Unemployment rates bring many to N.D.When Lennell Smith worked retail sales in Detroit, having vehicle parts stolen out of cars in the parking lot or being robbed at gunpoint was part of his job.
By: Ben Rodgers, The Jamestown Sun
When Lennell Smith worked retail sales in Detroit, having vehicle parts stolen out of cars in the parking lot or being robbed at gunpoint was part of his job.
“I felt it would be no different than working in a prison,” Smith said.
Last October, Smith started doing just that, working as a correctional officer at the James River Correctional Center in Jamestown. Smith is among 24 employees at the JRCC who moved to North Dakota looking for work.
“To find good qualified staff is sometimes difficult,” said Don Redmann, JRCC warden. “People looking at law enforcement will not generally take corrections jobs.”
Part of the problem is the misconception, brought on from “Shawshank Redemption,” or “Lockup USA,” that prisons are scary, violent and dark places to work. And that’s not true, at least in North Dakota, Redmann said.
The economy also plays a factor in filling jobs at the JRCC. When the economy is strong there are fewer applications than when it’s weak, he said.
The economy and the search for a safer place to live drove several recent JRCC employees to work in North Dakota.
“When I got out of college the economy in Ohio was horrible,” said Shane Curtis, a correctional officer at the JRCC who moved from East Liverpool, Ohio, about two hours outside of Cleveland.
“I love Ohio, it’ll also be home but it’s got its problems and issues,” Curtis said. Two such issues were a staggering unemployment rate and a state debt nearing $1 billion, he said.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, unemployment in North Dakota is at 4.3 percent, Ohio is at 10.7 percent and unemployment nationwide rate is 9.7 percent,
Curtis, like Smith, said he has seen “decent people” laid off and forced to steal catalytic convertors from parked vehicles and sell them.
“People had to feed their families somehow,” Curtis said.
Smith said he lost a lawnmower and snow blower to theft and has seen windows taken from abandoned houses in his neighborhood overnight.
Monica Moore, a human relations counselor at the JRCC, lived in Jamestown before but spent the last decade in Sacramento, Calif., and before that, Reno, Nev.
In Sacramento, stealing copper pieces from air conditioner units or copper pieces of pipe was commonplace, along with declining employment opportunities.
Even people who had work struggled. The state government cut wages for employees like Moore’s husband. So Moore applied one week at the JRCC, was interviewed the next and hired the week after. Her husband found work at the North Dakota State Hospital.
“For Jamestown we can try and recruit staff and a lot of the time, staff have spouses. So you’re not finding a job for one, you’re finding a job for two,” Redmann said.
Mark Bollinger, human resource officer one at JRCC, said he doesn’t just try to promote the institution but the entire state, sending potential employees’ information for jobs in other fields of work.
“I have to give Mark (Bollinger) a lot of credit,” Redmann said. “Mark has really been a good ambassador for JRCC and the state.”
The people looking for jobs with the JRCC are looking for a better life away from crime-filled cities, Bollinger said.
With her new job and new home, Moore no longer worries about her 5-year-old son getting shot or abducted when playing outside.
“It’s good to be home, there’s less stress,” Moore said.
Curtis is no stranger to violent crime because when he was in middle school in Youngstown, Ohio, he said it had the highest murder rate in the country.
The front page of his newspaper routinely ran stories about a murder or a discovered body, while here in Jamestown it is more about community events, he said.
Smith, Curtis and Moore each checked the North Dakota Department of Corrections Web site and discovered employment opportunities in Jamestown.
Since 2008 the JRCC hired 52 people. Of that number, 46 percent were from out of state, and no out-of-state hires have been terminated, said Bollinger.
“North Dakota does have a problem, a demographic problem,” Bollinger said. “We’d like to see more people here.”
Life on the northern Plains is different from living back home for these employees, and some things caught them off guard.
“There’s no smokestacks. You can breathe without your eyes watering up and coughing,” Curtis said.
Smith said he is still adjusting to the cold and has been wearing long underwear since the start of November.
“I never thought 20 degrees would feel so warm,” Curtis said.
Even though Moore is originally from Jamestown, she said getting back into the cold after living in warm, dry climates for more than a decade was a change.
“I froze up, I was just like a Popsicle,” she said.
Weather aside, having the ability to leave their cars running while renting a movie, letting children play outside, and having a convenient airport is a welcome change, they said.
“It’s kind of like a nice, well-kept secret sometimes,” Moore said of Jamestown.
Being waved to by strangers while driving in the city is also an unexpected aspect of Jamestown, Curtis said.
“It’s been a great addition. I think it’s worked well for both parties,” Redmann said.
So far the three new employees said they enjoy their lives in Jamestown.
“It’s important for us to look wherever we can to find good people. And to bring in professionals like these is not only an asset to JRCC, it’s an asset to the state,” Redmann said.
Sun reporter Ben Rodgers can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by e-mail at email@example.com