoft said. "Public safety remains our top priority, but we do believe that our residents here need to have the appropriate place at the table when we're talking about it because what better way to understand how people have ended up where they have been than to having those conversations?"

The North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. (Korrie Wenzel / Forum News Service)
The North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. (Korrie Wenzel / Forum News Service)