Prisons Aren’t Jobs Programs

The Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, N.D., pictured here April 17, 2012, houses more than 100 female convicted felons. Forum News Service file photo

Governor Doug Burgum’s executive budget his ignited several debates over policy and spending across the state.

Perhaps one of the most heated so far is the proposed relocation of the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center, a prison facility for female inmates current located in New England, North Dakota.

On one side of the debate is Burgum, and Leann Bertsch, director of The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They argue that the female inmates should be moved to the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck which currently houses men. Those male inmates would be moved to the current state hospital facility in Jamestown. Burgum’s budget provides an appropriation to build a new state hospital facility (also in Jamestown). The point here is to improve efficiency and prison services, particularly for the female inmates who suffer from being isolated in a rural community far from things like health care and the rehabilitative impact of contact with friends and family.

It’s worth noting that the DWCRC isn’t a state-owned facility. It was “established in 2003, through a contract with the ND Department of Corrections to house female residents for the state of North Dakota,” per the organization’s website.

“The main thing is access to services and (being) closer to their family,” Bertsch told reporter James Miller.

On the other side of the debate are parochial interests in New England who bemoan the loss of jobs and commerce for their community. “My reaction is real disappointment,” New England Mayor Marty Opdahl told Miller. “Not just disappointment for New England because it’s obviously really going to negatively impact us, but this is going to impact all of our tax base, who are going to have to pick up some additional expenses.”

Also opposing the move is Rachelle Juntunen, the current warden of the DWCRC in New England, who says Bertsch and Burgum’s argument about logistics and efficiency is bunk.

It’s worth noting that the DWCRC isn’t a state-owned facility. It was “established in 2003, through a contract with the ND Department of Corrections to house female residents for the state of North Dakota,” per the organization’s website.

What Burgum and Bertsch are proposing is ending that contract.

There will be much debate over this issue, but what should not be a part of that debate are any economic considerations. Over the weekend state Senator Erin Oban, a Democrat from Bismarck, said on Twitter that this was about weighing the needs of the inmates versus economic impacts:


That’s wrong. While we can perhaps quibble about how Burgum’s administration started this debate – I’ll agree with Oban that surprising people is rarely a good start – the economic impacts shouldn’t matter at all.

This debate needs to be about efficiently accomplishing the mission of the Department of Corrections.

I don’t know yet if that should include the moves Burgum and Bertsch are proposing (though given what the latter has accomplished during her tenure I’m inclined to trust), but I can tell you with certainty that what is not in the mission of the DoC is economic development.

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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