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'The women are isolated' -- Department of Corrections addresses DWCRC relocation reasoning

The Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center now faces the hangman's noose after 15 years in service following the governor's announced plans to relocate the facility to Bismarck during his annual budget address last week.

Leann Bertsch
Leann Bertsch was appointed Director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation by Governor Doug Burgum in December 2016. Official photo
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The Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center now faces the hangman's noose after 15 years in service following the governor's announced plans to relocate the facility to Bismarck during his annual budget address last week.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation addressed the concerns prompting their recommendation to relocate the women to the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck.

"The main thing is access to services and (being) closer to their family," Leann Bertsch, director of The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said. "We just tried to make ends meet, make due in the situation we have, but we can only do that for so long."

Bertsch addressed how the rural location of the DWCRC presented a "huge impact" concern with recidivism and inmate's abilities to maintain family ties.

"The vast majority of the women are really from the central or eastern part of the state, so the women are isolated not only from their children but the rest of their family," Bertsch said. "They do not have access to the same level of visitation."

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Citing 70-to-80 percent of the women in custody at DWCRC being mothers of children under the age of 18, Bertsch said it was important to the children that relocation be considered.

"It's also important to the children," she said. "So that's not really fixable ... because we've parked these women out so far remote from where they actually came from."

Addressing some of the other concerns facing the facility, Bertsch said it was about providing parity of services that the men within the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also receive.

"The needs of the women have continued to increase and we have in the last few years been looking at how we can either create parity in that location - which is impossible in that current location - or a different alternative within our system," she said. "We chose the Missouri River Corrections Center to really give a campus to the women in a location where we could access multiple services that are available in this community."

As to the services currently lacking at DWCRC, Bertsch said they would "never be available" at the current location.

"The DOCR has continued to pick up more and more and more of the services which are not reflective in the payments that we give Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center," she said. "It's very difficult for them to provide the level of psychiatric care so we actually have a psychiatric care provider that's employed by the DOCR that does that through telemedicine."

Responding to the claims of a lack of psychiatric care, DWCRC's Warden, Rachelle Juntunen, said the Department of Corrections requested that they terminate a contract with their resident psychiatric care provider.

"At the request of the DOC we terminated our contract with him and were to find another psychiatrist. We found another psychiatrist and a few years later the DOC came back and said, nope," Juntunen said. "They said, "We have a psychiatrist onboard and we want you to utilize them to better streamline their treatment."

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Speaking to some of the non-medical services not provided by DWCRC, Bertsch said they involved "enrichment activities."

"Religious services, art services, medical services ... just a lot of enrichment activities. We have a lot more vocational and educational opportunities because we have the university here that comes in and provides some of those things and that's just not available in that remote area," she said.

When asked about educational opportunities inmates at DWCRC receive from Dickinson State University, Bertsch said they were "very, very limited."

"Dickinson State has really not provided much of anything in the last few years," she said. "We end up moving them to a location to access primary treatment. So they're really not there long enough to engage in meaningful educational opportunities."

According to Bertsch, the Department of Corrections' mission is really about the correctional needs of the people in its custody and so are not beholden to the economic concerns of the area.

"The state certainly cares about the impact on New England," she said. "At the end of the day we have an obligation to care for these individuals and that has got to be the number one priority for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation."

Addressing contractual obligations of the DWCRC, Bertsch said that "they try their best in the location that they're at, but it's just very difficult."

"We actually had to remove some of the language (in the contract) that talked about having to meet American Correctional Association standards," she said. "They've never been able to meet certain standards. They don't even have a dental operatory on site."

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Regarding the rural location of the DWCRC, Bertsch said the distance to medical facilities capable of dealing with "high risk pregnancies" she was "very concerned."

"We have difficult North Dakota winters and there is not direct care right in New England," she said. "It's at least a 30-mile trip into Dickinson so if one was in distress, I'm very concerned with the liability of the state if one would go into extreme distress with her pregnancy."

The distance between the DWCRC and Sanford Health, according to Google Maps, was 27 miles or 30 minutes travel time-a distance Bertsch said was "way too far."

As part of the planning for the proposal, Bertsch said that they considered the local economy.

"We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and one of the biggest challenges facing the state is actually workforce," she said. "There are a lot of jobs in southwest North Dakota that are open. I immediately reached out to the DWCRC, in conjunction with my other colleagues, and said we can be down there with a rapid response team."

Bertsch detailed how requests have been made to the DWCRC to provide the Department of Corrections with information on employee numbers, residence and qualifications so that an analysis could be conducted to match employees with existing jobs in the community.

"Even if the qualifications don't currently match up, there is actually funding to retrain people into those existing jobs," she said. "I think absolutely if there is something we can do to accomodate the impact to the community, we will."

When asked why the Department of Corrections had previously indicated in a 2016 audit that DWCRC was "operating in compliance with the contract and their policies" and that the facility presented "no concerns regarding safety, security or programming", Bertsch said "it's the bare minimum."

"It's not that DWCRC isn't complying with everything that we've said for them to comply with," she said. "We've only made them comply with the things that we know they can comply with. That still doesn't address the parity issues."

When asked if the $1.9 million that is currently allocated to upgrade MRCC could be used to shore up these concerns, Bertsch was succinct:

"No."

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