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Burgum's proposal to move correctional center a cause for concern in New England

The Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center in New England, N.D., pictured here April 17, 2012, houses more than 100 female convicted felons. Forum News Service file photo

NEW ENGLAND, N.D. — The Dakota Women's Correctional and Rehabilitation Center here may be closing soon if Gov. Doug Burgum’s proposal comes to fruition.

During his budget address on Wednesday, Nov. 6, Burgum recommended relocating the prison to Bismarck. The facility, established in 2003, is a mixed custody prison with a capacity of 126 inmates.  

“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.

“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 concern that more and more sources of revenue are leaving rural areas in North Dakota.

“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.”

A ‘hard sell’

“The Legislature makes these decisions, so ultimately we will decide if this goes forward or not. Nothing is in stone,” said State Rep. and New England native Mike Schatz of District 36. “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.”

Schatz said the relocation proposal would need to go through both the House and Senate appropriations committees and that it would be a “hard sell.”

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, who serves on the Senate’s Government Finance Committee, echoed Schatz’s sentiments.

“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.”

Schatz said that this proposal coming from Burgum seems 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.”  

Attempts to reach Gov. Burgum’s office for comment were unsuccessful.