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Port: It’s the Department of Corrections, Not the Department of Commerce

Rob Port

MINOT, N.D. -- Recently I wrote a post on my blog commenting on the emerging debate surrounding Governor Doug Burgum’s proposed transition of the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center out of New England and to the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck.

The men currently at the latter facility would be transitioned to the existing state hospital facility in Jamestown, with Burgum’s executive budget calling for an appropriation to build a new state hospital facility (also in Jamestown).

The post earned me a lot of blowback from opponents to the move. More on that in a moment.

The need for this move is self evident. While the excellent reforms for male prisoners at the Missouri River facility have rightly earned Department of Corrections Director Leann Bertsch national media attention, what you don’t see in the reporting is much mention of female prisoners.

That’s because those prisoners aren’t receiving the same level of correctional and rehabilitative services the men are.

To run the women’s facility, the state contracts with what’s called the Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center, an organization created by consortium of county governments in the southwest part of the state.

But the SMCCC simply isn’t providing the same level of care -- I’m talking food, medical care, counseling services, etc. -- the state is providing the men in Bismarck.

This is a parity problem, which is not only troubling from a moral standpoint, but it could leave the state ripe for litigation from those questioning the unequal treatment.

The state wants to end their contract with SMCCC, and transition the female prisoners to a better situation.

Which brings me to the aforementioned blowback.

The county consortium behind the SMCCC doesn’t want to lose their contract with the state. That contract, signed last year, paid them more than $10 million up front with on-going payments of nearly $450,000 per month in the current biennium.

The City of New England and the surrounding region doesn’t want to lose the jobs and commerce the prison there provides.

These concerns are manifesting themselves in a public rebuttal to Burgum’s proposal which is organized around economic development considerations.

A truly ridiculous situation.

We do not, and should not, build prisons to create jobs and commerce. If we accept the economic development argument against moving the women’s prison, then it follows we should accept it as an argument against criminal justice reform in general.

There is a bipartisan movement, both in North Dakota and in our nation as a whole, to bring down high incarceration rates.

Should we eschew that movement, and keep more people in prison, simply to create jobs for prison guards and contracts for prison enterprises?

We can have a debate on whether or not Burgum and Bertsch are right on this issue, but the debate must be focused on the mission of the state prison system, which is rehabilitating the state’s prisoners.

Remember, most prisoners are eventually released. Don’t we want the prisons to prepare them to be productive, law-abiding citizens when that happens?

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.