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'Compelling on both sides' - Legislators hear public testimony in DWCRC relocation proposal

The Appropriations Committee for the Human Resources Division of the Legislative Assembly listened to public testimony Wednesday from opposing sides of a contentious proposal to relocate the women's prison from New England to Bismarck.

The Appropriations Committee for the Human Resources Division of the Legislative Assembly listened to public testimony Wednesday on future of DWCRC. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press
The Appropriations Committee for the Human Resources Division of the Legislative Assembly listened to public testimony Wednesday on future of DWCRC. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press

The Appropriations Committee for the Human Resources Division of the Legislative Assembly listened to public testimony Wednesday from opposing sides of a contentious proposal to relocate the women's prison from New England to Bismarck.

Committee members listened to and questioned speakers as each presented arguments for and against the relocation of the Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center (DWCRC) at the recommendation of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR).

Addressing the committee, in favor of the proposal, were 11 former inmates of the facility. The women each shared various reasons for supporting the move, but were unanimous in their assertion that DWCRC lacked adequate counseling, dental, medical, educational and mental health services.

Arguments against the proposal were provided by Director of Treatment Services at DWCRC, Kelly Kreig; DWCRC's Warden, Rachelle Juntunen; Bowman County Commission Chairman, Lynn Brackel; St. Mary's Parish pastor, Fr. Gary Benz; and New England Public Schools Superintendent, Kelly Koppinger.

For the move

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"I had to pull out my own tooth," Margeaux Walking Elk, a former inmate at the DWCRC, said. "I wasn't allowed to receive dental care (at DWCRC) because there was a month-long wait. I took matters into my own hands because I was in so much pain. That's not right."

The DOCR has argued, in statements leading into the session, that the women's facility in New England cannot provide the same level of correctional and rehabilitative services that men are receiving in the state-a parity concern they argued warrants the relocation, despite the financial burdens such a move would entail.

Echoing the DOCR's parity concerns, former inmates elaborated on personal hardships they faced in a "dilapidated building" as well as in not receiving counseling services offered to their male counterparts.

"There were only so many spots available for the outpatient treatment there, but I was never eligible for it because the wait was too long," Chelsea Nelson, three-time former inmate of DWCRC, said.

Others, like Evette Seewalker, said visitations were difficult as a result of the facility's rural location and warranted reviewing the cause and effect of family separation with recidivism rates.

"Being out there was tough with visitations," Seewalker said. "I was unable to see my newborn but once a month. That is why I believe that the move to a more central location would be better for the women. Men and women should be equal in all things, even in visitations."

Rep. Jon Nelson (R-14), chairman of the committee, thanked the supporters of the proposal for their testimony, before turning the floor over to opponents of the relocation proposal. The DOCR provided no direct testimony or public comment during the session.

Against the move

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Opponents of the relocation proposal included a packed room of residents, most of whom traveled 122 miles from New England to Bismarck. Residents, each adorned with a "I stand with New England" sticker, said they were heeding the words of North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner who said "to take the battle from New England and Dickinson to the Capitol."

Hettinger County Sheriff Sarah Warner attended the session to show support with the people of New England, whom she said benefit from the prison.

"This is just another pull-out from our small community," she said. "We need these opportunities to stay alive."

The arguments against the move included rebuttals against statements and conclusions made by the DOCR, economic concerns, the value the facility has in western North Dakota's mental health landscape and more.

"The correction facility is my former school, so I come as one rooted in the community and grateful for the corrections center," Benz said. "In interviews from the director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, it was stated that there was no spiritual care for the women inmates. It's a great insult, because our community is very faithful and supportive."

Benz also took issue with the DOCR saying that the building was too old and rundown to be an adequate prison facility.

"I've heard that the building is too old. If that's the criteria for not using a facility, then a majority of our schools in North Dakota should be shut down, our universities - close this very building we are meeting in, because in a few years it'll be 90-years old," Benz said "We put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into building that facility and continuing the good work."

Juntunen said that the misinformation being circulated in the media about the condition of the facility, medical treatment provided and more was inaccurate-but did concede that she had no arguments against moving the women to a more centralized location.

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"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. In fact, we have only two pregnant inmates today out of the 128 on hand," she said. "I have no argument against moving the women to a centralized location in the state which would make visitations easier, and I realize there are more resources more readily available in Bismarck and that campus would provide a great opportunity for the women, however spending millions on housing is questionable at best."

Kreig pointed out to the committee the importance the DWCRC plays in western North Dakota's drug addiction certification and training.

"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 few years we have trained and licensed six individuals who now serve the greater southwestern part of the state."

With each speaker, vastly opposing views painted the DWCRC in two widely differing pictures. Proponents, for and against the relocation, agreed that the women in New England would be better served in a more centralized location and the DWCRC could support other populations such as vocational programming.

"I thought the testimony was compelling on both sides," Rep. Nelson said. "We realize how important the jobs in New England are, but I think there was a door that was opened a little bit about another group of inmates that would be more favorable for the rural environment than what the DWCRC now offers."

The final committee meeting on the subject has been tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. on Jan 18, where members are expected to reach a determination on appropriations aimed at offsetting the expenses of the DOCR's plans for the facility.

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