The Legislature Should Make the New England Women’s Prison Illegal

The Dakota Women's Correctional Rehabilitation Center, pictured above, is the only women's prison in the state. It's located in New England.

A political furor has erupted over a proposal from Governor Doug Burgum, backed by Department of Corrections head LeAnn Bertsch, to end the state’s contract with a prison facility in New England, North Dakota, and move those female inmates into a reshuffled state system.

The Dakota Women’s Correctional Rehab Center is a subsidiary of the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center, an organization created by consortium of county governments in the southwest part of the state. Since Governor Burgum announced, in his budget address last year, that he’d like to move away from the DWCRC a coalition of employees of that prison and local politicians from the area around it has formed to oppose the proposal.

This situation demonstrates why the State of North Dakota, or any government for that matter, ought not contract with third parties for prison/correctional services. In fact, the legislature should make those sort of contracts verbotten.

Not only should lawmakers follow Burgum’s recommendation to end the existing contract with the DWCRC, they ought to prohibit those sort of contracts in the future.

The latest shot fired in the fight over the DWCRC comes from John Plaggemeyer, a Hettinger County Commissioner, in a form of a letter to the editor of the state’s newspapers.

I should note here that Plaggemeyer appropriately corrects something I wrote in a recent column about the existing contract for the state to utilize that facility. I obtained the contract and referenced it, but misread the numbers. I said there was a more than $10 million up front payment from the state in addition to monthly payments. The contract actually calls for monthly payments which add up to the $10 million figure. That’s my mistake, though it changes little in terms of my arguments.

The larger issue is that the existence of this contract has introduced a third, and entirely inappropriate, dynamic when it comes to debating the way we expend taxpayer resources in this area. The debate should be focused on finding the appropriate balance between achieving the goals of the corrections system (carrying out sentences and rehabilitating inmates) and the efficient expenditure of taxpayer dollars. But now, thanks to the parochial interests of politicians like Commissioner Plaggemeyer, we’re stuck with a third dynamic which has to do with local jobs and local commerce.

Not to mention that lucrative contract the county coalition has with the state.

At the national level we have seen a for-profit prison industry use their lobbying might to try and derail criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing America’s obscene incarceration rates. It’s one thing to defend higher rates of incarceration on the grounds of promoting public safety. It’s quite another to defend them for the sake of profits.

That’s not quite what we’re seeing here in North Dakota with the debate over the DWCRC, but it’s uncomfortably close. Are the defenders of the status quo motivated by what’s best for the state’s prisoners? And the state’s taxpayers? Or do they just want to keep their jobs and contracts and the commerce that’s driven by having a large prison facility in your community?

We shouldn’t have to ask those questions.

Not only should lawmakers follow Burgum’s recommendation to end the existing contract with the DWCRC, they ought to prohibit those sort of contracts in the future.

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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