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Gov. Doug Burgum has proposed moving the inmates at the women’s prison in New England, N.D., to a facility near Bismarck. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Prison plan impacts counties as state women's prison system fills

NEW ENGLAND, N.D. — A state prison plan that shifts prisoners to county responsibility when the state system is full is in effect for the first time as North Dakota's female prison population has reached capacity.

The statewide system for women, including Dakota Women's Rehabilitation and Correctional Center in New England and contract facilities in other locations, has a daily average capacity of 224 inmates. The system reached that number in May, prompting the implementation of the prioritization plan for admissions in June.

Under the plan mandated by the 2017 Legislature, county inmates are admitted to the state facility based on the severity of their crimes, medical needs and other factors, said Steve Hall, director of transitional planning services for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The decisions are made at the beginning of each week. Monday there were nine on the list and all nine were admitted. The week before there were 12 on the list and only six were admitted, leaving the rest in the custody of counties.

“We’re putting ourselves right at that capacity,” Hall said. “That’s what we’re budgeted for. We’re riding that fine line.”

A shortage of space for inmates at the county level is less of a concern than the cost involved, said Donnell Preskey, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Association of Counties. A prisoner's medical expenses can sometimes cost the counties more than housing, she said. The association monitored the progress of the plan since the bill was passed in 2017 and understood why it was being put in place.

"We obviously agree that we don't want to keep building correctional facilities, but there should be a mechanism in place for the state to reimburse counties for the state expense," Preskey said.

Hall sends weekly email notices to counties to update them on the population, a practice he started in 2017. The women’s population started creeping up in January 2018 and has risen steadily. In a letter dated May 21, Hall advised county governments that the plan would go into place and that inmate admissions could be delayed by seven days. He also requested help from the counties in keeping the Corrections Department advised of hearings, offenses involved and anticipated sentences so a proactive plan could be formed. Under state law, county and regional correctional facilities must have their own population management plan.

Counties for the most part understand the situation and have been good to work with, Hall said.

“It would be nice not to be in this situation, nice to stay out of prioritization as long as we could, but we couldn’t do it any longer,” Hall said.

Three Burleigh County inmates have been rejected by the state. Sheriff Kelly Leben sent a bill to Corrections last month for the expense of holding state prisoners. It's symbolic, he said, but it's a way to show what it costs the county's taxpayers. So far the county has incurred about $5,000 in expenses.

"My concern is if one of these prisoners has a heart attack or a serious medical issue in our jail, that is our responsibility to pay for also," Leben said.

There was no appropriation in the 2017 bill to compensate counties. Leben said billing Corrections will help track costs so the next Legislature can see the impact to the county.

As of Monday, the state's male prison population was 1,542. Capacity is 1,624. The same admission process would go into effect if the men’s population were to reach capacity, Corrections spokeswoman Michelle Linster said.

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