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Corrections officers growing need in ND

FNS File Photo The Cass County Jail unveils a new pod in this Oct. 12, 2007, photo in Fargo.

FARGO — North Dakota’s growing need for corrections officers is the force behind a new academy here that certifies students to work in county jails and state prisons.

Over the next five years, North Dakota’s corrections industry is expected to expand by nearly 10 percent due to increased population, economic development and the continuing growth of the oil industry. With this in mind, Rasmussen College partnered with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office to open the academy for corrections officers this year.

On Wednesday night, the academy’s first class, nine students, celebrated their graduation at the college’s Fargo campus, near the interchange of Interstates 29 and 94.

For three months, the students attended classes three nights a week for four hours. All of them have been offered jobs at the Cass County Jail.

“As best I know, we’re expecting all nine of them to walk in the door Jan. 2,” jail administrator Judy Tollefson said.

The Cass County Jail usually hires 10 to 12 officers each year to fill openings created by retirements, promotions and officers leaving for patrol jobs, Tollefson said.

While the jail’s need for officers is steady, the demand in western North Dakota is booming. Consequently, the jail here has had trouble finding seats for its corrections officers in the state academy, she said.

“With the turnover in the western part of the state, there’s just more need for training, and we just have not been able to get the seats that we need,” Tollefson said.

In the face of that shortage, the academy in Fargo was created. “It was a huge positive for our agency,” Tollefson said.

Previously, only the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation could train corrections officers, who had to attend a three-week course in Bismarck within a year of being hired. But following a change in state law, Rasmussen College received approval to open its academy.

“We saw an opportunity to offer something that Sheriff (Paul) Laney needed in the community,” said Matt Petz, dean of the college’s School of Justice Studies.

Petz said the academy in Fargo allows corrections officers to complete their training locally while still working and spending time with their families.

Tollefson expects similar academies to open around the state.

“We see it kind of taking off,” she said.

North Dakota has more than 700 corrections officers. And well over 200 of them work for the state prison system, said Tim Tausend, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Tausend said the DOCR is grateful for the new academy because it will help meet the huge demand for corrections officers at county and state levels.

“We always have a cycling need for correctional officers,” he said of the DOCR. “The more people that can provide that training the better.”

Recently, there’s been a drop in the number of applications for corrections officer jobs at the DOCR. To attract more applicants, the department has started advertising openings on the radio and online, Tausend said.

The draw of well-paying gigs in the oilfields along with the state’s strong job market may explain the decline in applications, he said. The starting salary for corrections officers in the state prison system and in Cass County is about $32,000 a year.

Even after some corrections officers are hired, a number of them decide the challenges of the job are not for them.

“You have to have a certain mindset to be able to work in a corrections facility,” Tausend said.

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