Forum Editorial: North Dakota needs to stop dawdling and build a new women’s prison

The grossly inadequate women's prison occupies an abandoned boarding school in a remote location that lacks access to health care and other services.

Editorial FSA

Think about this for a moment: North Dakota has been a state for more than 133 years, and it has never built a prison designed specifically for women. Not once. Never.

The Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England was established in 2003, moving into a retrofitted Catholic boarding school. That arrangement never was considered a permanent fix — but here we are, two decades later, still muddling along with a facility that can charitably be called substandard.

It can more accurately be described as grossly inadequate. Yet most of the state’s women inmates are housed at the makeshift prison in New England, a farming town of 600 located 25 miles south of Dickinson.

Most of the women held at the prison are mothers; some enter while pregnant. But in remote New England, there is no easy access to obstetrical and gynecological services — or any other health care, for that matter.

The women’s prison has 55 full-time employees, most of whom commute to work.


Viewed objectively, there is no good reason — absolutely none — for keeping the women’s prison in New England in an old, inadequate facility that was designed to be a boarding school.

The North Dakota Legislature can no longer ignore the very real and at this point inexcusable shortcomings of Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, owned and operated by a seven-county consortium under contract with the state.

In his budget recommendations, Gov. Doug Burgum has proposed a new, $161.2 million, 260-bed women’s prison , with plans calling for it to be built adjacent to the Heart River Correctional Center near Mandan.

There’s no question that a modern, state-of-the art prison in that location, which can take advantage of the Bismarck-Mandan labor pool, community services and health providers, would be a far better location.

Consider that almost 85% of the women at the prison have a substance abuse diagnosis. More than 25% have serious mental health issues and 50% have a dual diagnosis. Mental illnesses have become more prevalent over time.

Not only is the women’s prison inadequate, it is often overcrowded, described by Warden Rachelle Juntenen as “crammed.” The prison population, which increased from 129 in 2003 to 286 in 2021, stood at 138 at the end of 2022. The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation lists the prison’s current capacity as 126.

Let’s not forget that the mission of the facility is to rehabilitate the women in its care, not merely to warehouse them. That can be done much more effectively in a prison with adequate space that was designed for that purpose.

Unfortunately, the North Dakota Legislature’s thinking has given priority to helping a rural community instead of doing what is best for the women housed at the prison — and for the state, which has a vested interest in these women becoming productive members of society.


“We have a moral and legal responsibility to provide health care for anybody who’s in our system, and you can’t do that in the current location,” Gov. Doug Burgum told The Forum Editorial Board.

He’s absolutely right. The outdated, inadequate women’s prison is a lawsuit waiting to happen — in fact, the state had to defend itself against a class-action lawsuit in 2003 claiming unequal treatment for women, a case dismissed six years later.

Legislators should act now and appropriate money for a new women’s prison. Failure to act would be to invite a lawsuit — one the state would deserve to lose.

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