Proposed $161M 'gender-driven' facility would move female inmates from small-town facility
Gov. Burgum hopes North Dakota legislators will approve funding for a new women's correctional facility to be built in Mandan
NEW ENGLAND, N.D. — A plan for a vastly different approach to incarcerating and rehabilitating female inmates in North Dakota is being heard again by state lawmakers, and advocates hope this time it will become reality.
Like one in 2019, the plan calls for female inmates to be moved out of an old school building in this small farming community.
But unlike the earlier plan to be transferred to a revamped, existing prison facility, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation hopes to build one specifically for women.
“What we're trying to do now is to have that facility that's gender driven, and really designed for the needs of the women we have in our system,” said DOCR Director Dave Krabbenhoft.
The proposed $161.2 million, 260-bed facility is included in Gov. Doug Burgum’s budget.
Also included in House Bill 1015, the funding proposal is headed for House Appropriations approval before being heard on the House floor. It would require passage by the Legislature in order for the facility to be built.
Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, said he thinks funding for a new prison has a good chance of passing.
"It's got the support of almost everybody on the committee and to a person, everyone agrees that we need to do something with the women inmates," Nelson said.
The state has never built a correctional facility with women in mind, Krabbenhoft said.
Instead, female inmates have been shoehorned into facilities designed for males or into buildings meant for other use.
Such is the case for the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, housed in an old Catholic school in New England, 25 miles south of Dickinson, since 2003.
The Forum recently visited the center, which has a contract with the state and is run by a seven-county consortium, the Southwest Multi-County Correction Center.
A majority of the state’s female inmates are housed in New England.
Most are mothers, and some come into the facility pregnant, where there’s no easy access to an OB-GYN.
“We have a moral and legal responsibility as a state to provide health care for anybody who's in our system, and you can't do that in the current location,” Burgum said during an editorial board meeting at The Forum last December.
Krabbenhoft said the goal is to build a new, women-centric facility near the Heart River Correctional Center near Mandan.
The facility would support minimum to maximum security custody and allow flexibility to separate women as needed. In the urban setting, women would have greater access to a wider variety of community services and family support.
In 2019, opposition to the move from New England mainly focused on the economic loss to the town of 600.
But it’s expected the old school could have other uses, including as a residential treatment center for substance abuse, said Rachelle Juntunen, the warden at Dakota Women’s.
“We have the addiction counselors, we’re able to provide the services,” Juntunen said.
'Committed to the mission'
The number of incarcerated women in North Dakota has risen steadily over the 20 years the facility in New England has been open.
“We weren't so crammed. We were able to space people out a little bit better,” Juntunen said of the earlier years.
There were a total of 129 female inmates in 2003, compared with 286 in 2021.
At the close of 2022, there were 233 women in custody in North Dakota; 138 at Dakota Women’s, 49 at Heart River and 46 at transitional facilities or county jails.
The New England facility is contracted for 55 full-time staff members who drive in from all over southwestern North Dakota. Only a handful live in or just outside of New England, Juntenen said.
Inmates live in dorm-style rooms, with as many as 10 beds to a room, and they use shared restroom and shower facilities. They have access to 24-hour nursing care and to addiction counselors.
Nearly 85% of the women have a substance abuse diagnosis and more than 25% have serious mental health issues; nearly 60% have a dual diagnosis, according to DOCR.
The prevalence of mental illness in the facility population has grown, Juntunen said.
Some of the women are in and out of the State Hospital in Jamestown and land back at Dakota Women’s, where they’re not equipped to deal with serious mental illness.
Sometimes, those women are put into the special management unit, or cells meant for disciplinary segregation, not for someone suffering from a mental health episode.
Dakota Women’s offers a work-release program for minimum-security residents at a nearby manufacturing company, while others work onsite at Prairie Industries, sewing T-shirts and other items.
Krabbenhoft acknowledges there are more vocational and educational opportunities for men in the system than women.
Burgum said the state is at risk for legal action, considering what’s offered at the new penitentiary for men in Bismarck and what’s available for women in New England.
The state had to defend itself in a class-action lawsuit in 2003 claiming unequal treatment of women inmates, until the legal action was dismissed six years later.
Krabbenhoft is quick to assert any shortcomings are tied to the location and building limitations only, not to the people who work there.
“They're all committed to the mission. They all want to see people get better,” he said.
A source of pride
While there are multiple reasons to move female inmates out of New England, some people in town still don’t want to see them go, even if another use is found for the building.
Mayor Lyle Kovar said the women’s prison is the town’s largest water, sewer and garbage customer.
“If you take into consideration the people that work there, they're also buying stuff in town, paying taxes and everything else. They’re both very instrumental in keeping the town going,” Kovar said.
He's wary about the price tag of a new women's prison.
"I realize our state has money right now, but you know, if we don't need to spend it on something like that, why?" he wondered.
Chris Fitterer, a New England city councilman, has worked at his family business, Fitterer Oil, since he was 16. Generations of the family attended classes down the street in the old St. Mary’s school.
He doesn’t anticipate much of an economic impact on the business if inmates are moved out, especially if the building takes on another purpose.
He said it’s more a matter of pride.
“Just like anything in a small community this size, it’s people coming in and out your door, and that's what it's about,” he said.
Krabbenhoft said he’s committed to seeing that the facility in New England and the people who work there remain relevant to DOCR.
Juntunen has done a good job assembling staff there, he said, and she was included in concept work with the architectural firm hired to design the new women's facility.
The need is pressing to turn the tide on the trend of more women being incarcerated in North Dakota.
Krabbenhoft said there are approximately 400 children who are offspring of the women currently in DOCR facilities, and most were primary caregivers to those children before being incarcerated.
Burgum said the No. 1 predictor of whether a person will end up in prison is whether their parents have been there.
The new women’s facility would offer inmates a better chance at rehabilitation and better opportunities to reconnect with their children before they get out.
What if the plan doesn’t go forward?
“It’s going to be frustrating, because we're just kicking the can down the road,” Krabbenhoft said.