The state legislature wasn’t prepared for the size of New England’s response to a plan which would close the Dakota Womens Correctional Rehabilitation Center.
By Brad Mosher
The small rural city along the northern edge of Hettinger County arrived in force Jan. 16 in Bismarck when the Appropriation Committee for the Human Resources Division of the Legislative Assembly met to discuss the future of the DWCRC.
The correctional facility was listed in Gov. Doug Burgum’s budget speech in early December that it should be closed and have the inmates moved to another location in a more urban setting – Bismarck.
More than 100 people went to the hearing, forcing it to be moved to a larger location, according to New England Public Schools Superintendent Kelly Koppinger.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation arranged for 11 former inmates to testify at the hearing to support the move, citing inadequate dental, mental and medical heath care.
The DOCR complaint that there was inadequate religious services available to the inmates drew the ire of the pastor of St. Mary’s Parish, Fr. Gary Benz.
He attended the school that was transformed into the correctional facility 15 years ago. The fact that his Catholic Church is right next to the DWCRC was a great insult when the DOCR claimed the was no spiritual care for the women inmates.
He also said that if the DOCR claims the facility was too old was accurate, then most of the schools and government buildings in the state should be shut down as well – including the building where the hearing was being held.
The warden of the facility told the legislators at the hearing that there had been a lot of misinformation put out about the condition of the facility and the services available to inmates.
According to Koppinger, who also testified, some of the people testified to somethings which are also problems for non-inmates in a rural area like western North Dakota.
“It is not easy to get a dentist. If you have got a toothache, everybody has had to wait for a dentist at some place and time,” he said. “I have had to wait, sometimes a week as well, to get into a dentist.”
When it comes to programs not at the DWCRC, he said many were because of budget cuts.
And the remote argument used by the DOCR is really one of priority.
“I think the warden did a really good job of refuting much of the allegations that were made against them (the DWCRC),” the superintendent added.
The legislators were concerned about the parity the DWCRC had with its male counterparts in the correctional system, Koppinger said. They wanted to make sure what the men had (in services) were available to the women as well.
“I think we need to be concerned about that, but I also think that they need to be concerned about the economic impact this is going to have on our community. That is going to mean a loss of 70 families that will no longer will be in a position to feed their families if the jobs are taken away.
“My concern is that it will take away some rural development that has been established here and move it to Bismarck and Jamestown. Where is the equity in that?
“If you want to look at equity in a male-female prison, then you have got to take a look at where is the equity between rural and urban,” Koppinger said.
“I hope that they look at the economic impact on this community. It really would be devastating for those 70 families and it might be devastating for the community to have to absorb that type of impact without some type of help from the state. It is going to hit the school, the families, the kids. My concern is you take about 25 kids and have to transplant to another school… research out there tells you that stability in a child’s life is a huge indicator of what happens to them. That needs to be factored in as well. I hope they look at that side,” the superintendent added.
He also questioned the governor’s plan to raid the state’s legacy to pay for the funding to complete the move and the rebuilding of a men’s facility to accommodate the women. “The legacy fund is for an emergency purposes. I don’t know if inequities in incarcerated environment is an emergency.”
North Dakota is a conservative state, he added. “I don’t know if spending about $200 million on a new prison concept is being very conservative.
“It will be a windfall to Jamestown and Bismarck. And then they potentially bankrupt a small rural community, like New England, by pulling one of the major businesses in town. It (the DWCRC) is a huge player in this town. With 70 employees, that is bigger than the school,” he said.
According to the superintendent, there was already some discussion about transitioning the facility to more of a vocational center for low risk inmates for the male population. “I think that would be a good fit for the community and I think that would be a good fit for the school because we could expand our services here (at the school) and at the facility too.
“It would be a good fit, even if they kept the womens facility here. We could expand services to accommodate what needs they were expressing they needed down there, but they didn’t talk to any of the partners involved. As to what they could do to enhance the womens environment,” Koppinger said. “Instead, it is just let’s push this to Jamestown and Bismarck and forget about New England. It is unfortunate, but it still has to go through appropriations and they still have to decide that it is a good use of funds.”
He also questioned the logic of the DOCR decision to close the DWCRC. “They are trying to fix something that is not broken. Do they need to enhance the environment down there? At the prison, I am certain they are looking at things they could do to get better, too.”
He praise both the prison and the people work there. “It is a good facility. There are good people who work down there. They could probably put a few more thing together to enhance the environment, but it is not broken.
“It is sad to see that the state is looking at this and to me, it is unfortunate. But it is not a done deal yet, so we’ll see,” he added.
Although the legislator planned a second meeting for Jan. 18, Koppinger said he had not yet heard of any decision yet.
Koppinger praise all of the people who testified at the hearing. “I think the warden did a great job. I think Kelly Kreig, the behavioral specialist down there did a nice job.
“They outlined some of the fallacies that had been put out. “I think Rachelle (Juntunen) and Fr. Benz sealed the deal with their comments and listing the opportunities that were afforded to them (the inmates). Not too many prisons have somebody right next door that offers mass and services, along with other pastors who come down. It is a great spiritual environment… and I think he (Fr. Benz) did a great job explaining that in detail to the state,” Koppinger added. “I don’t think Bismarck probably affords their inmates the opportunity that is afforded in New England.”