Leann Bertsch has a job that most people would not envy. As the state’s director of corrections and rehabilitation, she oversees the state’s prisons. And since taking the job in 2005 she’s had to oversee a rapid rise in the state’s prison population.
We are the third fastest growing state in terms of incarceration, which is not a good statistic to have.
Narr: Many people in prison are there because of crimes caused by their addictions to drugs and alcohol. And almost 40 percent of these offenders become repeat offenders - often within a year of their release. Frustrated – Bertsch began studying prison systems in other countries like Norway which used to have a prison system very much like North Dakota’s.
LB: they had a growing prison population. They were having very high recidivism rates.
They started having a lot of violence in their prison. We aren't to the point where we're having a lot of violence but we're seeing more violence …Q: not working.
Narr: Norways’ prison officials decided to change course – away from a focus on punishment. The idea was to create a world inside prison that would help offenders succeed in the real world outside of prison.
LB: and they said the less difference the prison is from the outside the easier it will be for someone to transition from prison to the community. And so they try to make their prison more normal so they want people working. They want people going to school. They want people do to be making decisions. They wear their own clothes. They cook some of their own meals. They absolutely basically try to make it as normal as possible. And yet they're very cognizant of security.
Narr: But security isn’t just about fences and barbed wire. The prison staff work to foster respect with the prisoners as a way to model better behavior. Again, the focus is on trying to give prisoners skills to function better when they leave. And yes, the recidivism rate in Norway is much lower than in North Dakota.
LB: North Dakota's recidivism rate it out of our prison system is right around thirty nine percent. Not the highest but it's certainly not the lowest overall. So their recidivism rate runs in anywhere in between 16 to 20 percent which is is very enviable.
Narr: Another prison system that Director Bertsch says North Dakota could learn from is in Germany where the focus is on job training.
LB: they think if you're productively employed in learning a trade. Everyone works in that system that you're like you're less likely to come out and not have a skill and less likely to come out and go back to your criminal enterprise.
Narr: She thinks the same type of job training is needed in North Dakota.
But if you could really put some resources and give them a a skill that actually lets them live a decent life not like minimum wage they need a skill where they can make a decent living a sustainable wage. And some of the skills some of the things we have people just keeping time with isn't really going to translate into an employable in employable skill
Narr: But first she says prison administrators have to find out more about the job market -
LB: I think I think one of the things we could be more successful in is it to really work for with commerce the workforce to say what are those jobs that are open in North Dakota and what are the skill sets those individuals need. And we have a population that if we could bring those skill sets to them so that they could fill some of those open positions in North Dakota. I think that would be a very valuable win for North Dakota and our criminal justice system.
Narr: What countries like Norway and Germany have in common is their focus on rehabilitation. Bertsch thinks that North Dakota’s
Narr: Journeys Through Justice is funded in part by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council. For Prairie Public, I’m Meg Luther Lindholm.