Prison system frustrates efforts at self-improvement

bridgingthegap (1)A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.


My name is Elijah Combs, and I was sentenced to 240 months of which I am to serve 160. Knowing I couldn’t sit stagnant through such a large amount of time, I was proactive in improving many areas of my life.

I sought to mature spiritually and emotionally. I pursued academic advancement and cognitive growth. Though I stayed diligent and focused on my goals, my efforts were thwarted time after time. The first and biggest derailment in my journey came when I was sent to Appleton prison [Prairie Correctional Facility, a private prison].

While in Stillwater I was able to carve out what felt like a very real existence on the road of positive change. I had a full-time job, attended real accredited college courses in the evenings, and surrounded myself socially with others who were being progressive.

This was not only building up my self-confidence and self-esteem, but it also gave me a small sense of community. Then the transfer to Appleton erased all that.

In the course of building something with meaning and purpose, Appleton was the ultimate derailleur. I was a part of the last exodus to Appleton from the DOC [Department of Corrections] in 2007. I felt punished for good behavior.

Though I continued to seek positive change while in Appleton, I was no longer facilitated with the programming I felt was necessary to help me advance. I took advantage of what I could, but I couldn’t help feeling cheated and a sense of loss for being dumped in this privately owned facility.

One of the worst blows was the disconnection Appleton created between me and my family. I was now four hours away from home, and the phone rates were quite excessive. The relationships I had rebuilt and maintained were now in jeopardy or at least hindered by distance and expense. A chasm was formed between me and the ones I loved and the ones who provided me with the love and support I needed to mature as a man during my term of incarceration.

After two years and eight months, the nightmare of Appleton finally came to a close. Appleton was closing, and I was one of the final people to get shipped out before the doors were shut. Though it was a change in the right direction, the change ended up being not all that much better.

It was 2010 and Faribault had just finished its expansion. I found myself in the biggest human warehouse for DOC inmates in the state of Minnesota. After seven months in Faribault, I was transferred to Lino Lakes to participate in the long-term faith-based treatment program. I graduated after 19 months and stayed on living in the community for two more years.

Once time took its course, I was transferred to Moose Lake and took part in the OnTrack Printing Program. I completed two phases of the program, and in the midst of the third phase I was unapologetically transferred to Kandiyohi County Jail to spend a year in the DOCs HOF (Housed Out of Facility) program.

This is like Appleton all over again but even worse. One of the hardest blows was the fact that I was removed from my programming in Moose Lake. I was supposed to be under contract, which would keep me in Moose Lake while I was a participant in the program.

To add insult to injury, the phone rates and canteen items were so exorbitantly priced that the financial burden on me and my family was overwhelming. The oppressive circumstance was grueling. I suffered through my year in the County and have now come full circle back to Faribault, the warehouse for DLC inmates.

Now here I am with less than six months until my release. It’s been a journey, a rollercoaster of ups and downs. I’m happy to be close to the finish line now, but I can’t help but look back at times and wish that the DOC could have looked at the human element of my journey.

Maybe they could acknowledge that I’ve never been in any trouble or ever had any disciplinary concerns my entire incarceration. Instead, I’ve striven to better myself from the very start.

I acquired my GED at Stillwater in 2005 and now in 2016 still have not accumulated half the credits needed to obtain an associate’s degree due to constant transfers and restrictions due to my crime. I just wish my determination to become a better person, a contributor to society, and a mature adult would have been better facilitated.

I also just wish the DOC would recognize when they have people who are driven to make a positive transformation and not treat them like just another number or a head of cattle to be warehoused and forgotten.


Elijah Combs is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit