Community asks commissioner to remove obstacles to such contact
By Raymond Jackson
On April 24, Reverend Jerry McAfee of New Salem Baptist Church hosted an event introducing Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy and his staff to a listening audience greatly affected by the rules, regulations and policies of Minnesota correctional facilities. This was an audience whose cultural base is four percent of Minnesota’s population, yet from their community comes 50 percent of Minnesota’s incarcerated population: African Americans.
The top three areas of concern were:
• a 10 percent increase in the surcharge applied to money sent to inmates,
• visitation and family contact, and
• educational opportunities for those incarcerated.
Reverend McAfee, in his introduction and welcome, stated, “Our goal tonight is to get some information, to all of us, that tells exactly what the Department of Corrections does. Normally when we deal with the Department of Corrections it is from a negative perspective. We have some questions we would like answered and hope that this dialogue will continue.”
He went on to say, “They [Corrections] do not make the laws, so they will not be able to change anything about laws we may not like. That is a different discussion, but a discussion we would be willing to have as we try to galvanize our community. We need to hear from the Department of Corrections, the Department of Health, all the way down. So let this be the first of many community dialogues pertaining to how these departments affect our communities.
“Change will only occur as we link ourselves together in a unified way to make the moves we must make advocating for change.”
The Corrections commissioner and his staff emphasized the importance of family contact and how it is directly related to the high rate of recidivism (the rate at which inmates return to prison on parole violations or new charges). Deputy Commissioner of the Facilities Division Terry Carlson stated, “It is a sad fact that inmates with no or little outside family contact are the ones returning to prison on a variety of infractions.”
She was then asked by a person in attendance why then is it becoming more difficult — most particularly financially — for family visitation and overall contact. This question was in reference to the phone call cost increase and public transportation decrease.
Carlson responded, “Some things such as being able to be on multiple family members’ visitation lists, as well as decreasing to 90 days the time-waiting period to be switched from one visitation list to another, have been changed. Some things, however, such as phone-rate cost and access to public transportation, are out of our control, but we will continue to advocate for changes that have proven very important to keeping people from returning to prison.”
When an inmate is incarcerated and a family member sends money to them, 10 percent is taken to cover court fines, court costs and victim restitution. Recently this amount increased to 20 percent, and community members wanted to know the reason why. Carlson explained that the increase helped cover inmates’ housing cost.
The numbers in attendance was large and included community members Mahmoud El-Kati and Shane Price, who is currently the director of the Power of People Leadership Institute Reentry Initiative, which had a large number of its participants present.
“This program is in need of additional funding and support so we can increase our outreach potential,” stated Price.
Commissioner Roy emphatically stated, “The educational outreach here in Minnesota’s prison system is one of the best in the country. However, its emphasis is on obtaining a G.E.D. Legislation has not for a while offered college and vocational opportunities for those in prison. We, the commission, do realize how important education is for those in prison trying to straighten out their lives, and we will have to work on that as well.”
The MSR asked if there would be follow-up to this event. McAfee answered, “Follow-up must start right here, in the communities most affected; and we must lead the charge for much needed and wanted change.”
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