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State Hospital site ideal for minimum-security prison, ND corrections official says

The North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown, N.D. Darren Gibbins / Forum News Service

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — The North Dakota State Hospital campus will solve parallel challenges within the state prison system, said Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Gov. Doug Burgum’s executive budget proposal would provide the Department of Human Services with $35 million from Legacy Fund earnings to build a new hospital. If the proposal is approved by the North Dakota Legislature, the Department of Corrections would convert State Hospital buildings into a minimum-security prison for men adjacent to the medium-security James River Correctional Center.

“It’s an exciting opportunity, and I think the timing is right,” Bertsch said. “The State Hospital provides the space to do more programming and allow the type of environment to prevent institutionalization of inmates.”

Bertsch was in Jamestown Thursday, Dec. 6, to tour the State Hospital campus with hospital officials, architects and Chad Pringle, warden of JRCC and its 440 inmates. A deputy warden would administer the new campus under Pringle’s charge.

Two facilities using the same campus offer efficiencies of shared services but most importantly programming and training, Bertsch said.

“There are no real limits with all the space on this beautiful campus,” she said. “There is good infrastructure and a nice open area for minimum-security men.”

If the new hospital is approved, around 186 men from the Missouri River Correctional Center south of Bismarck, including 36 inmates living in man camps, would be set up in temporary housing units at JRCC until the hospital moves out, she said. Structural modifications at MRCC would allow moving 120 women inmates to MRCC to end the contract with Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, N.D., she said.

The costs are not yet known but so far the planners say repurposing the State Hospital campus is far less than building a new facility, she said. The minimum-security prison expansion to JRCC on the State Hospital campus would shift more jobs to Jamestown, she said.

The minimum-security environment allows inmates a chance to transition out of incarceration with more solitude, support and preparation than going into the community straight from the more crowded and intense medium-security unit, she said.

There are currently inmates who qualify for minimum security but remain in medium security for lack of space or to complete required programming, she said. There are currently 106 inmates who qualify for minimum security at JRCC, she said.

Warden Pringle said that to qualify for minimum security, an inmate must have less than 3 1/2 years remaining on a sentence. Risk-level scoring favors good behavior and effort while those with severe crimes, extensive criminal history or demonstrated violence will not likely qualify, he said.

“It’s based on risk to the community and then risk within the facility,” Pringle said.

The environment of the State Hospital campus creates an opportunity for a less punitive approach that incentivizes good behavior in a normalized but secure environment, Bertsch said.

“Just think if you can create a more kind of physical environment that allows that type of approach,” Bertsch said. “I think we will be that much more successful.”

A plan in 2003 to relocate the women’s prison to the LaHaug building of the State Hospital did not happen, she said. The Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center, the regional jail in Dickinson, converted a former Catholic boarding school in New England to incarcerate juveniles but it instead became the women’s prison.

The remote location has proved difficult to fill professional positions, she said.

“That was a bad decision, and we lived with it and made it work,” Bertsch said. “It’s not any reflection on the staff who work at the facility; they are hard-working and wonderful people.”

Over time the isolation of the remote facility has demonstrated it is not possible to accomplish the goals of rehabilitation, health and family connections, she said. Women are the smallest prison population group and largely underserved, she said.

“We have a lot of parity issues that we’re facing if we don’t make a move with the women into an area in which we can actually provide the same level of service that we are providing to the men,” Bertsch said.

Approximately 10 percent of inmates are pregnant at any given time, she said. The pregnancies are typically high risk and immediate medical care is not available in remote areas, she said. The women are far from families and about 80 percent are mothers to children under age 18, she said.

“We know that we are doing a real disservice by keeping the women so far apart from their families and it’s just very, very difficult to attract the level of services in a very, very small rural town where they are presently located,” she said.