Prison abolitionists, advocacy organizations, and some formerly incarcerated members are pushing the Minnesota Department of Corrections (MnDoC) to allow more low-risk prisoners to work in the community while serving their sentences.
Their case? Activists contend most fathers in prison are Black, and Black men are overrepresented in prison. Releasing them would allow them to reconnect with their communities and loved ones, so they’re less likely to return to prison. It also saves the state money in the long run.
But participation rates are abysmal. Of the 7,833 prisoners in the state system, only 154 are in the so-called work release program as of July 1. It’s unclear how many are actually eligible to participate in work release because activists and the Minnesota Department of Corrections interpret eligibility as prescribed in state law differently.
Work release was first enacted by the state legislature in 1967. It allows people—those who are not sex or predatory offenders or have a high recidivism rate—to work or participate in a vocational program outside of prison walls, so they have a better time finding employment and housing after they are released.
“When you do things that are illegal, you go to prison, and the point of prison is to keep the community safe and to rehabilitate you,” said Ta’mara Hill, policy officer for the Center for the Victims of Torture. “Work release is important because it’s kind of a culmination of all of those ideas.”
A 2014 MnDOC study showed work release not only benefited the prisoner but the community and MnDOC as well. They found released participants worked more hours and made more money than those who did not participate. Participants were also less likely to re-offend and more likely to find a job. The program saved MnDOC $1.2 million from 2007 to 2010.
But advocates and MnDOC differ over who is eligible for work release. Advocates contend that about 20% of the state’s incarcerated persons are eligible, while MnDOC states no more than 230 people are eligible as of July 12. This is partly because MnDOC only allows those who have completed at least half of their sentence, and are no more than 12 months out from finishing it, to participate.
Activists state that affording prisoners’ work release is a matter of racial justice. Although Black people comprise 6% of the Minnesota population, they make up 36% of the state prison population, according to the census and MnDOC.
Studies have shown that judges are more likely to sentence Black people more harshly than White people. Activists argue that because slavery is still legal behind prison walls, the justice system has effectively used prisons as a loophole to continue enslaving Black people. (The 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude with one exception: “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”)
Activists also contend that the work release program should go a step further by partnering with community organizations to provide housing for participants. This, activists say, would strengthen communities and families, particularly Black people.
A 2017 study, conducted by the University of Minnesota, found 47% of incarcerated people of color are parents of minor children. Study after study has found taking parents away from their children harms them both, particularly children, who, without adequate support systems, have a higher likelihood of following the same fate as their parents.
But MnDOC is hesitant to expand work release eligibility. Spokesperson Aaron Swanum stated that they have to follow all Minnesota laws. “We must also follow Minnesota Statute 241.26, as listed in Statute 244.065,” said Swanum. “The limitation within that statute defines release authority that is ‘consistent with the public interest and the public safety,’” explained Swanum, adding that the number of those eligible may decrease after MnDOC reviews each individual prisoner’s case.
Complicating matters are the ongoing concerns around rising crime in the Twin Cities, most of which involve theft. An initiative to create a Department of Public Safety in Minneapolis, which would de-emphasize a policing-oriented approach to public safety, failed last November. Also, Hennepin County faces a high-stakes attorney and sheriff race in the coming weeks between those who want more incarceration and those who want to approach public safety holistically.
Anna Zaros, who is a member of Jewish Community Action and involved with efforts to abolish prisons, believes work release can actually reduce crime and make the Twin Cities safer. “It helps folks get back on their feet and gives them a step to better stability when their sentence does end. It helps address some of the root causes of why someone might commit a crime,” said Zaros.
“We don’t need to fear people coming out of prison—we need to welcome them.”
People interested in joining the Twin Cities chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee can sign up at https://is.gd/on0vIB.
Henry Pan is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.