When your prison location dictates the services you do and don’t receive

In North Dakota, in 2003, a women’s prison was moved from Bismarck to the farming town of New England. In 2019, the governor is considering moving the women back to Bismarck, predominantly because of claims that it is focusing on the economic impact to the struggling town. For women, the impact would be obvious since they are not receiving the same treatments and rehabilitation as the men currently incarcerated in Bismarck.

The move would have a large impact on the treatments women could receive, especially in comparison to men. For example, incarcerated men receive a wider variety of rehabilitation services unavailable to women incarcerated in New England. These include medical and rehabilitative services; access to medication assisted treatment to help overcome addictions; community access to medical or dental services; care coordination and peer support.

Governor Burgum has contended that the need is obvious, and that the state has the responsibility to treat men and women inmates equally. Responding to problems of wide disparity between inmates’ care, Burgum has instituted a series of reforms addressing corrections and behavioral health services, all of which are meant to improve the women’s prison, a key to the Governor’s desire to transform North Dakota government. 

On the other hand, the incarcerated women have been at the center of a controversy, in which New England residents have protested moving the inmates because of the economic toil it would have on the town. State lawmakers have yet to approve the move. Those opposed to the move are mobilizing; former inmates have spoken out in favor of the move. Townsfolk are not pitted against women inmates clamoring for better services that will take care of them and help prevent their re-entry into the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, the care they have received out in New England has been inadequate, at best. A pregnant woman receiving methadone treatment for an opioid addiction was about to be moved to the women’s prison, when her doctor intervened to keep her in the county jail, where medication-assisted addiction treatment is available. Without the treatment, methadone withdrawal could have put the fetus in peril and caused a miscarriage. 

90 percent of the women in the Dakota Women’s Correctional Center, in New England, come from communities in central and eastern North Dakota. They come from towns hundreds of miles from New England, and there is no bus service to New England. Three in four of the women have children under the age of 18; more than half of the inmates reoffend as well, continuing a cycle of recidivism for them and harm for their children. 

The Dakota Women’s Correctional Center provides New England with a grand total of 56 jobs, while, according to the Governor, the surrounding southwestern North Dakota has between 800 and 1,000 job offerings. “If it’s about jobs in southwestern North Dakota, we’ve got a lot of unfilled jobs,” Burgum has noted. Governor Burgum insists that the move is about better rehabilitation, giving women the chance to lead better and more productive lives through rehabilitation: “That’s what the focus has to be. It’s not about how we make better prison jobs.” 

(Photo Credit: Chris Flynn / The Forum)