State of the State Penitentiary

Rumors and allegations about the safety at the North Dakota State Penitentiary have been surfacing for months.

Your News Leader met with many sources on and off camera for nearly a year to hear their concerns and their stories. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation also talked with our investigative reporter Daniela Hurtado to talk about the allegations.

Many former and current officers say assaults continue to increase at the State Penitentiary, but are being silenced. They say the reform initiative that DOCR Director Leann Bertsch began a few years ago just isn't working and they fear the inmates are going to take over the penitentiary.

Identities of officers have been kept anonymous for the safety of those who spoke to us and for the safety of their jobs. Many were afraid to come out on camera.

Community give back events, service dogs, holiday decorations, TV time and game consoles for good behavior, and the verbage "inmates" being switched to "residents," that's all a part of reform initiatives at the State Penitentiary.

"There will always be critics, particularly when you're doing major change that's a culture shift," said Bertsch.

But officers on the inside say the reform isn't working. One current employee says the stress level at the pen has "skyrocketed," saying if you don't conform with the reform, you're shown the door.

"I would just emphasize that it really is out of control. There's a different vibe in the place. Staff are nervous about it," said an anonymous former employee.

In a survey last year, many employees voiced their concerns saying morale was at an all-time low, and they are asked to manipulate statistics. Employees talked about terrible leadership and a lack of confidence in them. Some say the reform is almost like Disney World. There were also claims of fudged stats to make "Supreme Leader Leanne look flawless." Overall, many are asking administrators to get rid of "the stupid Norway project." Some say retaliation from administrators is a fear if they disagree. Many on and off the survey agree administration has an "if you don't like it here, you leave" mentality.

Former and current employees talked about the assaults they've seen and experienced first hand. Many saying officers are being blamed instead of inmates or inmates get little to no consequences.

"These assaults aren't getting reported because they don't consider them assaults because you weren't taken to the hospital or you didn't miss a day of work," said Sam Mitchum, former employee.

"We would have fights sometimes, a couple of week. Sometimes a week or two would go by and we'd have nothing. They're having something every day now, they call it incident command," said an anonymous source.

In documents released by the prison, out of nearly 800 inmates housed, they had more than 400 assault charges against inmates between January of 2017 and February of 2019.

Administrators say the facts are in the numbers.

"People that assault people in prison, there absolutely is consequences," said Colby Braun, prison warden.

Employees say they fear to speak up, because although administration says their doors are open, they don't mean it.

"If they want to say they feel fearful, that's BS. People who come forward with legitimate concerns get a legitimate respectful answer," said Bertsch

Thomas Eagle has been at the pen for six years, he says the changes the administration has made helped him, especially after serving time in federal prison.

"We used to dream about coming to a place like this. And we were like, 'man if I ever made it to a place like that I would hang it up.' Meaning, I would put my jerseys in the rafter. I would retire, I would be on no more convict type of mentality," said Eagle, prison inmate.

Some employees say inmates call the prison "Camp Snoopy."

"Haha, yeah," said Eagle.

"I mean, it kind of is," said Ralph Jacobson, prison inmate.

Sources say since change was initiated, respect from many inmates isn't there. A current employee says staff are locked up in their units for most of the day sometimes with not enough time for breaks.

Bertsch says criticism is expected but they want employees to perform at a higher level, and if they don't they "cannot continue to work at the pen."

"I don't apologize for anything. Sometimes you do lose people in the midst of a major change but each of those pieces has made our system better, and better, and better," said Bertsch

Only one tower is being manned at the prison currently. The department says the towers are only a layer of the security they provide. But now that the information is out there, they'll have to discuss perimeter security.

Administrators say the prison is safer than ever, citing an increase of cameras around the facility and better training for the officers.

However, not everyone is unhappy. In an email received by the DOCR director Tuesday, an employee thanked her and everything she's accomplished.

Many former and current employees say they hope change is coming before something worse happens to a staff member. Sources also say that just last month an employee had to get surgery for a broken eye socket after an inmate assaulted him.

Wednesday morning, staff were asked through their briefing notes to not talk to the media and to refer the media to the proper person.