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North Dakota finds success in re-thinking prison culture

Published: Jun. 2, 2022 at 10:39 AM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -The frustration of low staffing, overcrowding, and a lack of resources for offenders continues at the South Dakota state prisons. A few hours north of us is an entirely different approach to incarceration, and they’re finding success.

Bismark, North Dakota, may be a quiet community, but they’re impacting how they interact with those behind bars. Governor Noem even noted the approach and success within the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“I think what North Dakota is doing is fantastic. I’ve spent hours talking to the Governor of North Dakota about it,” said Governor Noem.

North Dakota D-O-C-R Director Dave Krabbenhoft says those behind bars are not inmates or offenders, they are all called residents. He cites that within three years, 97% of those will have served their time and be back living in the community. The goal is to prepare for a better life from the day the resident enters the system. The Restoring Promise Initiative encourages young men between 18 to 25 years of age behind bars to see the world differently.

“We want to give them the best chance that they can have when they leave with us that they’re dealing with the issues that brought them into our facilities, whether it be a drug and alcohol problem, whether it be a violent problem, whether it be trauma,” said Krabbenhoft.

A new unit is the complete opposite of isolation in a cell.

“It’s that sense of community giving people opportunity that they may never have had before in their lives. So you know, a simple greeting ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ Shaking someone’s hand,” said Krabbenhoft.

The grand opening of the unit on May 26th brought everyone together.

“One of the most fulfilling days I think I’ve had in my career in corrections. It was wonderful,” said Krabbenhoft as he recalled how he addressed the crowd. “Take a minute and look around. We’re holding a grand opening and a maximum-security prison. And we have family members here. We have staff members here.”

The initiative changes the space and mindset of those serving time.

“No reason to have that kind of hard, you know stainless steel look everywhere. Our prison industries program made that furniture and brought it into the unit,” said Krabbenhoft.

There can be concerns about change being costly, as stated by Governor Noem as she visited the State Penitentiary in July of 2021. Currently, offenders in South Dakota only receive treatment for addiction or other issues in the last six months of their sentence, meaning they could be serving time for years without the ability to work toward change with guidance from others.

“But it is definitely a priority of mine. It’s the big bill and the big cost of adding those,” said Governor Noem.

“The budget to launch it actually was was zero. You know what to bring the program in. We really didn’t expend any funds,” said Krabbenhoft.

The Governor has also shared concerns about overcrowding.

“We’re just continuing to struggle with our lack of facilities to host that type of interaction,” said Noem.

Associate director Clinique Chapman says the Restoring Promise Initiative has a proven track record in 4 states, and the amount of room is not an issue.

“Yes, any space can be conducive to healing if you really focus on that is what you want to create in that space,” said Chapman.

Chapman says she’d welcome a conversation with legislators during their prison summer study.

“South Dakota, as of now, it’s not one of our partners as of yet. But it will be great to partner with South Dakota in the future,” said Chapman.

“They come to prison for the punishment prison shouldn’t be the punishment,” said Krabbenhoft.

“People can feel their humanity being restored on a day-to-day basis while they’re incarcerated,” said Chapman.

The change is felt among those in prison as well as correctional officers, who feel safer, have more job satisfaction, and report better quality of life when they’re going home after their shift.

Restoring Promise is an initiative of the MILPA Collective and the Vera Institute of Justice.

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