- Associated Press - Saturday, July 23, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - After a busy weekend of DUIs, simple assaults and drug arrests, Capt. Lisa Wicks comes into work on Tuesday with a big task: Where is she going to put all the inmates who couldn’t post bail?

The Burleigh County Detention Center only holds 138 inmates, yet the jail was responsible for 170 people on an average day in May.

Like a traveler looking for a hotel room, she and other jail staffers call around the state to find empty beds.

One night at the Bismarck Transition Center, a halfway house that accepts some jail inmates, runs the county $46. It’s $90 at the Dickinson jail.

“Some days, that feels like all I do, deciding where people go,” said Wicks, who jokes that she could become a “prison overcrowding consultant.”

It’s a five-year-old ritual that will continue until next year, when the new Burleigh-Morton jail opens and the old facility becomes courtrooms and offices for the sheriff and state’s attorney. Then, population management will no longer cause concern, and officers like Wicks can turn back to corrections.

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Sacrifices

The excess population has required the sheriff’s department to forgo what many would see as the sheriff’s department’s most important functions - rounding up people wanted on warrants and rehabilitating criminals.

Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert said the number of people out on warrants has risen and deputies have to prioritize who they seek out.

This means many people accused of low-level crimes are not facing their criminal charges in court because the sheriff’s department does not have the resources to look for them. There is no space for them in the jail, and the four-person transportation division is too busy moving inmates around the state.

“Unless we run into them … we probably are not looking at them as hard as we used to,” Heinert said.

When the new facility opens, the transport division will switch to collecting people wanted by the court, Heinert said.

“In some cases, we’re passing the buck and kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Meanwhile, programs aimed at rehabilitating offenders in the jail have been all but thrown out.

The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/2axj8Ak ) reports that five years ago, program director Jennifer Rewald offered parenting classes and anger management therapy in the jail. She taught inmates to manage money and fill out job applications.

But due to overcrowding, the room used for classes became the room for everything else: video visitation monitors, weekly religious services and municipal court.

“They need help, and we can’t because of population and space,” Rewald said.

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Difficult for inmates, families

Conditions have grown so unpleasant that some people ask to leave the overcrowded facility and serve their time elsewhere. They might have heard the conditions or food are better in Wahpeton. Or maybe they have family near Devils Lake.

“I’ve been to other jails in North Dakota,” Merinda Villareal said. “This is by far the worst.”

Villareal, who was serving seven days for sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked vehicle while drunk, said she asked jail staff if she could move to the Bismarck Transition Center. She couldn’t, they said, because that facility was also too full.

Her dorm had eight beds, she said. But four additional people slept in cots on the floor. Many people laid in their bunks and slept all day. Some were coming off drugs or having anxiety attacks.

“It was so hot in there, I’d be sweating if I barely jumped up and moved,” she said.

Administrators later brought in a fan and cleared out a men’s cell to house the extra women, she said.

For those with family in Bismarck, a move can be difficult.

Londa Bogola’s brother was transferred to the jail in Washburn because of overcrowding in Bismarck. During his one-month stint, she was unable to make the drive to visit him or introduce him to his newborn son. Bogola has three kids of her own, making the extra travel difficult, she explained as she waited in the hallway outside the jail for his name to get called for a visit via video monitor.

He had finally been transferred back to Bismarck for a court date.

“He was giving up there for a while,” she said.

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Working together

Upstairs in the jail, corrections officers race around, shuttling as many as 70 people a day back and forth to the courthouse. Five years ago, 20 people with court dates was considered a lot.

“Now we’re like, 20, yay! What are we going to do?” Rewald said.

In order to stay below capacity, Wicks and her staff weigh candidates to send to other corrections facilities.

People who are already sentenced or have a long wait before trial are likely to go. But Wicks said she tries to avoid pawning off people with serious health or behavior problems to other facilities. And if someone has close family in Bismarck, she tries to keep them.

“Sometimes, it gets to a point where some things have to not matter,” Wicks said. “We have to do what we have to do to get by with the numbers.”

Sheriff’s deputies put inmates in transport vans and drive them from jail to jail in what Wicks calls an “informal shuttle system.”

They trade people at mutually convenient locations to cut down on hours and miles, Heinert said. Burleigh deputies meet Cass County deputies in Jamestown and Ward County deputies by the Garrison Dam.

They often swap on the side of the highway, though they try to pull over in a quiet area, Heinert said. Some inmates do a one-night layover at the Bismarck jail.

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Background

On an average day in May, a fourth of inmates - about 40 people - were housed elsewhere. They were in jails from Wahpeton to Selby, South Dakota.

The cost to jail inmates in other counties totaled $426,500 in the first five months of this year, nearly $300,000 more than was spent in the same period last year. These figures don’t include transportation and logistical costs, which Heinert said he could not accurately calculate.

Jail staff said the inmate population started to grow in 2011.

The presiding judge in the district, Gail Hagerty, said the primary reason for the uptick in inmates is that more crimes are being charged.

The rise in charges is the result of increased population of the community and drug use, which has led to more drugs and thefts, said Bismarck Police Deputy Chief Randy Ziegler.

Heinert emphasizes that nearly half of the inmates have at least one drug charge.

Hagerty also noted that many people have moved to Bismarck from other states, meaning they do not have family in the area. Judges sometimes set lower bond for people with family nearby.

Others are skeptical that the right people are being held.

Sister Kathleen Atkinson of Annunciation Monastery, who works with people who were recently incarcerated, said she believes the jail is crowded with people held for detox, trespass, nonpayment of fines and pretrial detention. She said more people are living in poverty than a year ago, which can lead to crime.

While many believe judges and prosecutors take overcrowding into consideration when setting bond or imposing sentences, Hagerty said she rarely considers it.

“There is space, it’s just expensive for the county to drive people,” she said.

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New jail

To some, the new $69 million jail is the answer.

Heinert said he believes the new 475-bed facility will better the community in the long run.

Heinert said he hopes to offer education programs, drug treatment and more religious programs. Also, inmates will be housed in pods and classified by their crime and history.

“You’re not going to have the person who made a mistake and got charged with something sitting with a career criminal and learning the system even better,” Heinert said.

Across the Missouri River, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, who was elected after the new facility was planned, is less sure about the wisdom of the solution.

Kirchmeier’s jail is full, too, but he worries the new jail will be expensive to run and require Morton County officers to do more transport, he said. The new jail is under construction near the state penitentiary in southeast Bismarck.

In the initial phase, Heinert projects nine additional hires. This will increase if the new jail hits capacity. But Heinert hopes the building will save the county money on transportation and garner revenue from housing out-of-county prisoners.

Atkinson warns the new jail will not solve the community’s problems, only increase the number in custody.

“If you build it, they will come,” she said.

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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