After last week's budget address by Gov. Burgum, when he proposed relocating the Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center (DWCRC) in New England to Bismarck, many residents in the region were concerned with what the future could hold.
None more so than the DWCRC's Warden, Rachelle Juntunen.
"We have had a wonderful relationship with the Department of Corrections," Juntunen said. "They've been very good to us and included us in meetings, shared their policies with us, invited our staff to do training and have assisted where we need assistance."
Speaking to some of the inaccuracies being shared in the media by the Department of Corrections, Juntunen said the full story would come out in the end.
"There are two sides to every story. If you aren't willing or able to listen to both sides, don't be so quick to make a judgement on what you haven't heard," Juntunen said. "So far we've heard the state's side of the argument, but the facts don't line up."
Brent Sanford, lieutenant governor of North Dakota, said the recommendation to relocate the prison centered on five critical concerns. Among them was the concern that the women's facility was located in an isolated rural area, which over time, he said, had demonstrated an inability to accomplish the goals of providing parity in services with those received by male prisoners in Bismarck.
"The medical facilities are not what you would have if you were in Bismarck," Sanford said. "With the relocation, the female inmates would have access that is more on par with the services men have in Bismarck."
Responding to claims that the inmates in New England aren't receiving medical and rehabilitative services up to standard, Juntunen pointed out that the prison has not had difficulties in providing any contractual service or filling any professional service position.
"Our women have quick and easy access to health, mental health, treatment and family services. We have licensed addiction counselors, a licensed psychologist, physician's assistant, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, human relations counselors, case managers and teachers," she said. "DWCRC is able to provide quality medical care through contracts and our local hospital and clinics."
Sanford also defended the move by saying that the facility was never meant to be a prison.
"It's an old boarding school and wasn't built as a corrections facility, so you have issues like raw sewage coming into the shower, the roof leaking and the buildings are old. There's concern," he said.
Juntunen pointed to two Department of Corrections audits, conducted in 2016 and 2018, which found that the DWCRC had "no concerns regarding safety, security or programming within the facility," and that the prison was "operating in compliance with the contract and their policies."
"They talk about us not meeting the prison standards in regards to our building and security? Our facility is way more secure than MRCC (Missouri River Correctional Center) is," she said. "As far as the structural concerns they are claiming, we had an issue with plumbing once. The pipes backed up, and we had a plumber come in and fix it. The reality is that the facility they are eyeing to move to is a minimum security prison. The same issues they are claiming we have, are going to be issues at MRCC."
Addressing the proposed facility where the women would be transferred, Juntunen questioned the security at the MRCC.
"By contract we have to have an infirmary, a special management unit, an industry program ... none of those are on the grounds at MRCC. They don't have locks on the doors. They don't have a fence. It's not secure." she said.
Sanford said that one of the other contributing factors prompting the proposal for relocation of the prison rests in the percentage of inmates who are pregnant "at any given time."
"At any given time, 10 percent of the inmates are expected mothers," he said. "Sending people back and forth to Bismarck for medical, psychiatric and behavioral health is inefficient when those services could be provided in Bismarck."
According to Sanford, the pregnancies are typically high risk, and the immediate medical care needed is not available in such a remote area as New England.
Responding to those claims, Juntunen said that the prison in New England does not suffer from 10 percent of inmates being pregnant nor does it "lack of adequate medical services."
"Honestly, I think it is offensive to Sanford Health and the Dickinson hospital to claim that our inmates are not receiving appropriate medical care when the same doctors that serve them are the doctors that provide service to every woman in southwestern ND," she said.
Addressing what she called "inaccurate claims" made by the lieutenant governor and the Department of Corrections, Juntunen said that the statistics touted are not an accurate depiction of the reality of the facility's population.
"The quote that at 'any given time the population of pregnant inmates is 10 percent,' that was our two-month high a few years back. In the last 12 months, the percentage has been about four percent," she said. "In fact, we have only one pregnant inmate today out of the 119 on hand."
Addressing an example of quality care rendered, Juntunen detailed an inmate they received recently.
"We had an inmate transferred and they're like, 'she's due next week,'" Juntunen said. "They transported her to us, and we facilitated her (cesarean) section on time. Everything worked out fine. Sanford Health works amazingly with us."
Effects on community
Sanford said they were aware of the local community's concern and addressed how the state would seek to offset the lost employment from a relocation of the DWCRC.
"Department of Labor and Job Services personnel would come in to help with the 50 full-time employees. If they can't find work with the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center, then what other opportunities are there? There are opportunities coming with the SW Human Services or other private providers looking to provide services in behavioral health," Sanford said. "There might be other opportunities like that, besides the fact that the job market today in Dickinson and southwest ND is so much different than it was in 2003 when this decision was made."
Juntunen expressed surprise by a perceived lack of economic understanding by the state, citing the numerous other economic factors that a prison relocation would have on the local community in New England.
"The New England Public School has an estimated 25 kids who are children of DWCRC employees. We have a welding contract that makes the school $12,497 per school year. They use our gym to support their extracurricular activities," she said. "We have an estimated 6 kids in the daycare, purchase all our milk from the New England Creamery, purchase all our water from New England in excess of $35,000 per year. We use Prairie Dental in Bowman and generate revenue for them at nearly $50,000 per year. We patron the New England Drug, Dakota General, Fitterer Oil, Express Stop and the New England Community Grocery. This isn't just a matter of a few jobs."
Addressing the benefits the prison provides the local community, Juntunen cited the DWCRC's work with the Dickinson Addiction Counselor Training Consortium.
"The DWCRC is a part of the Dickinson Addiction Counselor Training Consortium. We recruit and train licensed addiction counselors and are the only training site in the western part of the state," she said. "In the last seven years we have trained and licensed six individuals who now serve the greater southwestern part of the state."
When asked about the local economic concerns moving the prison would have on the local community, as well as the gutting of a main street, Sanford said that local economic development and impact is not a number one priority for the Department of Corrections or Human Services.
"It's about the need of the person," he said. "The number three or four priority would be the economic development or impact, and that's the case here."
Juntunen questioned the motivations of the state, suggesting a desire to wriggle out of a contract.
"Is this just a way for them to get out of a contract? Maybe," she said. "In August of last year we signed a contract with the Department of Corrections until 2025. Again, no discussion of contractual issues, services issues or physical concerns has been raised until now."
Juntunen's position remains steadfast that the DWCRC has maintained its contractual obligations.
"The director of the Department of Corrections went on record saying we can't meet our contractual guidelines. I would like to know what those are, because nothing I have in writing indicates that that's the problem," she said. "These other issues that are being thrown around in the media by the Department of Corrections and the governor's office are not even true. The whole presentation that we have these contractual issues and can't make the terms of our contract is news to me. I have never been told this."
In a rebuttal to the proposed move, the DWCRC outlined their 2017 intake statistics, citing that 65.6 percent of inmates arriving at the prison were transferred within 90 days or less to Jamestown, Fargo, Bismarck or elsewhere.
"The mission of the DWCRC mostly involves acting as an intake and reception center for the vast majority of the female inmates we receive, and only act as a long-term facility for our high custody inmates," Juntunen said.
Juntunen described first hearing about this issue as "kind of a bombshell."
"Thirty minutes before the governor's budget address I get a phone call from the director of women's services and she says, 'Hey, I really need to let you know the governor is coming out in his budget proposal today, and it involves closing New England.' I thought, 'wow,'" she said. "It's frustrating, because we do provide-I think-quality care to the women. They have access to all the services they need. Are there some challenges because of our location? Sure. But we make it work. It's North Dakota."