Are We Going to Have a Civil War in North Dakota’s Corrections System?

The North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. Korrie Wenzel / Forum News Service

I don’t know about the rest of you, but this Dickinson Press report about Department of Corrections employees griping about reforms implemented by Director Leann Bertsch seems like it’s missing something.

Like perhaps an acknowledgement that at least some of this criticism could be motivated by Bertsch’s push (along with Governor Doug Burgum) to withdraw the state’s contract with the Dakota Women’s Correctional Rehab Center? After all the Dickinson Press is sort of the hometown newspaper for that facility, and two of the three critics of Bertsch quoted by reporter James Miller are directly involved in that political food fight.

The DWCRC is owned and operated in the City of New England by a consortium of western North Dakota counties, including Stark County which is home to Dickinson. They currently have a contract with the state to handle female inmates. Governor Doug Burgum, in his executive budget, proposed ending that contract and moving those inmates to another facility. Bertsch is backing that, and has been sharply critical of conditions for inmates at the DWCRC, telling me in a podcast interview that she feels the 8th amendment rights of inmates are being violated. She even related a story about one inmate resorting to pulling her own tooth for want of access to dental care.

Now, suddenly, we get a report about conditions under Bertsch at the state penitentiary?

I’m not saying Bertsch is beyond criticism, or that issues at the state penitentiary are unimportant, but the Press report names exactly three critics of Bertsch. One is a former employee of hers. The other two are a state lawmaker from New England (where the DWCRC is located) and a county prosecutor from one of the counties which owns the DWCRC.

Speaking to The Press, Stark County State’s Attorney Tom Henning said he believed the reforms wouldn’t be successful in the United States and believed that the reforms are more of a monetary solution than a corrections-minded one.

“I’m Scandinavian, but I’m not stupid. We’re talking about her using as a model, one of the smaller populations in the world which until relatively recently — maybe 30 years ago — was almost entirely homogeneous,” Henning said. “I completely and vociferously disagree with her manner and method, which is being done effectively and essentially with the goal of saving money because our Legislature are refusing to expand, rebuild or renew a penitentiary because they don’t want to spend the money.”

Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England, after hearing the allegations, said he has doubts about the reforms and now questions many of the department’s statistics.

“The attitude that the director has about corrections is wrong, first of all. Second, it’s dangerous. I don’t think people know about it, very few people in the state know what she’s doing with this Norway Project,” he said. “That may work in Norway because they’re all the same, but that is not the way it is here. We are not Norwegians and have a far more diverse culture than that.”

Maybe  Henning and Schatz are right in their criticism of Bertsch’s move to a more Scandinavian approach to corrections which recognizes that inmates are human beings most of whom will inevitably be released back into our communities. But can we perhaps recognize for a moment that their criticism, in this particular moment, might be motivated by a desire to muddy the waters around a debate over closing the DWCRC in New England?

Bertsch has been speaking out about problems at the DWCRC. This seems like a calculated attempt to undermine her credibility.

By the way, while what the Press reports about the state penitentiary is worth taking seriously, it seems mostly to be the carping of a bunch of entrenched bureaucrats who haven’t yet made peace with a new way of doing things. Criminal justice reform has run into that sort of attitude a lot, both in North Dakota and across the nation. It’s hard to get prison guards, used to treating inmates like animals, to begin treating them like human beings who might have some value to society once they’re out of prison.

I’m not surprised Bertsch is meeting resistance, and the complaints raised about her approach should be scrutinized and debated.

But using that situation to obscure criticism of the DWCRC is just plain wrong.

The future of the DWCRC should be decided on the facts around the DWCRC, not some politically-motivated attack on Leann Bertsch.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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