by April Scheinoha
After worship services, a local minister repeatedly saw a vehicle driving past his country church. He eventually spoke to the driver, learning that the man was among the Sentence to Serve crew members who had recently painted the church. Full of pride, he was pointing out his work to his girlfriend.
STS is one of many programs offered by the Pennington County Jail. “It’s a good way to reintegrate those people who have been confined for a while,” said Sheriff Ray Kuznia.
STS crews have raked leaves for elderly individuals and constructed handicapped-accessible ramps, among other projects.
Another jail program is an art class taught by retired art teacher Pat Dunning. “In previous art sessions, I have brought flowers, herbs, toys, or whatever, for them to draw and paint,” said Dunning. “You would think that they would have turned their noses up at the toys, but some of the cards are going to their small children who mostly they are estranged from and yet who they love dearly and miss terribly.”
Dunning began offering art lessons at the jail in February. Since that time, she has worked with 69 inmates there.
Sometimes the art lessons also involve prayer time. Dunning, a lay leader at the Thief River Falls United Methodist Church, began conducting Sunday morning worship services with the inmates a couple of months ago. After the service, they sit and chat a bit. “They are fabulous young men and women,” she said.
Dunning also facilitated a baptism for one inmate with the assistance of Rev. John Voelker from Trinity Lutheran Church.
The jail also offers a music class and a parenting class, among other offerings. In addition, it offers Huber work release privileges to approved inmates. Outside the confines of the jail, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous sessions are available for minimum security inmates.
“We’ve done a lot considering our space constraints, but there’s so much more we can do with our new space,” said Jail Administrator Susan Halverson.
During construction, the jail houses 30 inmates on average. Once construction is completed, the justice center will be able to house 94 inmates. The facility will initially house 60 or fewer inmates until staff are accustomed to the building.
“As time progresses, it will depend on the need of the community and communities around us,” Halverson said. She added that jails typically house up to 80 percent of their operating capacity.
It is anticipated that inmates will move to the justice center in late spring or early summer 2018 although not all of the affected county or state offices will move at that time.
Besides space for more inmates, there will be more room for visits from family members and friends. Currently, there are two kiosks for visitors. There is no privacy as visitors speak with the inmates via interactive TV while sitting in the lobby of the Law Enforcement Center.
“Visitation is a big deal when someone is confined,” said Kuznia, who noted there will be up to six spots for jail visitors in a private area in the new facility.
There will also be more room for programming. Currently, a small room is used for programming, attorney visits, chemical assessments and medical checkups. It’s not uncommon for an art lesson to be postponed or, on a recent day, interrupted and moved to the smaller canteen area.
Inmates enjoy the opportunity to participate in jail programming. “I’m very grateful,” one inmate said about Dunning’s art lessons.
Jail staff are excited about the new facility and new programming options. Incoming Jail Programming Coordinator Travis Black said the jail hopes to provide information on how inmates can find and retain employment upon being released from custody. In the past, prior inmates have had trouble finding work since they haven’t had identification, a birth certificate and/or a Social Security card. Jail staff also hope to offer classes on money management and budgeting, cognitive thinking programs, adult basic education, and domestic violence prevention.
Black cited a study that found kids with incarcerated parents are six times more likely to be incarcerated themselves. The goal is to reintegrate inmates into society, he said. In turn, their family members and community will be affected.
Out-going Jail Programming Coordinator Mitch Borneman said, “When you fail to provide the tools to affect change, how can you expect there to be change?”
Rehabilitation can occur through a variety of means. “I am seeing changes in the inmates,” said Dunning. “They are more thankful for the hours of creativity I bring them. They are more willing to talk about their personal lives. They are more willing to make some plans about how differently they are going to live.”