Several policies put in place by the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in response to the coronavirus, back in March, are still in place today.
One in particular is putting a strain on local jails.
The policy says inmates from state prisons who have to leave for trial, or any other reason, cannot return right away. So, they’re housed at county jails in the meantime for a period of about five to seven weeks.
It’s all a part of Governor Burgum’s VP3 plan, or vulnerable populations plan, which the DOCR falls under.
“If you look at the 10 biggest outbreaks in America, you’re going to find jails and prisons in that top 10 and it’s almost every one of them. You know, North Dakota doesn’t want that. We do not want to be a part of that,” DOCR Director of Facility Operations Colby Braun explained.
But the Department of Corrections only encompasses the state’s prisons, not the jails that are now taking in those additional prisoners, and the Burleigh Morton Detention Center’s population is on the rise.
“Back in March, then, we got down to as low as about 160 to 170 inmates,” shared Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben. “As of today, we’re in that 230 inmate population, which again, when you look at our facility in a normal situation, 230 inmates, we wouldn’t bat an eye. But, 230 of those inmates have to be separated.”
KX News reported in March, the DOCR stopped taking in any prisoners.
“We are experiencing a way different problem than we did in the early months. Now we have the worry — even though DOCR is taking some of those inmates — they’re not leaving quickly. By the time they take their group and go through their process and are ready to take another group, more have been sentenced,” Sheriff Leben added.
In interviewing Braun, I questioned, “Like you said, all these hotspots: they’re prisons and jails. So do you worry about the jails having to bring these people instead? …I guess what’s the big difference between bringing them back to the prison or putting them into a jail?”
Braun responded, “So generally, you’d be taking a person, and basically putting them in congregate-type settings. But if you placed them in a jail, kept them there, went to the court, brought them back to the jail, and then to the prison and back– all you’re doing is continuously moving that person. So that’s where I go back to the jails have done a really, really nice job of also making sure that they keep space available.”
“Unfortunately to be able to do that, we’ve had to open up another pod that we’re not staffed for,” the Burleigh County Sheriff explained.
Braun says it’s not a perfect system, and the DOCR does prioritize bringing inmates back to the prisons after trial.
Luckily, Sheriff Leben says the resuming of trials hasn’t taken a huge toll on the jail yet, but the future is uncertain.
“We’ve been able to work with the courts and the prosecutors to make sure that only the trials that are necessary are going to be held at this time. The frustrating part is we’re kicking the can down the road. Every day this goes on, the problem is just getting worse,” he added.
Sheriff Leben says, ultimately, he does understand the state’s position, but jails are seeing pressure from all sides: From law enforcement making arrests that have to come into the jail, to the DOCR’s policies, to keeping inmates and staff safe; all while prioritizing taxpayer dollars.
Braun says if the pressure does become too much for counties, the DOCR will have to re-evaluate the plan.