NEW ENGLAND, N.D. — When the high-pitched noise from a key-cutting machine paused intermittently, the lull of country music could be heard mingling with the whir of sewing machines.
A dozen hands of incarcerated women held steady as they stitched together white fabric.
The women, taking part in programming at North Dakota’s only women’s prison, were among the 124 inmates that day at the Dakota Women’s Correctional and Rehabilitation Center.
The prison occupies a former Catholic school in New England, a town of about 600 people that sits 25 miles south of Dickinson in southwest North Dakota.
The drive from Fargo takes a little over 4 ½ hours, a total of 316 miles. The long trek is one reason some say the prison should be moved to a more central location near Bismarck, so inmates can be closer to family and medical care. Gov. Doug Burgum has proposed doing just that.
During a recent visit to the prison, eight women shared with The Forum their stories and their thoughts on the prison and its isolated location.
'Ripe for litigation'
Julie Roubideaux is no stranger to the women’s prison in New England and its former locations in Jamestown and Bismarck. The 52-year-old has been incarcerated four times and is now serving a 20-year sentence for drug delivery.
Originally from South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, Roubideaux was the lead plaintiff in a 2003 class-action lawsuit against the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DOCR) that claimed unequal treatment of women inmates compared with men. It was ultimately dismissed after six years.
Roubideaux said the unequal treatment continues today with inferior programming, housing and recreation facilities. She said the DOCR is “ripe for litigation again,” adding that she would file another lawsuit if necessary.
Roubideaux said she believes the reason for moving the prison to New England was for “economic development of southwestern North Dakota.”
‘What am I learning?’
Cassondra Ayala will have spent all of her 20s and most of her 30s incarcerated at the women’s prison when she walks free in 2029, her estimated release date.
The 28-year-old pleaded guilty to murder in a case out of Minot. She said her boyfriend was the abuser and killer of her 19-month-old son, but prosecutors said the toddler showed signs of ongoing abuse and sentenced both.
“I was pregnant as well at the time,” she said, adding that her other son is now 7 years old.
“His adopted family told him about me, and he wanted to meet me, so they brought him to meet me here, but they've only come once because they live in Minot and it’s far away,” she said. Besides the remote location, Ayala said the prison doesn’t offer programming relevant in today’s world. She wants to take computer classes and go to college. Instead she works in the sewing room.
“How am I going to be able to integrate into society and be a productive member of society when — what are they teaching me? What am I learning?” she said. “I want to be someone who has a house and a nice yard and a job and something I love to do. I just want to be a normal person.”
Young and hopeful
At risk of kidney failure, 23-year-old April Schmidt is using her time behind bars to get healthy so she can care for her 2-year-old daughter now in custody of Schmidt’s father in Grand Forks.
It’s nearly a six-hour drive for her family, and they haven’t visited since she was sent to the women’s prison after her probation was revoked in September.
Her hair was still wet from a morning shower and her eyes appeared tired as she explained how the jail in her hometown of Devils Lake “blew it off” when she said something was wrong.
“I kept getting really lightheaded, really dizzy. It was really bad," she said. “When I got here, I only told staff I was constipated. But the next day, I went to the infirmary.”
Prison staff drew blood and an hour later when test results came back, she was taken to the hospital in Dickinson. Doctors gave her insulin for critically high levels of potassium, she said.
Her health is improving, but she said it could be another two to three years before she has her daughter again. First, she needs to go through drug treatment and will hopefully be located at a halfway house in Fargo, closer to family.
“I am very hopeful. If it wasn't for this place and my family, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn't be this hopeful,” she said. “My love for my daughter is so strong now. I'm not going to let the drugs get in the way like they used to."
Distance and decay
Meth possession landed Kim Cox, 45, of Jamestown, in the women’s prison shortly before her daughter arrived on similar charges. “I never thought in a million years that I would be doing time with my daughter. But it's OK. I know she's safe,” she said.
As for her son, living in Fargo, Cox said he’s upset about the situation and doesn’t intend to make the long drive west for a visit. She talks on the phone with her mother, and wishes she could visit.
“It's kind of a ways for her to drive … especially in the winter time,” Cox said. “She's retired now, and I don't like her driving that far.”
Cox has been incarcerated since December 2017. She said the prison basement where she lives floods if something breaks down in the kitchen and “when it rains, it comes down through the wall.”
Cox said prison staffers treat inmates well, though she said she’s been trying to get her teeth fixed to no avail. All of her teeth are broken off at the roots.
For dental care, inmates are taken to a clinic about 50 miles away in Bowman because dentists in Dickinson ended a contract with the prison.
Incarcerated with cancer
A gray stocking cap hides the effects of ongoing radiation treatment for 42-year-old April Bergman, of Jamestown. Every morning, five days a week, a prison officer drives her to Dickinson where she’s treated for lung cancer.
Bergman’s cancer was discovered about three years ago, before she ended up in New England. She was set to have surgery to remove half of her lung along with a tumor, but 10 days before her appointment, she was arrested on methamphetamine charges.
Stutsman County Jail, where she was first booked, didn't get her into surgery, she said. After she was transferred to New England, it took another three months for her to be treated.
By that point, cancer had spread from her lungs into her lymph nodes.
"It could've been a little bit faster, but ever since I went into surgery, they've taken care of all my medical needs," she said. "I'm a little upset about the whole thing, but I'm glad they did do the surgery here."
‘Prison literally saved my life’
Olivia Hopkins is serving a sentence for felony drug charges, including conspiracy to deliver meth, with a chance for parole in August.
In April, the 35-year-old from Bismarck will be four years free of the late-stage cervical cancer first discovered at the women’s prison.
“When I say prison saved my life, prison literally saved my life,” she said. "I was so caught up in my addiction that I didn't go to my doctor.”
Working as a welder at a manufacturing plant in Dickinson, she said she wants to carry on that career rather than return to her old ways.
If granted parole, she plans to move to Washington state where her 12-year-old daughter is in foster care. She hasn’t seen her since 2013 and is trying to schedule an in-person visit for March.
Fighting for custody
The opportunities of North Dakota's Oil Patch brought 25-year-old Jen Lanter from Florida, and she eventually settled in the Grafton area.
She’s now on her third stay at the women’s prison, all stemming from a 2015 conviction on a charge of conspiracy to commit arson.
“It's kind of weird because I've built a relationship with a lot of the guards and staff members who have been here,” she said. “I like it here, in all honesty. It's the best you can (get) for prison.”
Lanter has a 6-month-old son living with a foster family in Dickinson, and said giving birth while incarcerated was “just like any other.” She’s fighting for custody of her son, but has signed over her parental rights for her five other children who live in Florida.
The distance isn't a barrier to seeing her 6-month-old son, more so scheduling with the foster family.
“It sucks,” she said. “I'm on depression medication just to help deal with it."
She said her son is the only thing driving her in the fight to do better.
“That's my biggest fear,” she said. "If I lose him, I'm going to downhill spiral again."
Worries about geriatric care
One of the oldest inmates in New England, 65-year-old Sherry Midstokke is concerned about the prison’s ability to provide geriatric care.
“If I fall or something and break a hip, who knows what's going to happen to me? Or any type of health issue that comes along. I worry about dementia. I don't know what the next 12 years are going to bring to my life,” she said with darting eyes behind dark-rimmed glasses.
In 2015, Midstokke was sentenced to 30 years for suffocating her husband to death with a plastic bag and dog leash in their Finley home.
“I miss my kids. They struggled a lot after I came in here and their dad was passed away. They didn't handle it so well. They were angry and upset, but they still love me regardless. So I'm lucky that way,” she said. “I talk to them, but I just don't get to see them that much.”
Midstokke agrees with the proposal to move the prison to the Bismarck area because her family could take a day trip and visit more. She also said the facility has issues, most notably the plumbing and a lack of sunlight in the basement where she lives.
Until a decision on relocating the prison is reached, she intends to keep working in the sewing room for $1.63 an hour.
Editor's note: This story has a companion piece that delves into the governor's proposal to reshuffle the North Dakota prison system. Read it here.