Prison supporters force legislators to move

The state legislature wasn’t prepared for the size of New England’s response to a plan which would close the Dakota Womens Correctional Rehabilitation Center.

But it sure made a big impression.

By Brad Mosher

The Herald

The small rural city arrived in force Jan. 16 in Bismarck when the Appropriation Committee for the Human Resources Division of the Legislative Assembly met to discuss the future of the DWCRC.

The correctional facility was listed in Gov. Doug Burgum’s budget speech in early December that it should be closed and have the inmates moved to another location in a more urban setting – Bismarck.

More than 100 people went to the hearing, forcing it to be moved to a larger location, according to New England Public Schools Superintendent Kelly Koppinger.

Thr facility is operated by a consortium of counties, including Dunn, as the Southwest Multi-County Corrections Center. In addition to Dunn County, the consortium includes commissioners from Bowman, Billings, Hettinger, Slope and Stark counties. Golden Valley County is also a member of the group, but is not involved with the DWCRC in New England. County Commissioner Daryl Dukart was recently named to the group after former member Donna Scott lost her bid for re-election.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation arranged for 11 former inmates to testify at the hearing to support the move, citing inadequate dental, mental and medical heath care.

The DOCR complaint that there was inadequate religious services available to the inmates drew the ire of the pastor of St. Mary’s Parish, Fr. Gary Benz.

He attended the school that was transformed into the correctional facility 15 years ago. The fact that his Catholic Church is right next to the DWCRC was a great insult when the DOCR claimed the was no spiritual care for the women inmates.

He also said that if the DOCR claim the facility was too old was accurate, then most of the schools and government buildings in the state should be shut down as well – including the building where the hearing was being held.

The warden of the facility told the legislators at the hearing that there had been a lot of misinformation put out about the condition of the facility and the services available to inmates.

According to Koppinger, who also testified, the people testified to somethings that are also problems for non-inmates in a rural area like western North Dakota.

“It is not easy to get a dentist. If you have got a toothache, everybody has had to wait for a dentist at some place and time,” he said. “I have had to wait , sometimes a week as well, to get into a dentist.”

When it comes to programs not at the DWCRC, he said many were as budget cuts.

And the remote argument used by the DOCR is really one of priority.

“I think the warden did a really good job of refuting much of the allegations that were made against them (the DWCRC),” the superintendent added.

The legislators were concerned about the parity the DWCRC had with its male counterparts in the correctional system, Koppinger said. They wanted to make sure what the men had (in services) were available to the women as well.

“I think we need to be concerned about that, but I also think that they need to be concerned about the economic impact this is going to have on our community. That is going to mean a loss of 70 families that will no longer will be in a position to feed their families if the jobs are taken away.

“My concern is that it will take away some rural development that has been established here and move it to Bismarck and Jamestown. Where is the equity in that?

“If you want to look at equity in a male-female prison, then you have got to take a look at where is the equity between rural and urban,” Koppinger said.

Not emergency

He also questioned the governor’s plan to raid the state’s legacy to pay for the funding to complete the move and the rebuilding of a men’s facility to accommodate the women. “The legacy fund is for an emergency purposes. I don’t know if inequities in incarcerated environment is an emergency.”

North Dakota is a conservative state, he added.  “I don’t know if spending about $200 million on a new prison concept is being very conservative.

“It will be a windfall to Jamestown and Bismarck. And then they potentially bankrupt a small rural community, like New England, by pulling one of the major businesses in town. It (the DWCRC) is a huge player in this town. With 70 employees, that is bigger than the school,” he said.

Not logical

He also questioned the logic of the DOCR decision to close the DWCRC. “They are trying to fix something that is not broken. Do they need to enhance the environment down there? At the prison, I am certain they are looking at things they could do to get better, too.”

He praise both the prison and the people work there. “It is a good facility. There are good people who work down there. They could probably put a few more thing together to enhance the environment, but it is not broken.

“It is sad to see that the state is looking at this … and to me, it is unfortunate. But it is not a done deal yet, so we’ll see,” he added.

Koppinger praised all of the people who testified at the hearing. “I think the warden did a great job. I think Kelly Kreig, the behavioral specialist down there did a nice job.

“They outlined some of the fallacies that had been put out. I think Rachelle (Juntunen) and Fr. Benz sealed the deal with their comments and listing the opportunities that were afforded to them (the inmates).

“Not too many prisons have somebody right next door that offers mass and services, along with other pastors who come down. It is a great spiritual environment… and I think he (Fr. Benz) did a great job explaining that in detail to the state,” Koppinger added. “I don’t think Bismarck probably affords their inmates the opportunity that is afforded in New England.”

Another chance

There’ll be another chance for the prison supports to voice their concerns when the “Meet the Legislators” night is held Jan. 28 at Bismarck State College in the Bavendick Room in the Energy Building.

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