Correctional facility on the chopping block -- Governor’s proposal a cause for concern in New England
The Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England may be closing soon if Gov. Doug Burgum's proposal comes to fruition.
During his budget address on Wednesday, Burgum recommended relocating the prison, which was first established in 2003, to Bismarck.
"The budget calls for $35 million from Legacy Fund earnings to replace the aging State Hospital in Jamestown and eventually repurpose it as a minimum-custody correctional facility for men, which in turn would allow the state to relocate women's prison services from New England to the Missouri River Correctional Center south of Bismarck," Burgum said. "Together, these changes will allow for consolidation of facilities and more efficient operations that will provide long-term savings of at least $7 million per biennium."
Marty Opdahl, mayor of New England, said the governor's comments came without forewarning and were a shock.
"Wednesday around 11 p.m. was the first time I heard anything about this," he said. "My reaction is real disappointment. Not just disappointment for New England because it's obviously really going to negatively impact us, but this is going to impact all of our tax base, who are going to have to pick up some additional expenses."
Opdahl expressed his concern with the direction North Dakota is going as more and more sources of revenue are leaving rural areas to major cities.
"Really I'm disappointed that this is what is happening to all the small communities in North Dakota. Everything is moving to your major cities and the small communities, who are struggling already, are left holding the bag," he said. "I'm an optimist though, and we in New England were here before the correctional facility and we'll be here after—if it's gone. But we're going to do everything in our power to fight to keep it here."
Tough for the town
Opdahl believes that there will be a good fight to keep the prison in New England, despite the governor's proposal.
"There are number of people employed by the center, a number of students who go to our schools that are children of people that work at the facility," Opdahl said. "The city of New England just completed a huge renovation of our water main system, in part because of the correctional facility."
State Rep. and New England native Mike Schatz of District 36 addressed the concerns directly.
"The Legislature makes these decisions, so ultimately we will decide if this goes forward or not. Nothing is in stone," Schatz said. "I think that is what (Burgum) envisions as a move that would somehow be efficient, but I kind of question how that would be cost effective, to move a new facility to this Missouri River Corrections Center rather than doing what we've got now. I don't think it would be."
He questioned the use of the Legacy Fund for this endeavor.
"For me, the Legacy Fund is for emergencies. This is not an emergency in my view," Schatz said. "We're employing 56 full-time people and 70 total from the New England, Dickinson and southwest area—that's a lot of people. You take that away, that's going to be tough for the town, no question about it."
Opdahl spoke to the economic concerns of the relocation of the correctional facility.
"It trickles down to everything. The grocery store and convenience stores will be impacted; obviously the restaurants ... everything ... literally everything in New England will be impacted by it," he said. "I haven't heard anything about a timeline, and I would think that the budget would have to go through the legislative process too. Hopefully that is where we can have some impact because we have legislators from Dickinson and New England that are involved in this."
When asked if he was confident that there would be legislative support for New England, Opdahl said that he was lukewarm to the prospects.
"I think that through the legislative process we can get some input into the decision making on this issue," he said. "Will it be enough? I don't know."
A hard sell
Schatz estimated it'd cost anywhere between $50 million and $100 million to build a new facility.
"I don't know how you could possibly recoup that when you're getting such a good job right now in New England. So what's the point?" Schatz asked. "They talked about some health care issues and stuff—we have health care there, we have two clinics in Dickinson and a wonderful, brand new hospital. I mean, I for the life of me don't quite figure out ... why they'd want to do it."
Schatz said this proposal would need to go through both the House and Senate appropriations committees and that it would be a "hard sell."
"I think the thing is that ... any time a governor makes a suggestion like this you're going to have to take it very seriously," He said. "We have plenty of legislators out west who are going to question some of these motives so we are going to have to defend this industry in our districts and we're going to work as hard as we can to keep things the way they are."
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, who serves on the Senate's Government Finance Committee, echoed Schatz's sentiments that the Legislature holds the pursestrings.
"The Legislature would decide whether or not that would happen. There are many who think that (the current facility) is not suitable enough for a women's prison...I don't know," Wardner said. "It's kind of nice to spread these things out and not put them all in Bismarck."
Addressing the economic ramifications of a prison closure in New England, Jason Jung, the city auditor, said the effects would be "tremendous."
"It will affect the city's budget in a big way. The reason it will is they are our largest water user by far. It will have a definite impact on our water sales and result in a big reduction in our revenue for our utility fund based on not having those water sales every month to the correctional center," Jung said. "It's too early to know the full financial impact the prison closing will have on our community, but preliminary review shows that it will have a tremendous impact because it employs so many people from our area."
District 37 Representative Vicky Steiner expressed her disappointment in the proposal.
"I was disappointed. He didn't visit with me about it. That was a complete surprise." She said in a phone interview. "At this point I certainly don't support it."
There goes Main Street
Schatz said that this proposal coming from Burgum's lips seemed paradoxical.
"I find it a little bit ironic that the DWCRC is on Main Street in New England and the governor has a Main Street Initiative," Schatz said. "Really he'd just be taking from our town and giving to another, so I don't think that would bode too well."
Moving forward, the future of the Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center remains unclear, but Opdahl said that the governor can expect a fight.
"I would think that this is going to be the most talked about City Council meeting in a while," he said. "I'd imagine that the City Council of New England will definitely get involved in this. Personally, I believe there are going to be a lot of people getting involved in this."
Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center is a mixed custody prison that houses minimum, medium and orientation adult females. The current capacity of Dakota Women's Correctional Center is 126 inmates.
The prison offers substance abuse treatment, sex offender counseling, mental health treatment, abuse treatment and anger management. Inmates can also receive medical treatment while incarcerated.
Additional education programs allow inmates to take adult basic education courses, obtain a GED, and even earn college credits through cooperation with Dickinson State University.
Attempts by the Press to reach Gov. Burgum's office for comment were unsuccessful.