When the pandemic hit, the biggest mitigation strategy in jails and prisons was releasing inmates early.

As the months dragged on, the trend reversed and it shows in North Dakota. Those at the helm of our prisons and jails say this was inevitable, and it’s a matter of balancing health and keeping crime at bay.

“It’s easy to look at something from an ivory tower and say, you know, ‘COVID is real, COVID’s a pandemic. Why are we putting these people in congregate style housing?’ Well, if people didn’t break the law, we wouldn’t be,” said Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben, referencing data from the Prison Policy Initiative.

It shows North Dakota reduced its jail and prison populations by about 19% by May, but by the fall that reversed, with a 3% increase just between Oct. 8 and Nov. 19.

“It’s true. That report is accurate,” Sheriff Leben added.

At the lowest point, the Burleigh Morton Detention Center, with the capacity to hold 300 inmates, was down to about 150-160. Now the jail is back up to about 250.

“Some of the actions we took early in COVID, are now backfiring on us,” the Sheriff said.

He says in the first week of January, officers began arresting people on misdemeanor warrants again after the district court halted them early in the pandemic.

“Part of the problem with that, though, is we saw an increase in failure to appears and even when people weren’t typically going to jail. Our warrant numbers are through the roof,” Leben said.

It shows in arrest numbers from all four law enforcement agencies that use the jail.

For example, with the Bismarck Police Department, Leben said, “In December they used 458 nights in our jail. In January, they used 1,216, almost three times what they used in December.”

He added, “The other side of the coin, though, is this is necessary.”

“I think it was inevitable,” shared Dave Krabbenhoft, the Interim Director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

He says as the courts reopened, people were getting sentenced to the prisons again and releases slowed down.

“Life is slowly inching its way back to normal and unfortunately, part of normal is, you know, people having to come to the DOCR,” Krabbenhoft said.

During the pandemic, on average, the DOCR has admitted about 30 fewer prisoners a month than before. Not to mention, there are about 125-130 people who are sitting in North Dakota jail facilities awaiting transfer to state prisons.

“Every four weeks, I think, we bring in a scheduled number of people,” Krabbenhoft explained.

He says his biggest worry right now is in the long-term. As the courts catch up, he says it could become more difficult to manage prison populations.

The DOCR has seen a couple of COVID-19 case spikes, including a November outbreak that infected more than half of the population at the James River Correctional Center. Right now the Department of Corrections has about five active COVID-19 cases among inmates.

Krabbenhoft says prisons could be expecting vaccinations as early as March for inmates and staff.

Sheriff Leben says he’s thankful for the lack of cases at the capital city’s detention center, which he attributes to a 14-day quarantine policy upon admission. Although he says that is being forced to change to 10 days because of the increase in inmates.

Sheriff Leben says the jail will be implementing BinaxNOW rapid testing to test people after the 10-day quarantine.