The regional county consortium which administers the state’s only womens correctional facility in southwestern North Dakota looked to state legislators for advice Jan. 2 in the conference room at the Law Enforcement Center in Dickinson.
They got that.
They got suggestions and a strategy for how to keep the targeted facility open.
By Brad Mosher
According to North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, the best thing to do is to take the battle from New England and Dickinson all the way to the state capitol.
… And bring the “whole town of New England” with them.
A handful of state legislators attended the meeting requested by the board chairman of the Southwest Multi-County Corrections Center, John Plaggemeyer.
“The purpose of this meeting is to talk about closing the DWCRC (Dakota Womens Correctional Rehabilitation Center),” Plaggemeyer explained, noting that it became public in the governor’s budget speech in early December.
He then commented about an earlier meeting he had with the acting Director of Corrections, Leann Bertsch, and the warden for the correctional center, Rachelle Juntunen.
“We kind of told her what we thought and when we got all done with the meeting, It was kind of like, ‘What the hell just happened?’
“She’d come up with some pretty good arguments and it kind of scared me. The arguments she had, if nobody knows the background of what is happening in New England… it would sound pretty good,” Plaggemeyer explained.
“Most of the stuff she was bringing up was if we were living in a perfect world,” he added.
“We need to all get on the same page here,” he told the rest of the board and the visiting legislators.
“Because, when she (Bertsch) makes her presentation, it is going to sound pretty good.
“But, it is not correct,” Plaggemeyer said.
“There is really nothing broken down there (in New England).”
The newest member of the board, Dunn County Commissioner Daryl Dukart, was not attending the meeting because it conflicted with the regular meeting of the Dunn Couny Board of Commissioners.
Among the people at the meeting were New England Mayor Marty Opdahl, Representative Mike Schatz (Dist. 37), DWCRC warden Juntunen, financial administrator for the SWMCCC Connie Monson, State Sen. Wardner (Dist. 37), Stark County Commissioner Ken Zander, Sen. Jay Elkin (Dist. 36), Rep. Mike Lefor (Dist. 37), NWMCCC administrator Doris Songer, Slope County Commissioner Mike Sonsalla, Billings County Commissioner Mike Kasian, Rep. Mike Schatz (Dist. 36) and Rep. Luke Simons (Dist. 36).
According to Wardner, the governor and the people who want to close the New England facility face a big obstacle getting it picked up by the legislature.
He told the members that there has been some changes in the legislature and the governor can not introduce proposals into the legislature.
“So, if it is not introduced (by the governor), then somebody has to introduce it.
“This would be in the subcommittee of appropriations in the House, and if nobody puts it on there and if nobody puts it on in the big committee, it is not going to be on (the agenda).
“That is the process. If nobody puts an amendment on to do this … there has to be an effort by somebody to put it in the bill.
“It is not in there. It is only a recommendation (by the governor),” Wardner said.
“There is two places in the House that they can do it. They can do it in the subcommittee or they can do it in the full appropriation.
“The House can not amend on the floor, so then when it gets out of there, it comes to the senate.
“It would go through the senate appropriations. The senate can amend on the floor, but I am sure we’ll make sure that doesn’t happen,” the senate majority leader added.
Wardner also told the board and others attending the meeting that one way to help stop the move by the governor is to make some improvements in New England.
“My motto is don’t move. Improve,” he said.
He added that he saw the lack of a SAU (Special Assistance Unit) and dental facilities as the only glaring weakness in New England.
“Maybe you can have a dentist come in – not only from Bowman. Maybe you could move it around … maybe there is someone from Dickinson who could come down,” he said.
According to the warden, the facility spends about $4,000 a month in transporting inmates to dental appointments.
“It would cost more to do the building, but it should cost more the bring the dentist (to New England), but you would have to have the facility for it,” Wardner said.
He added that with about 68 percent of the inmates going through the facility in just a few months to meet a parole date that it is a big factor. “We really get down to a small number (of women),” he said.
“There is an investment by six counties who have invested into this place and now they are going to jerk it away?
“I think the state should help you out a little bit with the facility and bring some things up to date.
“But, I can’t promise that,” he explained.
According to Wardner, the governor had told him a while ago that New England “was a lawsuit waiting to happen.
“I didn’t know it would be in his address, but I do know he talked about it,” he said.
“I had never heard that as a complaint,” he added.
Juntunen said that she didn’t know of any pending lawsuit against New England.
The people on the board, at the facility and in the community have to come up with a strategic plan to educate the legislators if they hope to quash the governor’s proposal, the majority leader explained.
“You need to get the names of the appropriations people. You need to go down there … but you need to meet with everyone in appropriations and start with the ones in the subcommittee,” he said.
The chairman of the appropriations committee in the House is Jon Nelson of Rugby. “I think you have got a friend there,” Wardner added.
“On Nelson’s subcommittee, you need to know every member on that and then you need to know all the members on appropriations in the House.”
He recommended that just one person give the presentation to the committee. “You want to have the whole town of New England in the room and standing in the hallways. That is okay. That means you mean business.
“But in this case, have one person testify and make it count,” he added.
“That is the way you ought to do it. I know you don’t have a lot of time, but that is the way I see it,” he told the chairman.
According to Lafor, it seems that it would be more cost-effective for the state to leave the facility in New England.
“They should invest more in New England. If I am hearing all this and I am the representative from Fargo, I am thinking the same thing,” he added.
“And talk to them one-on-one.”
Wardner also advised that the presentation should not be too long but still address all the major points that the corrections department and the governor will try to make in their presentations.
“There is lots of stuff going on so get it down to very short parts,” he said.
“If you can keep it from being introduced, it will drive him (the governor) nuts,” Wardner added.
The committee will probably not get to the New England facility by the end of the month, which could create another venue for the warden to try to change minds or garner support.
“At the end of the month, there is Southwest Night with the Legislature (Jan. 28),” Juntunen said.
According to Plaggemeyer, the facility is meeting the needs of the inmates. “We are providing what the girls need.”
Still he worries about how people will receive the presentation by the director of the state’s correction department.
After a recent meeting, Plaggemeyer was troubled because the director seemed not to paint an accurate portrait of the New England facility.