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Ashley Martin, Forum Communications Co., Published April 20 2012

Security, social work part of prison workers’ daily life: Correctional officers say dangerous situations are rare

Editor’s note: Today, Dickinson (N.D.) Press reporter Ashley Martin continutes her examination of the Dakota Women’s Correctional Rehab Center in the second of a four-part series. Part 1 appeared Friday in SheSays.

NEW ENGLAND – Armed with nothing more than a can of pepper spray and knowledge of pressure points, Capt. Michelle Westling and Capt. Lenore Witte are in charge of securing the Dakota Women’s Correctional Rehab Center.

The only women’s prison in the state, the facility houses a wide range of inmates.

“If they were sentenced to prison in the state of North Dakota, they’re here,” said Rachelle Brewer, DWCRC operations administrator. “We have probably every crime you can imagine. We have people here on murder. We have people here on drugs, forgery, child abuse – anything really.”

Despite that, both Westling and Witte say they are not concerned with their safety. However, Westling said she has had close calls.

“At the time you don’t think about it, but afterwards, you’re like, ‘Wow, that could have gone so much worse,’” she said.

Due to confidentiality issues, they said they couldn’t talk about specific experiences with inmates.

Westling began working at the facility about two years ago after being a vet tech. She became interested in corrections because a family member had a similar occupation.

Witte was a stay-at-home mom prior to joining the facility’s staff in 2003.

“I live not far from here and it seemed very interesting to me,” she said. “I actually started in the kitchen and worked my way up into security.”

Brewer said prison staff has to break up fights, restrain people and talk down emotionally distressed inmates.

“We don’t have a lot of violence,” she said. “Yes, they (inmates) have bad days where they get phone calls or they’re worried about their kids or they’re having custody issues. And that’s all stuff where, you know, they sit down and talk to somebody about it.”

The correctional officers must be trained to use pepper spray.

“Part of certification is you have to be sprayed before you can carry it,” Witte said. “That’s basically so you know you can work through it. You know what the experience of it is and you can work through it to still have control when you’ve been sprayed.”

Westling has enough experience to be confidently in control if sprayed.

“I’ve had it done three times and it’s gotten better each time,” Westling said.

Neither has ever had to use their pepper spray on an inmate.

“We basically use the officers’ presence to begin with and that deters a lot of behaviors that are not appropriate,” Witte said. “Then we use verbal commands. If need be, if we have to use force on someone, we use the least invasive force that we can.”

Staff knows inmates by name and must walk a fine line every day to form relationships, but also keep them at a distance.

“It’s more of a professional relationship,” Witte said. “We don’t share our personal lives with them. We have empathy with them and understand where they’re coming from.”

She added mutual respect is a must.

“The more respect you give to individuals, of course, the more they’re going to give back,” Witte said.

While time is spent observing, staff also must interact with inmates, Westling said.

“We’re trying to teach them how to socialize with one another in a positive manner,” she said. “As far as officers, we’re supposed to remain approachable if they need to come to us with problems, but we’re not to befriend them.”

However, they can see how the inmates transform in prison and say they hope it’s for the better.

“In a lot of inmates, you can see how they’ve changed through the process of being here,” Witte said.