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WDAY: The News Leader

Published June 17, 2013, 08:58 AM

North Dakota penitentiary expansion nears completion

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Robyn Schmalenberger took over as warden of the North Dakota State Penitentiary in May 2010. The entire time she's been at the helm of the maximum security prison, it has been under construction.

By: JENNY MICHAEL,The Bismarck Tribune, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Robyn Schmalenberger took over as warden of the North Dakota State Penitentiary in May 2010. The entire time she's been at the helm of the maximum security prison, it has been under construction.

"I'm very proud of the staff," she told The Bismarck Tribune.

The people who work at the prison have had to deal with constant changes and difficulties as they kept the facility going while adding a new cell house, new clinic and infirmary, new administrative segregation unit and other changes to the prison that opened in 1885.

But the end is in sight. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials hope to start using the new features within three weeks, and the old East Cell House, in use since 1910, should be gone by the end of October.

After years of discussion about the state of the State Penitentiary, the 2009 North Dakota Legislature passed a bill to build a $64 million expansion and renovation of the facility, parts of which were considered outdated and unsafe for prison staff. It is the largest expansion of the prison since it was built, as a territorial prison, in 1885. The prison will have 810 beds when it's completed, up from 560 now.

Corrections Director Leann Bertsch told those at a short dedication last week that the project makes much-needed improvements that will make the prison more efficient and safer for employees and inmates.

The prison is a "critical component" of North Dakota's infrastructure needs as the state grows and changes, Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley said.

"This is necessary for the state. This is necessary for the employees out here," he said.

Prisoners have been brought in to the penitentiary through the main lobby; they now will go in and out through a secure entrance not used by the public. A heated sidewalk — a safety feature for inmates and staff in the winter — will take them to a reception unit. All male prisoners will enter there, get searched, change into prison clothing and begin the intake process.

New inmates must be kept separate from the general population for approximately one month as staff assess their needs and custody levels. The new reception area, combined with a 120-bed orientation unit, will better keep them isolated from seasoned prisoners and give staff a better chance to determine whether they should be at the Bismarck prison or one of the department's other facilities.

The new clinic and infirmary at the prison may be the most drastic difference between the prison as is and the prison as it will be. The medical facility in use now is too small for the aging inmate population, lacks privacy and doesn't allow for long-term care of inmates with severe medical problems.

"We do have some rather elderly inmates," Schmalenberger said.

The new clinic includes space for the prison's doctor, dentist and nurses, along with the medical professionals that come in to provide services, such as physical therapists and optometrists. There is an X-ray machine and other amenities that will cut down on transporting prisoners into the community. The new infirmary features hospital-like cells for prisoners who have returned from surgery and others with longtime health problems. There is space for inmates to eat in the infirmary and to have recreation time. There is laboratory space, an emergency room and an isolation unit.

The medical facilities also include an expanded observation area for inmates who might be at risk to harm themselves, and a detoxification cell for inmates who still have drugs in their systems. Medication will be distributed in a safer, more private fashion, as will insulin for diabetic prisoners.

The administrative segregation unit — often called the "prison within a prison" — will take the prison from 60 to 107 cells for the worst-behaved prisoners. A max segregation portion features some cells that will keep staff from having to have physical contact with dangerous inmates. The unit also will have more classroom space so staff members can try to work with the prisoners and get them back into the general population.

The administrative segregation unit will be on a step system, where prisoners will earn privileges and the right to be back in the general population. The new facility will better enable staff to move the prisoners through the system.

The new East Unit will have space for 180 inmates and will replace the old East Cell House, a unit that looks like it came straight out of a prison movie. The new unit will have better visibility for staff and more natural light, as required by regulations.

"It's going to be a lot safer," Schmalenberger said.

The new portions of the prison will have more than 400 cameras, compared to 36 previously in the spaces being replaced.

Keith Rasmusson, director of the physical plant, said the old East Cell House is scheduled to be empty by July 8 and to be demolished by Oct. 31.

"It's time for it to come down," Schmalenberger said.

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