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Work release at Cass County jail still 'indefinitely suspended'

Cass County Jail inmate Eugene Kempers doesn't agree with the suspension of the jail's work release program. Kempers, who isn’t technically eligible for work release, says he has no way to provide for his family.David Samson / The Forum

FARGO—Three months have passed since the Cass County Jail's work-release program was suspended over concerns about drugs making their way into the facility, and inmates who may otherwise be eligible for it still aren't being allowed out to work.

While he's one of the biggest supporters of work release, Sheriff Paul Laney he had to pull the plug on the program in late May, and said it remains suspended indefinitely until the jail has a more foolproof method of keeping drugs out.

Laney said the suspension followed incidences of male and female inmates, out on work release, packing meth and marijuana into their rectum or vagina and bringing it into the jail for distribution to other inmates.

Work-release inmates undergo an unclothed search every time they return, said Cass County Jail Administrator Andy Frobig, but it's strictly visual — with checks under armpits, hands and feet, and of the mouth.

"That's as invasive as we can get," Frobig said, adding that a more extensive body cavity search would require probable cause and a search warrant.

Laney said the drug smuggling came to light after several non-work-release inmates, who had been in jail for months, started testing positive for meth and marijuana.

After a spate of heroin and fentanyl overdoses in the community — some of them fatal — Laney said he can't run the risk of those drugs getting in.

"How would I explain to the public that somebody who's been in jail for six months died of a fentanyl overdose?" Laney wondered.

One inmate has filed a grievance with the jail over the work-release suspension. Eugene Kempers, who's serving time on drug charges, said he's not able to provide for his family.

"I have three kids at home," Kempers said in a jailhouse interview on Thursday, Aug. 18. He also wrote complaint letters.

"I'm not able to provide for my family or myself in any way — just set up in a revolving door to fail," Kempers said.

Inmate's complaint

A safety and security sweep was conducted on May 24 in the Cass County Jail over concerns about drug use by inmates and contraband coming in. Officers found two makeshift knives in the sweep, but no drugs.

A few days before, on May 19, 15 male inmates and one female inmate went out on work release, Frobig said. That was the last day for work release; Laney suspended the program the next day.

"Our funnel for contraband and drugs was the work-release program," Laney said. "A few ruined it for the many."

Kempers, 27, of Fargo, said it was his understanding he'd be able to leave on work release when he began his two-month sentence in June. By then, the program had already been suspended.

"I don't understand how they can sentence someone to something that doesn't exist — or at least notify them," he said.

"There's no doubt he (Kempers) is a victim of circumstance," Frobig said.

Craig Richie, a Fargo attorney who does criminal defense work but did not represent Kempers, said it's a shame the program has been suspended.

"He (Laney) is a very good man, but I hate to see that," Richie said. "Really, when you think about it, the purpose of our correctional system is to rehabilitate, to have some normalcy with a job."

While Kempers might have been able to do work release had the program been running, he isn't currently eligible. On Aug. 11, he was reclassified from minimum to medium security custody for behavior issues.

Kempers said over his time of incarceration, he's asked to be considered for other programs, including electronic home monitoring, so he could get out daily to work.

Frobig said electronic home monitoring isn't an option for Kempers because he's doing time for possession of oxycodone, hashish and marijuana.The private company that runs EHM doesn't accept people who are in for drug charges.

Kempers made a final appeal of his grievance, but it may be a moot point because he gets out of jail on Tuesday, August 23. He said upon his release, he'll go back to working for a Clay County farmer, as he's done for the past couple of years, and try to get caught up on bills.

He wishes the situation had been handled differently.

"In prison, when there's a problem, if people are smuggling contraband in when they're visiting, they get rid of the person," Kempers said. "They don't suspend the program indefinitely."

Possible solution?

Laney said other jails don't do work release and some have body scanners, similar to what's used in airports, that would reveal a substance packed in a body cavity.

He said he's put in a budget request for a body scanner, but at a cost of $175,000, full funding isn't available at this time.

At the Clay County Jail, administrator Julie Savat said their situation is a bit different.

In addition to the main jail, Clay County has the Annex, where all male work-release inmates are housed.

"We do routine, random searches of locker rooms," Savat said. "We do a lot of drug testing."

Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said the Cass County Jail is also much larger than his, and that Laney probably sees a greater volume of drug issues than he does.

"He (Laney) needs to do what he needs to do," Bergquist said.

With that said, Bergquist maintains he probably wouldn't suspend work release at his jail, but would continue sending any inmates caught with drugs out of the Annex and back to the main jail.

"We would like to see that the people working and being honest, keep that going," Bergquist said. "At least they have a little bit of a life and the hope is that when they're done with the sentencing, we won't see them again."

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