A sizeable upgrade of the LEC will likely be necessary in the near future to serve the needs of both law enforcement and those in the system who could benefit from a more readily available rehabilitation program.
The Lake Region Law Enforcement Center has housed a larger than usual number of inmates this year, which has been beneficial to the facility’s budget. The jail has room for 108 inmates, and March saw an average of 98 inmates housed per day.
Director Rob Johnson says that the bump is temporary.
“I’m expecting the numbers to come down, but we’ve done some things to hopefully offset that when it does happen,” Johnson said. “Realistically, we’re going to maintain within an 80 - 85 range down the road.”
The projected drop is due to new facilities around the state that are either under construction now or planned to be operational before the end of the year.
“Burleigh County has a new facility that they’ll be opening up in June. They’re going from a 140-bed facility to almost a 500-bed facility,” Johnson said. “I expect that the Burleigh County (inmates) will go away. Ward County is also doing an expansion on their facility to add beds there, and I think they’re looking at November to start utilizing that, so those numbers will probably go away.”
The LEC budget is based on fees paid by different entities that house prisoners here, including the U.S. Marshals service. Because of security issues, including an escape last year, the Marshals had been wary of sending inmates to Devils Lake.
Johnson says that as the facility continues to maintain a solid security record since the escape, among other issues, the Marshals have regained an amount of confidence in housing prisoners at the LEC.
“We’ve also gotten the Marshals back, which has helped. The Marshals have been averaging 12 to 14 (inmates) here at a time.”
Further upgrades to the facility, such as an inmate distress system that allows prisoners to contact staff during lockdown, would likely mean more inmates - and thus more revenue - at the LEC.
Johnson estimates that the distress system would cost about $5,000.
While that cost is relatively minimal, Johnson says that he’s wary of putting too much time and money into a building that is nearing the end of its lifespan.
“We’re trying to be cautious and balance how much we’re going to put into the facility, because the facility is at the end of its lifeline,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to put huge expenses into it, so if we do something I’d like it to be something that can transition into a new facility five or seven years down the road.”
One way to bring in revenue in the face of the coming drop in inmate counts and the state’s budget troubles is to charge inmates for services, such as the provision of over-the-counter medication, that once were provided free of charge.
Predictably, the move is unpopular with inmates. Johnson explains that the fees are minimal and inmates who are unable to pay will ultimately be covered.
“The offenders don’t like it,” Johnson said. “One of the concerns that we’ve had is that they just won’t seek out medical (attention) while they’re in the facility. We don’t allow that to happen, but there has to be some responsibility on them to let us know when they’re having an issue.
“They don’t have to have the money to get those services, we just put a lien on their account,” Johnson added. “If they get out, and they have the lien, we don’t go after them for collections. We’ll just eat it.”
One addition to the facility’s services that reportedly has been popular with those housed at the LEC has been the opportunity for inmates to text friends and family, for a fee. That has added a revenue stream to the facility’s budget, albeit a small one.
“It’s beneficial for the offenders because it gives them an avenue to communicate with their friends and family, it keeps them occupied, gives them something to do,” Johnson said. “We’ve found that it’s been a win-win.”
While Johnson has been working to offset the upcoming drop in the inmate count by implementing new revenue ideas and signing a temporary agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to house some of their prisoners at the LEC for the remainder of 2017, the bigger picture is that the Law Enforcement Center is at nearing the end of its time as a viable facility.
Both Johnson and Dan Kraft, who is the director of the Re-entry Center, have said in the past that they envision a new facility that provides inmates which such services as in-house drug and mental health treatment.
While such a facility is years away at least, a sizeable upgrade will likely be necessary to serve the needs of both law enforcement and those in the system who could benefit from a more readily available rehabilitation program.
In the meantime, Johnson says that the facility is in a pretty healthy position right now.
“We’re happy to be where we’re sitting, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to have criminal activity and you don’t want to have the numbers, but the numbers are what sustains our budget.”