Since 2015, the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has moved into improving staff and inmate interaction and community involvement as ways to prepare inmates for life outside the prison as well as reducing recidivism.
North Dakota prisons have a recidivism rate of 35 to 40 percent, according to Chad Pringle, warden of the James River Correctional Center, a medium security prison housing 440 inmates in Jamestown. What that means is that those 35 to 40 percent released from prison return. And for all three prisons operated by the DOCR, it's within three years of release. According to Pringle, it's most often because they only know how to live the life they had before.
Enter Leann Bertsch, the NDDOCR director. As part of the U.S. European Criminal Justice Innovation Program, Bertsch went to Norway in 2015 and toured Halden, a maximum-security prison 60 miles from Oslo. Time Magazine called Halden "the most humane prison in the world."
What Bertsch observed was the mutual respect between staff and inmates and the focus on preparing inmates to move successfully back into society.
Bertsch was convinced the prisons in North Dakota, which currently have 1,320 inmates, could be remade to be more like what she saw in Halden.
"It's not just locking people up and letting them go," she said. "It's really about long-term results. And public safety is not increased by inflicting pain, humiliation, violence and disrespect. "
Pringle agrees that public safety is an issue as a dehumanized inmate is likely to be very angry in prison and out of prison.
"It's a matter of reducing the negative impacts of incarceration," he said. "We focus a lot on trying to minimize it."
Shortly after returning from Norway, Bertsch had her approach to reducing the negative impacts underway.
"We started adopting the principles of improving how staff and residents interact and more community involvement right away," Pringle said.
When it comes to staff and inmates interacting, Pringle and Brandi Netolicky, chief of security, both say the same thing: "It's about treating residents the way we want to be treated. It's the gist of our training."
"We treat them like the human beings they are," Netolicky added. "That's why we call them residents instead of inmates."
She said the staff and inmate interaction continues to get better and better.
"We are not just about monitoring behavior of people in prison, we build rapport to help change their thinking and behavior to reduce their risk of reoffending," Netolicky said.
Another avenue to not reoffending is bringing together members of the community and inmates connecting in prosocial activities.
That means more volunteers from the community are needed to share anything that might interest inmates and affect their lives beyond incarceration. So far, Pringle said, they've had Arts Center classes and exercise classes. Now he's looking for volunteers in the arts, such as music, theater, painting, crafts, producing a play or creative writing, physical activities such as yoga, exercise classes, basketball or softball games, and spiritual practices.
"We want to introduce residents to more prosocial activities and to make more prosocial connections," Pringle said."It also helps the public get a different perspective on the residents, which may increase acceptance and support as residents return to the community. And the greatest benefit to the community is the residents leave prison more likely to be productive, law-abiding citizens. "
So far, it's too soon to know how this approach will affect recidivism, but both Pringle and Netolicky like what's happening at the prison.
"The work is so rewarding because our job is helping people here make changes in their lives," Netolicky said.
"They'll be getting out and our mission is to provide them with a safe environment where they can learn everything they need to live the life they're meant to," Pringle said.