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Inmates at “The Farm” enjoy a field trip to the reconstructed home of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. (Photos by David Kidd)

'I'm Somewhere Bettering Myself': Prison Reform Unlike Any Other in America

North Dakota is conducting a prison experiment inspired by Norway, a country with recidivism rates three times lower than in the U.S.
by | August 2018

Terry Pullins is on his second tour in the North Dakota prison system. He’s also done time in California. Since he never got farther than the fifth grade, the 40-year-old Pullins has spent nearly as much time behind bars as he did in school. But last December brought the most acute punishment he has ever suffered: Pullins lost his daughter in a car accident.

Most inmates in most prisons endure that sort of grief alone. But Pullins is at the Missouri River Correctional Center near Bismarck, N.D. This is a prison designed as much as possible to imitate life on the outside. The warden and staff rallied around him. “Every day I needed help,” Pullins says. “Those two weeks were rough, but they were there for me. I don’t always feel like I’m in prison. I feel like I’m somewhere bettering myself.”

North Dakota has always been a low-crime state, but it has paid a high price for the wars on drugs and crime over the past few decades. Since 1992, the state’s population has increased less than 20 percent, but the number of inmates has gone up 250 percent and is projected to continue to rise. North Dakota is trying to prevent that from happening by taking correctional cues from a distant and unlikely source: the prison system in Norway. 

Norwegian prisons reject life sentences and solitary confinement in favor of living quarters built on a human scale, behavioral counseling and a focus on successful re-entry into society. The correctional facilities are often derided as being more like country clubs than prisons. But their results back up claims of success. Norway reports two-year recidivism rates as low as 20 percent, compared to rates three times higher in the U.S. 

 


Welding classes are popular at The Farm. These two residents received diplomas in a ceremony attended by friends and family.

 

The Missouri River Correctional Center is a minimum-security prison, built in the 1940s and known locally as The Farm. It doesn’t look much like a farm anymore -- although there is still some cropland -- but it also doesn’t look much like a prison either. Everything is informal. Inmates are called “residents.” Dress is casual to the point where it can sometimes be hard to tell who’s on staff and who’s doing time. For the most part, staffers don’t know what the residents are in prison for. It isn’t talked about. Everyone, resident and guard alike, goes by first names, including the man in charge, Joey Joyce, better known as Deputy Warden Joey. 

The Farm is a cluster of low buildings with 191 beds, scattered around a 241-acre site. It’s believed that two of the wooden structures were used in a Japanese internment facility during World War II. The newest addition is a repurposed “man camp” that housed oil field workers during the Bakken oil fracking boom early this decade. Today, a number of residents live there in rooms that make the place look more like a cozy college dorm than a prison. Residents take off their shoes and leave them out in the hall in an effort to keep the inside carpets clean. There’s a bathroom for every two residents, and they each have their own keys. 

An air of normality is pervasive and intentional. Residents crisscross the grounds all day long. On a typical morning, one is driving a front loader tractor across the parking lot. Another is toting his laundry to the washing center. Two more are lounging on a bench. Others are prepping a mostly dirt baseball field for that night’s game between the residents and the staff. Inside, a social studies class is in session, and close by, a pair of student welders, who will graduate later that afternoon, practice their newly learned skills. 

In the kitchen on this day, a resident is opening giant cans of Campbell’s minestrone soup and dumping the contents into a huge pot. The chef has the day off. 

 


Regular softball games between staff and residents promote interaction.

 

Later on, a group of residents pack themselves into a state-owned van for a field trip to the reconstructed home of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. The prisoners share a tour guide with a little girl clutching a big doll, and her tight-lipped parents, who don’t seem to know who these men are or how they happen to be there. There are other attractions to visit nearby. At the On-A-Slant Indian village, the residents gather inside an earth lodge to listen to a park ranger explain the various tools that are strewn about the floor covered in buffalo hides. 

Back in Bismarck, at a factory on the industrial outskirts of town, three residents of The Farm are nailing together roof trusses used in home construction. They have the freedom to leave the correctional center grounds during the day to work and make some money. 

Prisoners are allowed off The Farm to spend money as well. In the company of case manager Autumn Engstroem, residents Kenneth Goodwin and Ray Frazier are strolling up and down the aisles of the local Walmart, looking to update their wardrobes. Ken buys shoes and a pair of pants. None of their fellow shoppers seems to notice anything unusual about them.

All of this isn’t exactly unique to The Farm. There are other minimum-security prisons around the country that do some of the same things. The Farm can do them more easily because of its size: It is the smallest prison in the nation’s smallest prison system. But what really makes this institution different is the attitudes and habits of the staff, the officers and the residents. 

 


Director Leann Bertsch

 

Leann Bertsch is the director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a position she has held since 2005. She’s also president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. Everyone at The Farm calls her Leann. 

It was on a 2015 trip to Norway, as part of the U.S.-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program, that Bertsch decided to embark on the current changes to her state’s corrections system. Touring Halden, a maximum-security prison 60 miles south of Oslo, she was exposed to a different way of thinking about incarceration. Often referred to as “the world’s most humane prison,” Halden houses its inmates in small dwelling units that are cheerful and modern; the prison has earned awards for interior design. Bertsch was struck by the atmosphere of mutual respect between staff and inmates that she had not seen anywhere in the United States. Time spent in Norwegian prison, she saw, was less about punishment than about preparing the inmate to move successfully back into society. 

Bertsch came home convinced the prisons of North Dakota could be remade to be more like what she saw at Halden. “It’s not just about locking people up and letting them go,” she says. “It’s really about long-term results.” She concluded that a more “normal” environment and an investment in behavioral training could help prisoners to re-enter civilian life better able to cope with its challenges. 

One of Bertsch’s primary goals was to reduce the segregated population -- those in solitary confinement -- as quickly and safely as possible. It’s known that prisoner isolation for long periods of time can cause lasting psychological damage, making it harder for the inmate to re-enter the larger prison population and ultimately society. Correctional officers are now required to engage in conversation with every resident at least twice per shift, helping them relate to each other as fellow human beings and not as adversaries. “Public safety is not increased by inflicting pain, humiliation, violence and disrespect,” Bertsch says. She cites a sharp decline in prison violence as evidence that the new ways are working. 

But making significant changes to a prison system, even one as small as North Dakota’s, takes time. It was a year before Bertsch began to get things moving in a new direction. Her enthusiasm for the Norweigan approach wasn’t entirely contagious. In fact, she struggled to get everyone on board. “There was a lot of resistance when we came back to try to implement some of these things,” she says. Not everyone on staff could adjust. “A lot of them went out the door themselves and some of the people had to be kind of helped out the door.” 

 


Supervised shopping trips are a way to prepare inmates for life outside of prison.

 

Doubts about the Norwegian way persist outside the prison system. More than a few North Dakota sheriffs are concerned that prison reform at the state level will put additional strain on county jails. “We’ll see what happens,” Stutsman County Sheriff Chad Kaiser told The Bismarck Tribune earlier this year. “But I just foresee that the county institutions will be full.” In 2017 the state added nearly 900 new county jail beds at a cost of over $200 million. Other critics argue that the North Dakota reforms, no matter what the result, are simply not scalable to the level of a large-state correctional program. 

Nationally, however, there is widespread and growing support for change from some unlikely parts of the political spectrum. Conservative activists Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist have argued for a combination of shorter sentences, treatment for behavioral problems and elimination of prison time altogether for some nonviolent offenses. So have the billionaire Koch brothers. Texas, long a bastion of “tough justice,” has been a leader in reducing prison populations and using the savings to help inmates in place of building new prisons. 

According to figures compiled by the Sentencing Project, the United States is by far the world’s leader in the rate of incarceration, having seen an increase of 500 percent in the past 40 years. The increase, the organization insists, is not due to more crime but to changes in sentencing. Nicole D. Porter, the director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, is encouraged by the efforts of groups like the U.S.-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program. “It’s a start in the right direction,” Porter says. “Hopefully the travel of corrections officials to Norway and other European prison systems can help influence the thinking on how prisons are operated in the U.S.” 

Unlike her Norwegian counterparts, Bertsch must make do with the physical limitations of her prisons as well as financial constraints. North Dakota is not going to allocate funds for a completely redesigned prison system, at least not anytime soon. Bertsch is quick to point out that the changes she has implemented to date have not cost the state any additional money. Still, adapting Norwegian prison reform to The Farm is one thing. Implementing these changes at the state’s other prisons is something else.  

 


Guards are required to have a conversation with every prisoner at least twice during their shift.

 

The North Dakota State Penitentiary, the state’s maximum-security prison, doesn’t have a cute nickname or a bucolic setting. It’s located within Bismarck’s city limits, next to an active railroad track. The prisoners are referred to as residents and everyone goes by his or her first name, as at The Farm, but their movements are severely restricted. The heavy, barred doors bang shut loudly, and the high walls and razor wire are constant reminders that this is a prison. It’s a lot more difficult here to implement the Norwegian principles of progressive incarceration. 

Still, there have been significant changes. In 2015, there were more than 100 inmates at the state penitentiary in solitary confinement. On a recent day, that number was down to six. Todd Hoge has been at the state penitentiary 17 years, some of that time spent in solitary. He has vivid memories of what that was like. “Back in the day they treated you like you were a pile of shit. You weren’t a human being,” he says. “We’re all human. We mess up. A lot of us need treatment. Not to just throw us in here and throw us away.”

In the solitary confinement tier, correctional officers and residents play a friendly game of cornhole, despite the strict security. The game is a complicated, choreographed affair. The guards take their places behind a locked door at one end of a long hall. When signaled to do so, an unseen officer electronically unlocks one of the residents’ doors, allowing him to enter the hall and take his turn at tossing a beanbag. He then returns to his cell and the door is locked behind him. The guards’ door is subsequently unlocked and one enters and takes her turn. She leaves, and the door is locked behind her. The process repeats itself until all three residents and the three officers have had a chance to play.

Outside the solitary wing, art teacher Russell Craig, serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole, is showing his students how to draw one- and two-point perspective, a task made more difficult because they are wearing handcuffs. Russell is famous within the walls of the state penitentiary for painting murals of pastoral scenes that decorate the prison. The murals are an unusual addition to the otherwise dated and dreary institutional surroundings.

Resident Shawn Helmenstein has been teaching math and social studies inside the prison for four years. “Last year alone,” he says, “I had 17 people that I got graduated. And this year so far I have five.” Helmenstein may never leave prison. But he has been rewarded with a private room, his own key, and the freedom to come and go as he pleases from 5:20 in the morning until 8:40 at night. 

 


Dustin Olsen (left) is tutored in geometry by fellow resident Shawn Helmenstein. Dustin, who was born without arms, is waiting for permission to take his final exam with assistance.

 

Duwayne Glende, obese and in poor health, suffered a stroke while incarcerated and describes himself as having been “semi-depressed” until he was paired up with two fellow residents who act as caregivers. Unable to walk for two years, Duwayne is now losing weight and gaining strength, enough to stand with the aid of a walker and take a few tentative steps. 

In the room next door, Bill Pretzer, 75 years old, has been in residence since 1999. With his hearing and memory fading, Bill is increasingly dependent upon inmate caregivers.

Outside in the recreation yard, a dozen residents and staffers are playing a spirited game of volleyball. Others are throwing a football, taking a walk or lounging around on the many benches and bleachers. A cookout is happening off to one side, and an orderly line of hungry residents quickly forms. This is a chance to catch up with friends or talk to staffers. It is about as normal as things can get when surrounded by a 20-foot fence. 

Bertsch knows she cannot remake her prisons to be just like the ones she visited in Norway. But she is convinced that the way things have been done in North Dakota until now has not worked. “My job is to rehabilitate people,” she says. “You can’t do that if you treat people inhumanely."

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