Editor's note: This is the first article in a four-part series on labor issues scheduled to run every Sunday in October in the Hibbing Daily Tribune.
MOOSE LAKE — Stepping into the brick-faced behemoth of the Moose Lake Correctional Facility, officers patrol security-laden hallways leading to a small room where inmate Dhanjal Singh sits, waiting.
Singh is one of 1,000-plus adult male offenders currently serving time at the medium-security prison located off Highway 73 in Moose Lake, a city in Carlton County with a population of fewer than 3,000 residents. Originally from India, Singh lived in the U.S. for the past 18 years, while working as an over-the-road truck driver until February 2018 when a felony DUI conviction put him behind bars. He’s now one of the many incarcerated men faced with the choice: embrace change through education and work programs provided by the Minnesota Department of Corrections or refuse and possibly repeat the cycle that landed him in prison in the first place.
On a warm, overcast day in late August, Singh spoke with the Hibbing Daily Tribune in a small room tucked at the end of a hall. He appeared clean-shaven, his gray hair clean and slicked back. He sported black-rimmed glasses and forearm tattoos with earbuds dangling from his neck. Singh spoke in soft, polite tones about his time in lock up, telling the HDT that when he first arrived here, he enrolled in an SAT program and got a job in the sewing and apparels technologies program inside the prison’s garment shop. A DUI conviction meant he’d be unable to return to his former vocation as a truck driver — this much he knew for certain — but eight months into his sentence, he was surprised to realize that the job he took to kill time was not only teaching him new skills, it was the missing puzzle piece he needed: the key to a new future on the outside.
“I’m going to need to do some more work on it and hopefully I’m going to go start my own business after,” Singh told the HDT. “I think I’m ready.”
His release date is set for April 2020. His plan is to relocate from his former residence of St. Cloud to the Twin Cities and begin designing custom Indian traditional dresses for men and women with the skills he’s learned inside the facility. “That’s my goal with it. And I’ve learned on everything in here, all the different types of machines.” On the table in front of him sat a certificate he recently earned for completing a pattern and design digitizing course. He laughed when admitting he never imagined he’d be sewing or that he’d like it so much. “The more I get into it, the future looks better and better.”
A second chance
Opened in 1988, the sprawling, all-male Moose Lake prison is situated on 83-acres surrounded by tall fences with barbed wire. Nearly 400 staff work within its walls, including 213 officers who patrol around the clock. The operation is led by newly installed Warden Bill Bolin, who oversees a facility where the majority of those incarcerated are between ages 26-45, predominantly white and are serving an average sentence of 83 months (excluding life sentences). At 80 percent, the majority of men here have a high school diploma or GED and are serving a combined total of 1,629 sentences with an average of 1.6 sentences per offender.
About half of the people arrived here from the seven-county metro area, while others come from rural areas like the Iron Range. Their crimes? As of Oct. 1, there were 416 men incarcerated for drugs-related offenses, 338 for criminal sexual conduct, 133 for weapons, 127 crimes against family, and 107 for homicide. These offenses top a long list that also includes crimes ranging from property damage to kidnapping, arson and more.
The goal for the Corrections Department with men like Singh, as told by Assistant Warden Darryl Goebel, is to transform their mentalities, education levels and job skills so they can turn out productive, law-abiding members of society who contribute to the creation of safer communities across the counties and state. To do this, Goebel says the staff focuses on reducing recidivism and teaching skills that will continue to foster positive life change and success after release. These skills must transfer into good paying and decent living situations, he says, or desperation to survive could cause these inmates to backslide into old habits, like dealing or theft, and earn them a ticket back.
For Singh in the garment department, he knows transformation isn’t immediate but it is possible. His typical day begins at 5 a.m. He showers, drinks a cup of coffee over breakfast and gets to work by 6:30 a.m. He makes his way to the tool cage to sign out items that are kept under lock and key. He usually picks up where he left off on the previous day’s project and keeps his head down, the whole while listening to his favorite religious music in the earbuds he purchased from the inmate canteen. As he sews, he regards his motions as a soothing form of meditation until 2:30 p.m. when he’s done with work for the day.
Afterward, Singh attends recovery meetings and participates in substance abuse treatment. He has hope in the future for the first time in a long time — an achievement he credits to such opportunities available behind bars.
The garment shop is but one slice of the massive MINNCOR Industries operation that has a hand in eight statewide locations. The aim of MINNCOR is to offer offenders education and employment opportunities. The new DOC Commissioner Paul Schell earlier this year called Moose Lake prison “a model of reducing recidivism” according to a report by KSTP 5 Eyewitness News, since those incarcerated have a variety of careers to choose from.
During the HDT’s tour two months ago, Goebel and MINNCOR Industry Director Al Larson touted their textile and garment plant which employs 300 inmates who produce all the clothing their fellow offenders wear everyday. They also sew military jackets and blankets for U.S. soldiers serving overseas in Afghanistan and create orange and yellow reflective T-shirts for state-based road construction crews. Men like Singh work regular shifts, earning between $0.50 cents to $2 per hour.
In another area of the MINNCOR building, there’s the expansive print shop. Facility staff purchased the curriculum from Printing Industries of America to provide inmates with their 16-week, hands-on training course on how to operate various press machines. To qualify to work in the department, they must go through an interview process, remain discipline-free for one year and have a minimum of a 10th grade math and reading level. Once hired, they work 6.75 hours Monday through Friday, designing and producing products like the state park and trail maps, boating regulation booklets, annual reports, notepads and so on. And while MINNCOR doesn’t compete with private businesses, the organization does partner with entities like the Moose Lake School District, Fire Department and the Northland Baseball Team on community projects.
During the tour, Deb Woitalla, the corrections manufacturing specialist for MINNCOR, told the HDT that the shop employs 35 people daily, doling out certifications for mastery of skills like binding and graphic design while also focusing on a larger picture. “This program is evolving and we’re putting a lot of value into these men,” Woitalla said. “The main things we’re teaching are: being responsible, being accountable for your actions and taking responsibility for the jobs that they’re doing because they’re all self-directed.” She continued, “They have to be a team player, all of your basics. We also try to develop them as much as we can with a minimum of 18 months training so they can earn a certificate from print technology class.”
The training has proved valuable and word has spread across outside print shops with owners looking for exactly the type of skilled workers that are being trained in prison. “Weekly we get calls looking for offenders who are released to their county,” Woitalla said, noting that in the last three years, they’ve placed six inmates — three of whom Woitalla noted are still working and “excelling” in their positions.
Then there’s the warehouse where inmates learn the art of upholstery. The products they fix up or create go to supply places like schools and libraries with furniture. During the tour, several employees took a few moments to show off their progress on sewing office chairs. One man smiled proudly, insisting, “It’s a good job. A great trade to have coming out of prison.”
Like Singh, many of the men are surprised to learn how much they enjoy learning a new craft, one that could lead to a new career and new life down the road.
Education during incarceration
“If they do not have their GED or high school diploma, their job is to learn,” Goebel told the HDT. “We put a priority on it as a department that education is first. They have to get a high school diploma or else their GED before they can get a job.”
Walking past an inmate barber shop and then a room full of men learning tips on how to improve their credit scores, Matthew Hosmer, education director, opened the door to a small classroom where a single desk sat before eight tables with two seats each. It’s where the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshops meet to help prisoners hone their writing skills while producing a newspaper called the “Focal Point.”
Hosmer leaned against the desk wearing a button-up shirt and a relaxed demeanor. Before getting hired at Moose Lake Correctional Facility four years ago, Hosmer was a teacher and a high school principal in Willow River, Minn. He told the HDT that he switched careers because he wanted a position with more job security and this one allowed him to stay within the education field; though he misses teaching kids, he feels he “really has a chance to make a positive impact” working with these men. The approach differs drastically from working with high school students to working with the incarcerated population, the main one being: “meeting them where they’re at,” Hosmer said.
He explained that any person entering the prison system without a high school diploma is mandated to further their education during their sentence. They undergo tests to determine their reading and math ability and those scores are used for class placement, with reassessments occurring every three months to help them “test up and test out” into the next level until they obtain their GED, high school diploma or a Minnesota State Adult Diploma.
“The idea behind that is they experience some success, they build on that success and they will hopefully want to get into our tech programs,” Hosmer said. “Ideally, the more education someone gets, the bigger impact that will have on recidivism.”
He encourages inmates to get involved, whether it’s in a MINNCOR Industry or one of their career tech programs or college programs. Participants can take two classes a semester at a cost of $10 per class, each worth three credits. A federal Pell Grant is available to help inmates to cover the cost of their tuition, and there’s also a parenting class offered by the University of Minnesota. Educational institutions that partner with the prison include Pine Technical and Community College, Lake Superior College, Ashland University and the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, according to the state Department of Corrections. Together, they offer English language learner courses as well as classes on carpentry, computer careers and workplace human relations. There are also enrichment programs to build character and improve functional reading skills.
Tutors and special education courses are provided as needed. The men get paid $0.50 cents an hour to be educated with part of that pay going toward restitution and, if applicable, child support and any other legal obligations. Additional money can be used to purchase items from the inmate canteen, such as toiletries, small TVs and access to cable.
But the money goes first toward restitution and Hosmer says that’s “good for the state of Minnesota” and good for taxpayers since every $1 spent on education in prison saves taxpayers $5 when it comes to reducing recidivism. “It’s a good investment,” Hosmer said. “Education, positive programing is a good investment.”
Hosmer continued, “...It’s a new, re-invigorated approach. We want them to be successful because who do you want living next to you?”
Goebel, who has been in the prison industry for 25 years, echoed the sentiments, insisting education has long been considered the backbone of the department.
While their intentions are sincere, they admit that some of the men are bound to face hurdles on the outside. And in places like Hibbing, Virginia and across the Iron Range, former inmates will face a new set of challenges: finding employment opportunities with a livable wage, affordable housing and possibly daycare. How they weather those challenges is another story entirely.
That’s why other resources will be made available to try and make the transition a little smoother. In the future installments of the Labor series, HDT will explore these options as well as the job hunt from the ground.