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Graner embracing leadership role at HACTC

By Staff | Jan 24, 2014

Submitted photo As business manager, Mike Graner is tasked with getting Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center back in compliance with the North Dakota Department of Corrections.

Mike Graner’s poise isn’t characteristic of a first-time director of business operations for a jail, especially a guy thrown into a predicament he couldn’t possibly foresee.

Graner sat comfortably in his office on a recent afternoon and discussed his role and the challenges facing Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center. His top priority since assuming the administrative role in October is getting HACTC through its 18-month, state-issued noncompliance order after two major security issues last summer.

One prisoner escaped the facility and another escaped transport. The North Dakota Department of Corrections issued the order, had a lengthy audit commissioned and outlined countless issues that needed to be addressed. Graner started with HACTC as the director of treatment services

“The biggest thing with the noncompliance order is it basically indicates that the state-controlled inmates cannot be housed here,” Graner said. “Once we get through the noncompliance order, my hope is that the department of corrections does reach out to us, again, and say, ‘Hey we’d be happy to utilize your service again. That will definitely be the end goal is to make that available to them.”

Reaching that goal also will allow Graner to refocus some of his energy toward his passion of helping people as an addiction counselor. The Rugby native was only able to work with the treatment center for weeks before the services were discontinued following the escape incidents. Moving back home with his wife, Lyndsey, and their two children was an easy decision despite moving from residential treatment to incarcerated treatment.

“It’s a unique environment, very unique,” Graner said. “I just think that when you look at the criminal justice system and how resources are spent in criminal justice there’s just a huge need to provide these individuals with a service that can help prevent them from being involved in the criminal justice system. Here’s the opportunity to be a proactive frontrunner to address their needs while they’re here. You have the, for lack of a better term, a captive audience. They’re here. It’s a good utilization of their time and of our resources.

All about opportunities

Graner uses the word opportunity often. Whether he’s describing his own path to HACTC or the difficult road to sobriety for his patients, Graner presents each situation as a unique chance to make something better.

“My approach is from Day one, I don’t care how you got here, I don’t care what brought you here and, today, I don’t care what your motivation is,” Graner said, “But they need to understand that their opportunity and their chance of getting well and doing the right things is the same as if they voluntarily came to service. That’s what they have to understand, is they have an opportunity that a lot of people don’t ever take or an opportunity a lot of people aren’t ever afforded.”

Graner completed his undergraduate studies in psychology (child development) and family science at North Dakota State University and went on to take courses at St. Cloud State University (Minn.) with a specific track for addiction counseling. He interned with Rainbow Bridge, a safe-exchange and visitation center in Moorhead, Minn., and volunteered with Big Brothers Big Sisters in Fargo.

After receiving full licensure in Minnesota as an addiction counselor in 2007, his first job was at a correctional facility in Crookston, Minn. After about 10 months he transitioned into residential counseling. Until early last year, he commuted to Crookston from homes in Grand Forks or Fargo.

“It was appealing to raise (the kids) back in Rugby,” Graner said. “There are a lot of opportunities for them growing up that they just seemed to not have. We were in Grand Forks and with our schedules and the way their after-school program ran they just missed out on a lot. My wife, Lyndsey, and I both have our parents in town. There’s the family aspect, the small-town aspect and this was an appealing opportunity too because the facility is a great facility and it’s a much needed service.”

As if the headaches surrounding the security problems weren’t enough, Graner had to retake classes online to be certified as an addiction counselor in North Dakota, which doesn’t recognize the Minnesota certificate. He received his certification on Jan. 1.

“They should look at reciprocity with Minnesota and at least start offering a temporary type license, allowing people to practice as a counselor under supervision,” he said, “and giving them a time frame they must be licensed by. It gets people going. It gets people working. It helps out for organizations like this that have a hard time attracting licensed individuals.”

With North Dakota’s booming population, crime and substance abuse are also rising and treatment facilities are facing staffing shortages.

Graner is working with tribes and counties to find new contracts and get the treatment center running again. The facility can hold 20 to 25 people for treatment, but Graner anticipates starting with a group of eight to 10 in the coming months. At some point, he would like to hire another addiction counselor to share the case load, now that he’s also in charge of the business side.

The process hasn’t been easy and it’s far from over – HACTC is about 30 percent compliant with the state’s orders – but Graner is getting closer to providing people with an important service he can’t overstate.

“There are definitely a couple (cases) that I’ll remember that make it worthwhile,” he said. “Overall, being a counselor in this field is a pretty thankless job because the people that you hear from again is because they’re back in the service.”

But not always.

“I remember a gentleman in Crookston that I had the opportunity to work with,” Graner said. “Chronic in nature, in-and-out of jail, in-and-out of treatment. I had the opportunity to work with him and things worked out really well for him. He actually ended up starting a small business about 18 months after he completed treatment and he’s still in the community. It’s just a real feel-good story.”

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