Rural counties plan to fight ‘betrayal’

The entrance sign to the womens correctional facility in New England provides some warnings to visitors. Herald photo / Brad Mosher

For John Plaggemeyer, there is a sense of betrayal when it comes to the womens correctional facility on Main Street.

The Dakota Womens Correctional and Rehabilitation Center has provided a vital economic hub in the small town along the northern edge of Hettinger County for 15 years.

By Brad Mosher
The Herald

Now, just a few short months after he made a tour of the facility, Gov. Doug Burgum has targeted it for closure.

That was announced Dec. 6 when the governor announced his budget plans for the state.

Since then, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford and the appointed Director of Department of Corrections, Leann Bertsch, have stoked the controversy with public comments.

They may have a fight on their hands and against a bigger foe than just a small city of less than 700 people.

According to Plaggemeyer, the governor’s speech was the first that members of the six-county consortium which operates the facility found out about the proposed shutdown.

After that present from the governor, the members of the consortium have scrambled during a month with two major holidays and vacations to coordinate a response.

“During Christmas season, there really hasn’t been much going on, but we are going to have a special meeting on Jan.2,” he said before the end of the year. Hopefully, some legislators will come and we are going to discus what are next roll is going to be in this thing and see how to handle this,” he explained.

That meeting will involve the six counties which are involved in handling the DWCRC, he explained.

Plaggemeyer, the chairman of the SWDRC board when he is not the Hettinger County Commissioner from the First District (the New England area) said he plans to fight the announcement. He also says he is not alone.

The meeting was to bring people from Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Hettinger, Slope and Stark counties together in Dickinson.

“I want to get everybody on the same page,” he said. “I invited the mayor of New England (Marty Opdahl) to the meeting.”

Plaggemeyer, who has been a county commissioner for the past 12 years, has a strong connection with the facility. He worked there for about three years.

He considers it to be a good facility… an aging facility … but still well maintained.

The fact that it passed its annual audit in April 2018 demonstrates that the recent public claims by the governor, lieutenant governor and the director of corrections ring hollow.

Plaggemeyer said the fact that both the governor and the director of the Department of the Corrections made a tour of the DWCRC and made no mention of any problems with how it was being operated leaves him questioning the motivation and veracity of the claims.

“It blew me out of the water (the governor’s announcement),” he said.

“It is like cutting the throat of the city, the community, surrounding communities … and letting us bleed out here,” he added.

“They had no plan for us or anything … other than trying to get people jobs,” he said.

“I am very disappointed in the governor that he didn’t come and visit with somebody and give us a heads up on what was going to happen.

“If it had to be confidential, we sure could have kept quiet about it,” he added with a sad chuckle. “Ay, ay, ay, ay … it kind of blew everybody out of the water in this whole community.”

During the visit during the summer, Plaggemeyer said neither the governor nor the corrections director made any comments about plans to close the facility. “Rachelle got no sense of any of this.

“If they were dissatisfied, you’d have thought they would have made some mention,” he said.

One aspect of the targeting that the politicians from Bismarck have done  which especially hurt was when they started to disparage the community and call it “substandard”, the commissioner said.

He thought the city of New England and the nearby communities were being publicly attacked, and it was not deserved or accurate.

“When you are in prison, the outside surroundings you do not see to much of,” Plaggemeyer said.

“We have a lot of volunteers here, including church volunteers,” he said, responding to a claim by the corrections department official that there was a lack of religious activities for the inmates.

“The Catholic Church has a group every Sunday that goes down there and there is probably two churches from Dickinson that come down. There is all kinds of church services and stuff,” he added.

“Leann (Bertsch) was here a week ago Monday and we visited with her. Just about all the things she brought up we could probably meet easily, but she’s talking about more,” he said.

“She talked about the food.

“We used to have our own cooks and now we contract witha food service company where they have their own cooks. They hire our cooks and some of the food is prepared. They don’t eat like they are eating in a cafe every day, but they eat good.

“If they want us to go back to preparing our own food again, that is not a problem. We can do it.

“But that seemed to not be a problem until now, all of a sudden,” the commissioner said.

“All of these problems that arose in the last couple of months,” he said.

Substandard conditions?

According to Plaggemeyer, the politicians are claiming that the people living in Southwestern North Dakota are in substandard living conditions. “That is what I got from the articles.

“These girls are living in an area where their services are basically the same we have.

“After I retired, I worked there for close to three years, so I know the girls there get good service.

“What I don’t understand is we just got accredited in April and there was nothing wrong,” he said.

Many of the claims made by the state are “ridiculous,” he said.

“Leann and Rachelle (Juntunen) have had a good working relationship and that is why it really hurt Rachelle when, as far as I’m concerned she (Leann) stabbed her in the back,” Plaggemeyer said, with a sigh.

“It sounded to me, when we visited with her, that she has been against this prison from day one.

“We definitely know where we are standing now,” he said.

The Dec. 6 announcement came after the counties spent more than $200,000 for improvements over the past 12 months, Plaggemeyer said.

Among the improvements were another double fence for the high security people, along with working on an entrance for an ambulance and dismantling other structures.

“Bismarck knew that and they never made one mention about not doing it because there might be a change.

“The six counties have put a lot of money into this place to make a nice facility for these girls. It took us awhile to get it all right, but we have got a nice facility now,” he said. “It cost us quite a few dollars.

“It may be an older facility, but pretty much everything they have in there is pretty new.”

He said he was disappointed in the contact he has had with state officials since the announcement.

“If you don’t like something, you can find all kinds of excuses for why you don’t like it. You can get very negative on issues you don’t like.

That is what Leann is doing, as far as I amd concerned. She’s convinced the governor to go along with her.”

 

Main Street Initiative?

The governor also drew Plaggemeyer’s ire.

For Plaggemeyer, the governor who proposed a “Main Street Initiative” is not living up to that campaign promise.

“It is kind of like he wants to pick and choose where he wants to build Main Street on,” Plaggemeyer said.

Still, having Southwest North Dakota described as “substandard” still irritates the Hettinger County commissioner.

“We have got good facilities here. With the oil down here and stuff, (in the area) is getting better all the time,” he said.

The facility may not have a mental health unit, but Plaggemeyer said he is hoping the legislators this year can work on that regional problem.

“We need a mental health unit here in Dickinson or somewhere in Southwestern North Dakota and not just our prisoners. Sometimes we have to go to Rapid City, Fargo or Grand Forks,” he said.

The first step in responding to the governor’s plan was a meeting of all the county representatives with the state legislators serving western North Dakota.

“If it (closure) does happen, it is going to upset close to 70 families,” Plaggemeyer said.

“When you are in jail, you are in prison,” he added.

“I am very displeased with some of the people in charge. They didn’t have enough, whatever you want to call it, to tell us,” he said.

“I would invite any legislator to come down and examine this place. I am proud of it. We do a good job,” he added. “I am sure if they’ve seen it, they would feel the same way.”

 

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