Prison Work – Minnesota Women’s Press

I would like to offer pro bono paralegal services via distance work to tribal lawyers and reservations. I would like to broaden my knowledge of federal and constitutional law. I would gladly perform legal research and draft documents under a lawyer’s tutelage for any marginalized community.

I have not been able to get permission from the Minnesota DOC for this type of endeavor. I have been told by a DOC commissioner that incarcerated individuals cannot engage in the practice of a profession, even pro bono.

There is an untapped incarcerated work force that can be held accountable and trained; they will be proud, dedicated employees, if given the opportunity.

I think most people are apathetic about prisoners, figuring we all did something to be in prison. While that may be true, the majority will return to a neighborhood. Incarceration is a social issue. Repairing and reengaging broken people, including the marginalized, can help stop the desperation that leads to poor decisions.

I say this because I have met granddaughters, moms, and grandmas, all in prison together: generational incarceration.

Zhi Kai H. Vanderford (he/him) is a trans male, activist, writer, and artist for human rights. He has been incarcerated 36 consecutive years and seeks parole support by petition.

Editor’s Note

We asked the Minnesota Department of Corrections to share information about the programs they offer to people who are currently incarcerated. This is what we learned:

  • Are incarcerated people at Shakopee required to have a job? Are they paid?

Shakopee is a working facility as are all the Minnesota State Correctional Facilities. Incarcerated people (IP) are paid for the work hours that they complete, ranging from Step 1 = $.25/hour to Step 8 = $2.00/hour  MINNCOR assignments may pay at a higher rate depending on the product. A percentage of their earnings are placed into an account for their gate fee as well as to cover any restitution/fines and facility cost of confinement. Remaining money is placed into an individual account that can be saved or used towards purchases.

  • What kinds of jobs are there in the MN prison system? Are jobs at Shakopee different than other prisons?

Shakopee offers various work assignments including food service, maintenance, cleaning, IP assistants, Tutors, Clerical, Industrial (MINNCOR), Education, Treatment. Many of the work assignments are consistent among all our facilities.

  • How many Minnesota students tend to be engaged inside the prison system?

Typically, 25 percent of the population is working to obtain their High School Diploma or GED. For Shakopee, in fall of 2023:

  • 24 students will be working on their associate degree with Minnesota State University – Mankato;
  • 9 students will be working on their paralegal certificate with North Hennepin Community College;
  • 10 students are working on their bachelor’s degrees through Ashland University;
  • 1 student is working on her Juris Doctorate with Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

We also allow students to do correspondence courses through a variety of partnerships that work with correctional facilities. All our Higher Education students have access to an American Prison Data Systems (APDS) tablet which holds their learning management system D2L on it. It is the same D2L system that MNSCU uses at their campuses, just in a more secure format.

At Shakopee, all our education programs are supervised by trained DOC staff that teach within the programs or by trained professors that come in to teach in our Higher Ed program with Minnesota State University – Mankato.

Correspondence courses may include accredited college classes, career technical programs, religious courses, language courses, and other topics approved by the facility education director or designee. These are funded by the incarcerated person or by someone on the outside.

For NHCC and Minnesota State University – Mankato – most of the funding comes through the Second Chance Pell Grant, Mellon Grant and/or philanthropic donations through the company All Square for the Paralegal program. All Square also collects philanthropic dollars to pay for tuition and books at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Our Career Technical programs are paid for by the DOC. These programs include a fully licensed cosmetology program through the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology and a CISCO Certified Support Technician program on cybersecurity, among others.

  • How does DOC assist with employment after release?

The DOC’s Reentry Services Unit offers opportunities to support people transitioning from prison to community living. Facility Transition Services offers reentry classes and seminars to assist people in identifying and creating connections to overcome barriers, such as general sessions on job-seeking and -keeping, along with resume building and interviewing skills. We help people outline skills and talk about their experiences on resumes. Transition Services’ community partnerships for employment services stretch across the state, connecting people to opportunitiers in their home communities.

EMPLOY offers more direct services for employment connections upon release, working with employers around the state in an attempt to create living wage jobs for people. The program was on hiatus during COVID for lack of funding. We are working to prioritize funding and offer this service to anyone interested in more supportive employment services. This past session, DOC had a legislative package to fund EMPLOY and other employment strategies; unfortunately, it was not included in the budget.


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