Capt. Brian Jorgenson opens the gate to one of the pods in the outdoor recreation area, where inmates in solitary confinement can exercise daily. There are a total of 20 "dog runs" each 180 square feet. "We put people in cages and wonder why they act like animals," said Karianne Wolfer, director of correctional practices at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, who is working to reform the unit.

Reducing the population in the 106-bed solitary confinement wing has emptied an entire cell block. With continued overcrowding at the penitentiary, the situation seems ideal.

In reality, it presents new challenges. The solitary wing cannot be easily repurposed for general population inmates. The halls echo, and there is little space for inmates do activities together inside. Anyone living there must spend most of the day in a cell.

"The cells are decent, but the whole unit was designed in such a way that they’re not really great for general population beds," said Leann Bertsch, director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. "I regret that it was built that way."

Of the $64 million budgeted for the new prison, $7.4 million was set aside for a new segregation unit at a cost of roughly $73,000 a bed. 125 new beds were planned for general population inmates for $5.2 million or $41,000 a bed.

Administrators have come up with some creative uses for the unused space.

One cell block has become a transitional unit for inmates leaving solitary. A couple of cells have been designated for inmates who need a 24-hour "cool down." Two rooms have been turned into phone rooms, so inmates can have privacy while they talk to their families.

Administrators see the new unit as an improvement. The cells are brighter and safer. There are specialized rooms for group therapy where inmates can be shackled to a table if need be.

The old solitary unit was a repurposed cell block where inmates were kept behind locked doors all day. Therapy took place in a closet-like room with a desk and stool. Group therapy was nearly impossible, because inmates had to talk on phones in a visiting room.

Bertsch said she would rather the unit look more like a general population unit with a dayroom area for men to congregate.

But she said she was not familiar with research showing the harmful effects of solitary confinement and the real possibility of reducing the population in 2009 when the unit was planned.

"I don't think that anyone could have foreseen that we would have been able to reduce the use of restrictive housing," Bertsch said.

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