Bob Turner

Bob Turner is retiring from his job as corrections officer at the North Dakota State Penitentiary after 48 years. Turner, a Bismarck native, worked at the prison as did his father and grandfather.

Bob Turner is getting out of prison after 48 years today. He won't be on parole. He'll walk out the gates into retirement.

The longest-serving corrections officer at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, Turner has been around long enough to remember when the place had a working farm and to meet fathers and sons passing through.

Though 48 years is a long time, Turner only beats his father's tenure by three years. His grandfather worked there, too.

Turner started at the prison in 1968 at his dad's suggestion, he said. Training consisted of working alongside an officer for six days before striking out on your own, he said. 

"We didn't have a training department at that time. You learned by the seat of your pants," he said.

But his fellow officers say he was a natural, bringing a calm and laid-back demeanor to the cell block.

"I always treated them like I would want them to treat me," said Turner, adding that there were few tense moments. "I didn't really have problems with inmates.

"I just got to know so many of those fellows over a period of time. As time went by, it helped me do my job, because they felt comfortable with me. They knew what to expect of me, and they were all good with that," he said.

As a new officer, he was assigned to work throughout the facility. Turner patroled the prison at night sometimes, and he still remembers making rounds first to the hog barn, then the dairy barn and all the way around the brick wall. He didn't have a radio, just a flashlight, which he would use to signal his position to the watchman. 

In order to get a permanent position, someone had to die or retire. Four years after he started, Turner had his chance.

An officer passed away on a Friday night, and Turner showed up the next morning to find he was assigned to work 1 to 9 p.m. in the farm ward — the same shift he mans today.

Through 1993, the state penitentiary had a farming operation on the east end of the facility with milk cows, beef herd, hogs, sheep and chickens, which fed the inmates. The most trusted prisoners worked on the farm, he said.

Turner still works with those kinds of inmates, serving now in a unit for people who have less than three years left on their sentence and are likely to be released to the Missouri River Correctional Center or on parole.

Getting rid of the farm isn't the only thing that has changed about the prison, Turner said. When he started working, most inmates were 40 to 50 years old from North Dakota, who were convicted of alcohol-related crimes or writing bad checks, Turner said. Now, they tend to be in their 20s and are serving longer sentences for drug-related crimes. 

"They have a lot more energy," said Turner, who prides himself on the fact that the inmates still feel comfortable talking to him.

"Since so many of them are young nowadays, they need a little more guidance," he said.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation thanked him for his service on Wednesday. Many of his fellow officers — past and present — attended the event. 

Capt. Paul Belisle, Turner's supervisor, said he will miss Turner's calm, soothing demeanor, which helps him de-escalate situations between inmates and staff.

Noting significant turnover at the department, Lt. Jean Delozier said Turner's long tenure has been a touchstone, a reminder that "people can last."

"We're going to miss you," director LeAnn Bertsch said.

"That's for sure," Turner said with a laugh.

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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