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LeAnn Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, presents her department's 2019-21 budget to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday, March 15. The budget proposes a $750,000 pilot project for pretrial services in North Dakota. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

After prison reshuffle debate, North Dakota corrections system head looking ahead to legislative study

BISMARCK — The head of North Dakota's corrections system is looking forward to a wide-ranging legislative study of her department after lawmakers rejected plans to shuffle prisoners around the state.

North Dakota lawmakers budgeted $400,000 to hire a consultant to aid in a study of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The agency's budget bill mandated that legislative leaders appoint a special six-member committee to examine the department before the 2021 session.

The examination will start months after Gov. Doug Burgum pitched a multi-step plan to move female prisoners out of a relatively remote location in southwestern North Dakota to another facility near Bismarck, which he and corrections officials said was driven by a lack of services available to women compared to those offered to men.

In written testimony to lawmakers in March, DOCR Director Leann Bertsch said current arrangement is no longer "viable."

"Even though it would be much easier for myself and the department to continue the status quo and avoid a debate that is fraught with emotion, the taxpayers deserve correctional practices that enhance public safety and utilize tax dollars in the most fiscally prudent manner," she wrote.

But the Legislature ultimately opted for a "comprehensive" study instead. The effort must include a review of "gender-responsive correctional and rehabilitation facility and service needs" and the preferable location of facilities.

In an interview, Bertsch maintained that the department still needs to address services for women, but she said she's coming into the study with an "open mind."

"I think this is an opportunity to really educate and inform people about the direction the Department of Corrections needs to go," she said Tuesday, May 7. "The study is actually broad enough that we can look at all the pieces of our department."

Bertsch said it became clear during the legislative session that even if the female prisoners are relocated, there was still a desire for "some sort of correctional mission" in New England.

"We can work with that if that's the way they want to go," she said.

Bertsch also lamented the legislative debate over the department rose to a "level of unnecessary (incivility)," citing comments made by New England Republican Rep. Mike Schatz, whose district includes the women's prison. Speaking to the Dickinson Press about prison reform efforts in March, Schatz said Bertsch's "attitude" about corrections was "wrong" and "dangerous."

"I think that the taxpayers and public servants can expect a higher level of statesmanship from their legislators," Bertsch said Tuesday.

Schatz said he questioned looking to Norway as a model for prison reforms and being more "lenient" with prisoners while raising concerns about correctional workers' safety. Bertsch described the state's prison system as safe and humane.

Schatz, meanwhile, welcomed the legislative study of the DOCR and defended officials running the women's prison.

"Everything seemed to be working just fine, and then all of a sudden there's all kinds of complaints that we've never heard about before," Schatz said.

Rachelle Juntunen, the warden of the Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, likewise said they there were caught off guard by the Republican governor's proposal to move female prisoners out of the community when it was announced late last year, prompting concerns about the economic impact to the area.

Juntunen disputed accusations about the facility, but she said they were willing to make changes to address concerns raised by the state.

"I don't think it's in anyone's best interest to just sit back and say, 'Well nothing's going to happen for two years so let's just keep doing business as usual,'" she said. "If they want things improved, we will certainly work with them on doing what we can to make that happen."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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