BIZ-EX-OFFENDERS-IN-MINN.-ARE-SLOW-BUT-GROWING-MS

Sarah Walker, right, the new Minnesota Department of Corrections deputy commissioner, stands alongside Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz, before she addresses supporters during the "Second Chance Day on the Hill Rally" Feb. 7 in St. Paul.

The administration of Gov. Tim Walz wants more Minnesota criminal offenders to find a job and housing and fewer to return to prison.

The Minnesota Legislature this session mostly approved more money for the state Department of Corrections for increased staffing in the wake of violent in-prison altercations that resulted in the deaths of two prison guards.

However, Deputy Commissioner Sarah Walker, who once worked with ex-offenders and lobbied for the Second Chance Coalition, said the long-term strategy is to reduce incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders and curtail technical parole violations that can send former inmates back to prison. It’s estimated that up to half of offenders are back in jail within a couple of years.

“In Minnesota we have two positions open for every person seeking a job,” Walker said. “There’s a huge opportunity right now.”

Employers are slowly hiring more former convicts as a historically tight labor market offers them incentives to look past the stigma of a prison record. The effort to further bolster hiring faces limits. Some types of felons are barred from working in certain industries like health care, financial services or around children. But, there has been some movement at the Legislature to relax some prohibitions that can keep ex-offenders from landing a job or place to live.

Over the last two years, CEO Isabelle Day of Quality Ingredients of Burnsville has hired eight former felons, now 15% of her 56-person workforce, through Minneapolis training-nonprofit Twin Cities Rise, after struggling to retain workers who start at $15 an hour.

She’s been lauded by state corrections officials for her outreach and for helping former offenders with transportation and other issues.

She is delighted with their work ethic, attendance record and what they bring to the company. Quality Ingredients has improved its 401(k) retirement plan to up to 10% of compensation, whether the worker puts anything in or not. And the company has a short-term, interest-free loan fund.

“A business … must take care of customers, but we must equally take care of employees,” Day said. “We love Twin Cities Rise and will continue to work with them to provide jobs [to former inmates].”

Cost of incarceration

According to Walker and state statistics, Minnesota prisons cost taxpayers more than $50,000 per inmate per year. State jails are near capacity, more than 9,500 inmates. Another 111,000 adult offenders, including those released from county jails, are on yearslong probation. Most have served time for crimes against people, property, drug and drunk-driving offenses.

“We look to reduce the number of people revoked from supervised release as way to [reduce] the prison population, which creates greater staff safety and also allows for evidenced-based [solutions] such as drug-and-alcohol or mental health treatment,” Walker said.

The Department of Corrections spends about $600 million annually on prison-and-probation services.

Minnesota First Lady Gretchen Walz, a career educator, has made prison reform a mission. She sat in on the job interview of Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, and she encouraged Walker to apply for the deputy commissioner job.

Minnesota prisoners are disproportionately people of color who underachieved in grade school and have drug-or-alcohol issues.

Dan Pfarr, a veteran nonprofit executive who runs 180 Degrees, which includes the Minneapolis halfway-house Clifton Place, gets $68 per person per day to house up to 200 ex-offenders for up to three months. While at Clifton Place they need to get trained and find a job and housing.

“The question becomes how much money drops down to us in community programming,” Pfarr said. “We do the monitoring, the drug tests, helping to find [affordable] housing and job training That takes a partnership.”

Since 2017, Pfarr has cut ancillary programs, sold a group home and tried to increase funding from foundations, businesses and anyone who will listen to his hopeful message that community-based housing-and-training agencies can be more successful that prison at helping ex-offenders acquire skills and get jobs in a worker-hungry economy.

“We take guys who have been in prison for six to 20 years and the Department of Corrections gives us [60 to 90 days] to get them housing and a job,” said Arriel McDonald, a 180 Degrees case manager. “Most of them are afraid of committing another crime. But the pressure can lead them to mental health issues, drug or alcohol relapses” and back to old habits.

Tough situation

The illicit-drug business can be the best job around for a tough kid in a rough neighborhood.

“I went from being a crack head and a deadbeat dad for years to a taxpayer …,” said Chris Harris, 44, who started selling drugs at age 13 and spent 23 years in prison. “I now work two full-time jobs. I went from ‘zero to hero’ according to my 14-year-old daughter.

“I made up my mind to go through treatment through the Salvation Army [several years ago]. I just feel more productive, mentally, physically, spiritually and financially. Some days, I work 18 hours. I don’t cheat or steal. I positively influence people.”

Harris works with transitional ex-offenders at 180 Degrees. He also works for Simpson Housing Services. He makes $15 to $17 an hour.

“Nothing happens until a person decided to change,” said Harris, who got his high-school equivalency degree during his last prison stint.

The prison boom since the 1980s locked up disproportionately low-income minority men, most tied to drugs. Blacks are 35% of the Minnesota state-prison population although blacks make up less than 10% of the population, according to U.S. Census estimates. .

McDonald left Chicago 30 years ago to attend the University of Minnesota on a basketball scholarship.

McDonald, who also played professional basketball overseas for years, had a run-in with the law eclipse his professional plans. Twelve years ago, he was charged with drunken driving following a Gophers reunion at the U. A $100,000-plus job offer from his-hometown Northwestern University was withdrawn as a result.

“I don’t feel badly for myself,” said McDonald, also a local high school basketball coach. “I like to help people here restart their lives.”

McDonald said most of his job placements for 180 Degrees go to temp-labor outfits that pay to $10 to $12 an hour.