North Dakota prison system looks to bring 'humanity' to state pen with revamped housing unit

A few years back, leaders with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began having difficult and uncomfortable conversations, leading them to a new way of thinking that emphasizes a greater sense of dignity and respect for incarcerated people, said agency director Dave Krabbenhoft.

“It didn’t make sense for North Dakota to keep building prisons and just accepting the fact that we’re going to incarcerate more and more people,” Krabbenhoft said. “We started really focusing on humanity, and then the shift became more about the people and more about making our community safe.”

The latest step on the long journey to reform the prison system is beginning to take shape. The department is teaming with nonprofit-led initiative Restoring Promise to turn part of Bismarck’s State Penitentiary into a new-look housing unit inspired by progressive European criminal justice practices by the end of the year.

Instead of nailed-down furniture and blank walls, the reconstituted housing unit might contain a colorful interior with art hanging up, a meditation space, a computer room and a library, said Clinique Chapman, a senior program associate with Restoring Promise. In other words, the unit might look more like someone’s home.

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