FARGO — The transfer of the state women’s prison from Bismarck to the farming town of New England was widely seen as a temporary move when it was made in 2003.
Now, more than 15 years later, the debate over whether to move the women’s prison back to Bismarck has largely focused on concerns of the economic impact to a struggling rural town of 600.
Critics are quick to claim it contradicts Gov. Doug Burgum’s Main Street Initiative to revitalize the state’s cities and towns — but the governor and corrections officials say the proposal is driven by a gaping disparity between services that are available to incarcerated men and women.
Consider a few examples:
Men who are serving sentences in North Dakota prisons have much greater access to medical and rehabilitative services than women.
Women prison inmates have no access to medication-assisted treatment to help them overcome addictions.
Women in the prison have no community access to medical or dental services, meaning they have to be transported many miles for care.
Care coordination and peer support capacity for men incarcerated in Bismarck is more than four times greater than what is available to women.
“The need is obvious,” said Burgum, adding that the state has a responsibility to treat men and women inmates equally.
The wide disparity in services available to women inmates, officials said, was the catalyst for a series of related, domino changes involving corrections and behavioral health services to accommodate the women’s prison move and gain efficiencies — centerpieces in Burgum’s agenda to reinvent state government.
The plan calls for moving women prisoners to the Missouri River Correctional Center near Bismarck, which now houses low-risk male prisoners and is separate from the new state penitentiary, a $64 million facility that opened in 2013.
Modifying the correctional center to accommodate women would cost $1.8 million, and will save $2 million in operating costs during the first biennium, said Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“We’ll save even more in the next biennium,” she said, after the costs have been absorbed.
For the governor's proposal to become reality, state lawmakers must first approve it. On Jan. 16, people on both sides of the issue crowded into a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee for the Human Resources Division.
Several former inmates testified in favor of the move, while many residents of the prison town showed up wearing "I stand with New England" stickers. Hettinger County Sheriff Sarah Warner attended to show support for the townspeople, whom she said benefit from the prison.
"This is just another pull-out from our small community," she said. "We need these opportunities to stay alive."
The committee's chairman, Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, said last week that the governor's proposal is far from a done deal. If female inmates are moved out of the New England prison, Nelson said he would support keeping the facility open and housing about 100 minimum security male inmates there with a focus on job training.
'The human toll'
Although moving the women’s prison will save the state money, the major motivation is to provide better rehabilitation services that will produce better outcomes, Bertsch said.
“For me personally, it’s really the human toll,” she said. “That does translate into fiscal and financial impact as well.”
A recent example: A pregnant woman who was receiving methadone treatment for an opioid addiction was going to be moved to the women’s prison — until a doctor intervened to keep her in the Cass County Jail, where medication-assisted addiction treatment is available.
“That’s a serious concern,” Bertsch said, noting that methadone withdrawal can be fatal to an unborn child. “It would have put the fetus in peril.”
If women prisoners now incarcerated in New England are moved to the Missouri River Correctional Center, the plan is to move those low-risk men to the campus of the State Hospital in Jamestown, adjacent to a satellite prison that houses medium-risk men.
Burgum’s proposal also calls for a new 80-bed state hospital, with a cost of $35 million, paid by earnings from the state's Legacy Fund, which receives oil and gas tax revenue.
The current state hospital is licensed to accept up to 105 inpatients, but more and more behavioral health services are being delivered in community- and home-based settings.
“That’s a better place for them to be long-term,” said Tom Eide, director of field services for the North Dakota Department of Human Services. “Hopefully we can get them closer to their homes.”
Also, the layout of the modern hospital will enable a smaller staff, resulting in operating savings. The efficiency gains from a new building and staffing total $8 million per biennium, Eide said. Chronic staff shortages, requiring overtime pay, make the streamlined operations imperative, he said.
“We’ve got to do things to get more efficient,” Eide said.
A new hospital would replace a setup that dates back to the 1980s, when treatment methods were much different than today, he said.
“The ability to have a new facility is going to provide a better environment for our patients and a safer environment for patients and staff,” Eide said. “It is a more healing and healthful environment,” including more open spaces and natural light.
A new hospital also would include a new clinic, and a new human services center would share the campus, again resulting in shared facilities and efficiency gains, Eide said.
The brick-and-mortar proposals involved in the initiative to move the women’s prison and build a new state hospital have captured most of the attention, but they are in tandem with a major realignment of programs in both corrections and behavioral health services.
In each case, the goal is to intervene with services more quickly and more effectively, avoiding acute crises that result in incarceration or mental health hospitalization, officials said.
The service inequities between women and men prison inmates once forced the state to defend a costly discrimination lawsuit, filed in 2003, that took six years to dismiss — a consideration in Burgum’s sweeping proposals.
Besides the gap in services, the prison’s remote location, far from the homes and families of most inmates, is seen as an impediment to rehabilitating women, the vast majority of whom will be released.
Ninety percent of women in the Dakota Women’s Correctional Center come from communities in central and eastern North Dakota, often hundreds of miles from New England, which lacks bus service.
“It has a negative effect on the family, particularly children,” Burgum said. Studies have found, he added, that children whose parents have been incarcerated are at greater risk to be jailed or imprisoned.
Three in four of the women in the prison have children under the age of 18.
More than half of the inmates reoffend, perpetuating a cycle that is expensive to taxpayers — the tab to keep an inmate in prison for a year is $42,000 — and costly in the disruptions to families and society.
“We’re really not getting a return on our investment,” Bertsch said.
Besides lacking services, the New England location results in significant transportation costs when prisoners have to be driven for medical and dental care.
“Our system as it is is pretty dysfunctional,” Bertsch said. “We’ve just had to deal with the deficiencies because it really is a difficult political situation and I recognize that.”
The prison means 56 jobs for New England. But Bertsch and Burgum are quick to note that southwestern North Dakota has between 800 and 1,000 job openings.
“If it’s about jobs in southwestern North Dakota, we’ve got a lot of unfilled jobs,” Burgum said. The state’s priority must be about providing better services that will not only save money but will lead to more productive lives through rehabilitation, the governor said.
“That’s what the focus has to be,” Burgum said. “It’s not about how we make better prison jobs.”
Job Service of North Dakota can help to match workers with jobs, and legislators can provide help for job retraining and transitional programs, he said. Similarly, there can be a discussion about finding a new use for the women’s prison, a former Catholic high school and dormitory.
“There’s all manner of things we can do there,” Burgum added. “This is a completely solvable, completely doable issue.”
Editor's note: This story has a companion piece that shares the perspectives of eight inmates in the North Dakota women's prison. Read it here.