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Ashley Martin, The Dickinson Press, Published April 19 2012

Women inmates give back while serving time: Program at ND facility a success so far

Editor’s note: Today, Dickinson (N.D.) Press reporter Ashley Martin takes a close look at the Dakota Women’s Correction Rehab Center in the first of a four-part series that will run in SheSays.

NEW ENGLAND, N.D. – Many Dakota Women’s Correctional Rehab Center inmates use their time served to give back to the community.

The facility is the only women’s prison in the state and houses everything from drug offenders to murderers.

It works with area organizations about once a month and allows inmates to volunteer for projects. Last week, inmates helped Community Action Partnership in Dickinson prepare boxes and bags of food for 230 low-income families and seniors.

“Without the help of these women, it would be pretty tough for my staff because there’s just a few of us,” said Michelle Orton, client services director at Community Action Partnership. “And you know a full day of doing over 200 boxes is hard on the back.”

Katie Watts, 23, who has been at DWCRC since Dec. 22, and Kimiko Schroeder, 24, who has been there since Nov. 11, are two participants.

Schroeder was convicted of conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance, and Watts was convicted of child neglect or abuse. Both women are incarcerated for violating terms of their probation.

“They are actually fun to go to,” said Schroeder, who is to be released Thursday. “There was a man that came there last time and then this time who always gives out a bag of candy, too.”

They admit part of the reason they volunteer is for a change of scenery, but said it’s rewarding to meet recipients. “We’re actually putting it in the car for them,” Schroeder said of the food items.

She and Watts added that getting a taste of the outside also motivates them to stay out of trouble.

“As long as I’ve been here, there’s never been an issue, and I’ve never heard of any,” Orton said of inmates. “They have always been very good workers for us. They work very hard when they’re here.”

Sandy Smith, DWCRC unit manager, said between eight and 14 inmates volunteer for the program, which takes place over two days every other month.

“We kind of run through it and check and see which ones we think would be best suited to be out amongst the community,” she said. “A security officer takes them up there and is supervising while they’re working.”

Those who volunteer in the community must be considered minimum security, Smith said.

“Their current crime plays a part and if they’ve had prior felonies,” she added. “For example, if they have an escape on their record, they’re more than likely not going to be minimum security. Their institutional behavior is a big thing.”

Inmates are also not allowed to volunteer in a community where they have victims, Smith said.

“We have to have the (North Dakota) Department of Corrections’ approval to go offsite,” she said. “They’re staff-supervised, but still you don’t want it to be a risky situation. You don’t want to put them out in the community if it could be risky for them or the community.”

When Christmas approaches, many volunteers clean up donated, gently used dolls to give to needy children, she said.

Inmates put a few donated outfits together for each doll, and if they didn’t come with any, they made them, she said.

Prisoners can volunteer for many events throughout the year including the city’s annual cleanup, organization of St. Mary’s Catholic Church events along with others in surrounding communities.

Watts volunteered to clean up the Dickinson Recreation Center two weeks ago.

“The Rec Center was a lot of hard work,” she said. “I was pretty sore after that … but it was definitely well worth it.”

Watts wants to continue volunteering “as much as possible, actually – anything to better myself while I’m here.”

Martin is a reporter at the Dickinson Press.