ND women's prison in New England on the chopping block

NEW ENGLAND, N.D. - The state women's prison in New England is on the chopping block, and administrators there say they had no clue.

Gov. Doug Burgum announced last week in his budget proposal that he wanted to do away with the prison and put the women in the Missouri River Correctional Center in Bismarck.

The director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (DOCR) says that's been a part of the plan.

The administration here at the women's prison says they're not surprised that the DOCR want to move the female inmates out of New England. They say they're surprised and blind sided that the administration never let them know they wanted to close this facility permanently.

People in New England say the first *step* should've been more communication.

"There was no discussion about completely closing the facility or what was going to happen. And then this conversation afterwards about possibly switching out populations at some point had kind of alleviated some of that thought. And then the next thing I heard was that the Governor's budget was going to call for," said Rachelle Juntunen, a warden at Dakota Women's Correctional Center

Juntunen says she was supposed to meet with the director of the DOCR about using the New England facility for a male population and moving the women somewhere else, but never heard from them after their talk in October. The director says she did tell the administration about the potential closure.

"I think they were hoping that we would give them a different mission. They can still run a prison, it's just that the department of corrections and rehabilitation wants to end the contract that we have with them because they're not able to meet the terms of the contract any how," said Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Leann Bertsch.

Juntunen says the DOCR never made mention of these issues and in fact renewed their contract until 2025, last year. Both agree the women would benefit from being relocated because a large majority of the population have children near Bismarck.

People in New England say this would hit the community hard

"The largest water user in our city is the correctional facility. All of the infrastructure improvements that we've done in the last few years are based on water utility rates and it will have a huge impact on our ability to repay loans," said New England Mayor Marty

But, this isn't decided on yet. The Governor's office says this will be a very debated item this legislative session.

"You've got the Governor's option: which is moving the minimum security men to Jameston and building a new building in the location of the MRCC. We got the option of leaving everything to where it's at today or moving minimum security male and leaving New England go which will more than likely be for the next two years. And the other option is to move the minimum security, leave this here and look at selling the MRCC," said District 39 State Rep. Keith Kempenich.

People in New England and the prison say they want and hope to continue working with the DOCR.

And some legislators say if they do come to a decision to close this facility, that won't be happening for several years.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford says this decision isn't the first time it was brought up. He says they feel it is a right one for the inmate population in the state.

As for why this wasn't communicated to the people of New England before the budget proposal, Sanford says the proposal is the first time for people to hear these suggestions but the downside is scrambling to communicate with people that are affected after the fact.

Sanford says if approved, the state will be there for New England as it comes to fruition.