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Prison staff pleads for better facilities

BISMARCK -- The State Penitentiary's medical director and two corrections officers pleaded with legislators Tuesday to adopt a building plan that will ease the dangers and health hazards that exist in the older parts of the prison.

They spoke at the Legislature's interim Correctional Facility Review Committee, which is working with consultants on a plan for a new prison or remodeling of the current one in Bismarck. The committee will get a recommendation on March 3.

"Part of public perception is that we are building new buildings or a whole new prison to make a nicer place for inmates to live," said Capt. Jeff Wolf. "We really need to educate them that we are building new buildings to make the public safer."

The trend toward halfway houses, treatment centers and other alternatives to incarceration are appropriate to only some inmates, he said. A larger, more efficient prison is necessary to continue to house truly dangerous people, he said.

Medical Director Kathleen Bachmeier said it's common for inmates to have the new dangerous strains of antibiotic-resistant infections known as MRSA and the current five-cell infirmary is so small that infection control is a serious worry. The infirmary is on the second floor and there is no elevator in the building, so one inmate with open sores and wounds on his leg has to be escorted completely outside the prison's security gates to use a freight elevator to get to the infirmary, she said.

Another inmate with a history of terrorizing convictions and parole violations is back in prison with liver cancer and has six months to live, she said. The prison will give him hospice care in a windowless room so small that "a nurse will have to crawl across the foot of the bed to change the bed (linens)."

Because the infirmary is so small, inmates are often moved back to their cells to make room for someone sicker, said Rob Heier, a unit manager at the penitentiary.

The prison's segregation unit is also full, Wolf said. Many of its cells have open bars and officers are often hit with inmates throwing human waste at them, he said.

"We are having more and more inmates coming in...with separation requirements," he said "We end up letting out (into the general prison population) the best of the worst just to make room for someone who needs to be placed there." The person released from segregation often is not ready to be with the rest of the inmates, he said.

"With increased gang activity and other violent acts in our prison, it is necessary to lock up the more severe inmates in segregation," he said. Others are inmates with mental disorders who are dangerous and need special housing and still others have personality problems and can't get along with the other inmates, he said.

Legislators, including committee Chairman Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said they too have to contend with comments from their constituents who don't want money spent on improving prisons.

Said Wolf, "The public wants dangerous people locked up. The reality is, if we have to lock up offenders to keep the public safe, it will cost money."

Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.