North Dakota was forced to defend itself at great cost against a discrimination lawsuit arguing that corrections services for women inmates were less than those provided for men. It took almost seven years of legal wrangling to get the lawsuit dismissed. Unfortunately, the obvious inequities between services provided for incarcerated men and women remain.
It’s unacceptable that men have much greater access than women to medical and rehabilitative services.
It’s unacceptable that women in prison have no access to medication-assisted treatment to help them overcome addiction.
It’s unacceptable that women prisoners have no community access to medical or dental services, meaning they have to be transported many miles for care.
It’s unacceptable that care coordination and peer support capacity for men incarcerated in Bismarck is more than four times greater than what is available to women.
These shameful gaps in treatment are morally unacceptable. They also are legally unacceptable. The state has a constitutional responsibility to provide equal treatment.
We shouldn’t wait for plaintiff’s lawyers and judges to solve these gross inequities, which have been recognized for years. When the women’s prison moved from Bismarck to New England 15 years ago, it was a case of legislators ignoring the advice of corrections officials.
The deficiencies of the women’s prison, “pigeonholed” into a former Catholic boarding school, are plain to anyone who bothers to look. Most obviously, it was never designed to be a prison. The school is old and inefficient.
There’s lots of hand-wringing coming from New England and others who say closing it will be an injustice to rural North Dakota. Let’s not forget that New England never fully welcomed the prison, as evidenced by the fact that even today local dentists and area medical providers refuse service for the inmates.
Gov. Doug Burgum has advanced an innovative solution in his proposal to transfer the women’s prison to the Missouri River Correctional Center at Bismarck, which now houses low-risk male prisoners. Modifying the correctional center for women will cost $1.8 million -- and will save $2 million in operating costs in the first biennium alone.
The move would trigger downstream moves. Low-risk men would move to a remodeled facility on the grounds of the State Hospital in Jamestown, where a new, 80-bed hospital would be built for $35 million. The new hospital would be much more efficient and modern, saving $8 million per biennium in staffing and other efficiency gains.
For anyone looking with clear eyes at the state’s corrections and behavioral health needs, the solution is obvious. As Burgum has suggested, the state can join others in finding a new use for the New England school, owned by a six-county consortium. But that’s a separate issue.
Legislators should join the governor and show leadership to treat incarcerated men and women equally -- and achieve a much better State Hospital in the process. Failing to act would be a real setback to the gains the state is making in corrections and behavioral health.
All of us have a stake in providing better services for inmates and those who need behavioral health services. They are our neighbors. We want them to be healthy and productive citizens.
The bottom line: We should never confuse providing correctional services with rural economic development. They are entirely separate issues.