By Mike McCleary
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has been making changes in how it operates the state penitentiary and the early indications of the results are positive.
In a series of stories Sunday, reporter Caroline Grueskin explained why the prison has been moving away from the use of solitary confinement. Interviews with prison officials and inmates showed how a willingness to explore alternatives to how things have been done for years has prompted major changes.
When additions and renovations were made at the prison seven years ago increasing the size of the solitary confinement cell block, officially known as the administrative segregation unit, was a priority. When completed, the unit was quickly filled and prison officials realized the system wasn’t working. It was chaotic and confining men for long stretches in small cells didn’t improve behavior.
When prison administrators visited a prison in Norway they were intrigued by the idea that prison should be more like the outside. The penitentiary has been working since then to reduce the number of inmates in solitary. This involves changing the approach used by corrections officers to inmates and working to change the behavior of inmates. The motto has become “behave your way in, behave your way out.”
Some may think the prison is going soft, but it isn’t. The prison and most of the jails in the state are full. Officials have been saying for some time that the state can’t build its way out of the problem. We have to find ways to prepare inmates for a return to society. Solitary confinement can add to a prisoner’s attitude problems.
Solitary confinement hasn’t been dropped, but it’s not as quickly used as in the past. Prison officials should be commended for their willingness to adopt new approaches. Changes are going to be necessary or the state could be overwhelmed by corrections’ costs in the future.
This week legislators are being told if no action is taken the cost of contracting beds for the state’s growing prison population will total $485 million through 2025.
That figure doesn’t include building any new prisons, according to Katie Mosehauer, project manager for the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which is working with lawmakers on a study of the corrections system. The Justice Center hopes to help lawmakers decide on action to ease pressure on the prison system while also reducing recidivism rates and improving overall public safety.
The work of the Legislature combined with the steps being taken by prison officials could put North Dakota on the path of solving its prison and jail problems. It’s an effort that needs to succeed.