North Dakota's Prisons Chief Saw a Radically Better Way
Inside the transformation Leann Bertsch is bringing to her state
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 26, 2017 10:00 AM CDT
This Dec. 22, 2006, file photo shows a barbed wire fence surrounding a cell house at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck.   (AP Photo/Will Kincaid, File)

(Newser) – North Dakota prisons chief Leann Bertsch is one tough cookie, but an October 2015 trip to Norway really rattled her. In Mother Jones, Dashka Slater explains what brought the former major with the National Guard/ex-state prosecutor to tears: her realization that "we're hurting people." It came after a day touring Halden, a maximum-security facility that's upheld as exceedingly "humane." Bertsch had thought the four adult prisons under her purview were pretty humane themselves, but the "cagelike setting" her state offered stood in stark contrast to Halden's private rooms with en suite bathrooms. But she didn't just moan about the reality: She changed it. Previously, solitary confinement (called the seg unit) was where inmates landed if they committed any number of small infractions, even ones involving untucked shirts.

Now, seg is only used in cases where an inmate puts someone in danger; guards there must have two chats per inmate, per shift. After learning in Norway that the more distant home is for an inmate, the fewer visitors he gets (with studies indicating having frequent visitors lowers the recidivism rate), Bertsch scrapped plans to deal with overcrowding by moving some men to Colorado. Instead, she leased a "man camp" erected for oil workers that has real mattresses, no fences, and doors with locks—and inmates have the keys. Those who've been sentenced for minor crimes or are nearing release are placed here. Slater explains Bertsch had a few things going for her in making these changes, among them the "relatively homogeneous" makeup of the state, which means race-based prison gangs aren't much of an issue. Read the full story, which explains how Bertsch ended up in Norway to begin with.

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