Bismarck, N.D. The debate over what to do with convicted criminals has been going on for generations.
Some say they should simply be locked away from society, while others say they need to be taught a better way to live.
North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recently changed its focus in dealing with some of the most violent inmates.
In October 2015, two officials from the state pen traveled to Oslo, Norway and observed a whole new way of treating prisoners and have adopted some of those methods. The results are encouraging.
Locking up the most dangerous inmates separates them from the rest of the prison population, but it doesn’t change behavior.
“If people are spending all of their time in a cage by themselves, it’s not unusual that they’re going to behave in a way that’s not really desirable,” says Karianne Wolfer, Director of Correctional Practices.
These cages were built seven years ago for officer security and to limit interaction among inmates. Now, prison officials are reevaluating their usefulness.
“The only time you got out of your cell was the hour in the cage, which you feel like me you don’t want to come out because you know, you’re a dog in a dog kennel,” says Jonathan McKinney, inmate.
The behavioral intervention unit was launched seven months ago, and it’s already showing significant results.
“They have a situation come up and they realize that they dealt with it in a whole different way than they would’ve in the past,” says Dr. Lisa Peterson, Clinical Director.
“There’s less arguments between us, there’s less fighting between us, there’s less aggravation from people kicking the doors, and screaming and yelling,” says McKinney.
Now, social interaction is encouraged and guards engage prisoners in conversation.
“All these officers have ever known is lockdown, lockdown, I mean, it’s ‘we’re inmates versus officers’. Now, it’s the humanity thing, now its officers and criminals, inmates, residents can all be together as one,” says Sgt.Tyler Fleckenstein, Administrative Segregation Unit.
Part of the disciplinary transition involves group programs held three times a week to help change risk behaviors.
“The people who participate are pretty good at articulating what’s helping them and what’s not helping them and why they think it’s helping them. So people will talk about having that interaction with the staff and being able to relate to staff on a different level,” says Peterson.
The new motto for inmates is simple.
“Behave your way in and behave your way out,” says Wolfer.
Some inmates who’ve been in solitary confinement for years at the state pen have written letters expressing appreciation for the new approach.
“Inmates who feel like a person, treated like a person, treated with respect, are less likely to act out and more apt to to do good to make the goal getting out of segregation,” wrote an inmate in a letter.
Since this program started, the number of inmates in solitary confinement has stayed below 33. Two years ago, there were more than 100 inmates in segregation.
The program was tested at the James River Correctional Center before it started in Bismarck.