A long-term proposal to eventually close the Dakota Women's Correctional Rehab Center in New England, N.D., could potentially have impacts in Grand Forks as state inmates are shuffled around among state prison facilities.

North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials told state legislators that the remoteness of the New England facility often acts as a barrier to services and family visitation for the women who are housed there, which could leave the state open to lawsuits, as one state legislator noted. The proposal, if adopted, would take a gradual, phased approach over the next decade to moving women out of DWCRC and into the more centrally-located North Dakota Youth Correctional Center in Mandan.

"I think the writing's on the wall that there's going to be a switch in the state and there needs to be," outgoing DOCR director Leann Bertsch told members of the DOCR Review legislative committee at their meeting this month. "I think leadership continues to be that we need to do something different with the women."

The proposal, developed by the D.C.-based criminal justice consulting firm The Moss Group, includes two options for housing the incarcerated women and children the plan would impact. The proposal does not involve the addition of any new beds to the DOCR system, said Steve Carter, the executive vice president of CGL Companies, a Miami-based correctional facility design consulting firm. Instead, the proposal aims to reconfigure the prison system's existing resources to be more effective.

After use of DWCRC is phased out as a women's prison, the facility would likely continue to be used by DOCR for other purposes, like a vocational training or treatment space.

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The second option offered in the proposal includes a plan to lease up to 24 beds from the Grand Forks County Juvenile Detention Center for children formerly incarcerated in the Youth Correctional Center. As part of that option, the YCC would be converted to women's housing for 50 minimum custody inmates and men's reentry housing while a new 100-bed women's prison is constructed.

The Grand Forks County Juvenile Detention Center currently acts as a 14-bed facility authorized to hold children for up to one year. The facility, which has a maximum capacity of 25 beds, accepts child intakes from throughout northeastern North Dakota for an additional out-of-county rate. Center administrator Bridgie Hansen did not return an interview request prior to publication deadlines.

Addressing the committee, DOCR Director of Juvenile Services Lisa Bjergaard said that DOCR and The Moss Group have had conversations with the Grand Forks facility about the proposed changes, but those conversations have been informal in nature.

The North Dakota Department of Human Services also operates the Ruth Meiers Adolescent Treatment Center in Grand Forks, but Bjergaard said that they had not yet reached out to that facility to initiate a conversation about how it might fit into the DOCR proposal.

The other option offered in the proposal, which would not utilize any Grand Forks facilities, would also entail moving 50 minimum custody women to YCC, but incarcerated children would also remain housed there. The Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck, currently a minimum security men's prison, would be upgraded to include men's reentry housing.

The proposal comes at a time when DOCR is looking ahead long-term at how it might eventually expand its footprint in eastern North Dakota in order to keep incarcerated people closer to their families and support systems, said DOCR interim Director Dave Krabbenhoft. Bertsch said that while about a third of incarcerated women are from the Bismarck-Mandan area, a significant portion of women incarcerated in North Dakota come from the eastern part of the state, particularly the Grand Forks and Fargo areas.

Carter told the committee that their recommendations will be compiled into a report that will be given to DOCR officials for review in early August. That report is expected to come before the DOCR Review Committee for consideration in late August.

As the proposal was developed, Bertsch said a significant emphasis had been placed on a long-term goal of moving more women and children out of detention facilities, and into supervised release or treatment programs.

"Women and juveniles have a lot of similarities," Bertsch said. "They're high needs, there's a lot of trauma in that population, they're not typically dangerous, but they're risky. We have to attend to those. And I think we're doing a disservice when we always think we have to use a residential placement for those women."