The justifications used for closing the Dakota Womens Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England announced by Gov. Doug Burgum Dec. 6 are wrong.
By Brad Mosher
That is the response by the current warden, Rachelle Juntunen, to public statements by the governor, Doug Burgum, and the lieutenant governor, Brent Sanford.
Juntunen said the state recently signed a contract to remain open through 2025. The warden said that the reasons claimed for the proposed closure were not accurate.
The warden has been at the women’s facility for more than a decade and said that the fact that it recently passed an inspection by the Department of Corrections shows there is a problem supporting the claims which have been made in the media after the announcement in the governor’s budget address.
Juntunen said she didn’t even find out about the proposal until about a half hour before the governor made his statement.
She still is unsure of what is happening because the story she is hearing is still changing, she said Monday.
In the newspaper articles, the Director of Corrections first came out and said that we don’t meet the contract. Then, I came back in the press and refuted all this. Then she said that it wasn’t that we don’t meet the contract. It is because we don’t put things in the contract because physically we can’t meet them. I’m not even sure what those are,” Juntunen said.
The warden said that the whole controversy may be part of a plan to move the women closer to their families.
Whatever the justification, the people making the claims about the DWCRC have a big probem, Juntunen said.
“None of it is true.
“They (the Department of Corrections) audit us every year, so it really doesn’t make sense that all of a sudden we aren’t meeting the critirea that we have had to meet when we have met. We were just audited in April.
“None of these issues were brought forward,” she added.
When it comes to the reasons being publicly provided to close the facility and move the inmates to Bismarck, they are not being truthful, the warden explained.
“The Director of Facility Operations with the Department of Corrections comes and does a walk-through every month.
“They have been doing that ever since the department was established several years ago within the Department of Corrections.
“Every month, he was coming here and there were no issues. Are there leaks in the roof? Sure. We fix them.
“Do we ever have plumbing problems? Sure. There is a lot of things that get flushed down the toilet that shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet, but then we get a plumber and we fix them,” the warden said.
“It is all maintenance issues. Have they happened? Yes. Will they happen sometime in the future ,,, Sure,” she explained.
Even new buildings can have some maintenance problems, she explained, citing an addition in 2011.
“Within a year, the roof was leaking. We had it fixed,” she said. The addition is being used for a visitors center and the control room.
“It is construction issues. Things come up, but is there constantly water dripping through the ceiling – no,” she added.
Even if the announced plan succeeds in moving the women to the Missouri River facility, there will still be problems. “The facilities that they want to move the women to Missouri River Corrections Center which is now a minimum custody facility for the men, have been in the headlines quite a few times during the biennium. They actually want to tear it down. The wanted to rebuild it. I think in 2014 the Department of Corrections had requested $30 million to build a minimum security mens facility.
“Now, they want to move the women there so now there may be some issues,” she added.
According to Juntunen, the planned move would be costing the state and taxpayers approximately $2 million to bring it up to where it could house the women.
There is more. “The three to five year plan in the Department of Corrections is that they want to build a whole new women’s prison. That has been confirmed by two people in the DOCR,” she said.
Facility too rural?
Among the public justifications that Sanford recently made to support the closure of the New England location were because it was in a rural area and doesn’t serve the inmates.
But Jutunen claims those comments about the quality of medical and other services are false.
Access to health, medical services and treatment is not a problem, she explained. In addition, the facility also have licensed addiction counselors, psychologist, physician’s assistants, nurses, case managers and teachers, she explained in an earlier public statement.
Juntunen also pointed out that the new proposed home for the inmates has even more problems than they claim exist in New England.
In New England, the facility has an infirmary, and several other items that are not at the MRCC.
In addition, there are no locks on the doors at the MRCC, she added, noting there is no fence either.
Never meant to be a prison
The lieutenant governor also claimed that the New England facility was flawed because it was never meant to be a prison.
The facility was converted from a former boarding school in 2003 before it was opened with fanfare by state officials.
Norbert Sickler, the director of the facility on Main Street, predicted that it would bring new economic development funds to New England when it opened.
“It is the kind of project that is going to prove outsourcing of jobs from the state to our communities,” Sickler said in an interview before the facility opened in Nov. 2003.
Then, a conference committee in the legislature predicted it would cost the state about $1 million less than if they renovated a state hospital into a women’s prison.
Sickler was right with his prediction of the economic impact, with people from Bowman, Reeder, Hettinger, Mott, Regent and Dickinson coming to work in New England.
The lieutenant governor has also claimed that as many as 10 percent of the women at the facility are pregnant at any one time.
He said in a recent interview that pregnancies are “typically high risk” and the immediate medical care needed is not available.
That is something the warden took exception to – strongly.
She said that is was offensive to the health professionals who work hard to provide quality services to the women in New England.
In addition, the 10 percent pregnancy rate was just a brief occurrence several years ago, according to Juntunen.
There is only one pregnancy currently among the more than 100 resident, the warden said.
Over the past year, the pregnancy figure has been about four percent she added.
Big economic impact
In New England, the local businesses and officials see a dramatic change in the economic fortunes of the community and the region if the governor and lieutenant governor are successful in the move to close the facility and relocate the inmates to Bismarck.
According to the warden, workers come from all over the region.
And the money the facility spends is spread throughout the community and region, Juntunen explained.
Bowman Dental in Bowman gets about $50,000 a year to provide dental services, she said. The facility and its personnel also spend money in the city’s Co-Op Grocery, buying from the ocal drigs and convenience stores.
In addition if the facility is closed or moved, it would dramatically affect up to 25 students at the local school.
There would be a ripple effect, with the local real estate and rental market also being affected – throughout the region from Dickinson to the north and Bowman, Hettinger, Regent and Mott.
The facility is being operated by a multi-county consortium.
Members of that group are contacting their local legislators, she said.
Juntunen has been working in New England since 2006 and is the third officer in charge since it opened.
She said the facility has brought a lot of professionals to the area for employment. “We have a lot of programs offered in the institution,” she added.
However, the lieutenant governor also claimed that economic development should not be one of the reasons to move it – or keep it in New England.
He did say it was not a priority for making a decision.
The local state legislator, Mike Schatz, has already said he hasn’t seen a good reason for the move or for the money it would cost taxpayer.
‘Official’ reasons to close DWCRC in New England
According to Gov. Doug Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford there are reasons they have stated publicly for closing the corrections facility in New England.
1) The facility is in a rural area which has demonstrated an inability to accomplish goals;
2) Inadequate medical facilities;
3) Plumbing problems, such as raw sewage coming into the shower;
4) Percentage of inmates who are pregnant;
5) Inmates better served in Bismarck facility.