What Happens When Our State Prisons Hit Capacity?

Local News

In 2013, state lawmakers gave the North Dakota Department of Corrections the authority to make a management plan for our prisons in case they hit capacity.

The resulting population management plan, or ‘prioritization plan’, defers inmates from our two state prisons to their respective county jails, until the prison’s numbers fall below capacity.

Neither the State Penitentiary in Bismarck or Dakota Women’s Correctional in New England went into prioritization mode until 2017.

Then, the women’s prison hit capacity again in June of 2019.

The DOCR was able to get out of prioritization mode in October of 2019, meaning all of the female inmates temporarily housed in county jails have been moved to the Women’s Correctional facility.

But as one Sheriff told KX News, the county jails, and subsequently the taxpayers, are still paying the cost. And such a situation could happen again soon.

“A little uncomfortable with the female population, it’s been creeping up over the last couple of months. We’re about 10 below our capacity, and we’ve typically been hanging out just above 200,” shared DOCR Director of Transitional Planning Services, Steve Hall.

That’s out of 224 total spots. On the male side, Hall said they are about 50 away from the cap, set at 1,624 inmates.

“On average we’re bringing in about 138 people every month,” Hall added.

But the DOCR releases just 118 inmates, men and women, per month on average.

Burleigh County Sheriff Kelly Leben said from June to October of 2019, the Burleigh Morton Detention Center brought in 16 additional women, racking up 174 prisoner nights.

Between housing costs and medical expenses, Leben said, “Basically the county residents paid $14,900.”

Medical costs have been Sheriff Leben’s biggest concern.

Hall said they do try to prioritize bringing inmates into state prisons when they have known serious medical or behavioral health issues.

He added, “We would bump them up on the list, so they would come in quicker.”

Theoretically, this should lessen the cost burden for the counties. But it’s unknown factors, like injuries sustained in jail, that add up for taxpayers.

Hall said it’s up to the legislature to decide who pays those bills.

“I don’t know that the DOCR would have been authorized to pay it,” Hall explained.

He also said, in 2017, North Dakota lawmakers did give county officials the authority to come up with their own plan to present.

“I’ve been talking with area legislators, explaining to them that this is a cost on the residents, it’s a property tax cost, that really should be reimbursed by the state,” shared Sheriff Leben.

And although the beds are filling up at the women’s prison now, Hall said the DOCR doesn’t predict the state will be back in prioritization mode at least in the next four months.

Counties are affected differently by these deferred admissions to our state prisons. While the DOCR was in Prioritization mode between June and October, Burleigh County housed the most inmates.

As of right now, Hall said there are no plans to increase the inmate cap at the women’s prison. He said that too, would be up to lawmakers.

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