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Breaking the cycle: County jail programs guiding inmates toward better choices

An art class is among the programs at the Hubbard County Jail designed to help inmates foster positive behavior and set goals. (Submitted photo)

Fewer lock-downs.

Fewer fights.

Fewer incidences of disrespect or behavioral issues.

"There's a whole paradigm shift here in the environment," said Christina Day, Hubbard County Jail Programs Coordinator. "Our inmates behave better. They don't want to lose their program privileges."

Life skills and parenting classes, Alcoholics Anonymous and Bible studies are a few examples of long-established programming at the jail. Since Day took over the role in December 2013, she's added other curriculum, like The FATHER Project, Al-Anon for female inmates, art, FearBusters, and a coping with addictions class.

Day is also spearheading a transitional housing project in Park Rapids to provide a safe and sober place for select inmates after they're released from jail.

"I had no idea I was going to feel this passionately about my job," she said.

Day and her team of volunteers are proponents of the power of positivity, empowering people to set goals, believe in themselves and make better choices.

"Each of our programs here, somebody touches on that in some way," Day said.

Inmates are urged to make a conscientious effort every day to get closer to their goals of sobriety, reuniting families or whatever the case may be.

"I don't know how many times I ask inmates, 'Have you told yourself something positive today? Would you criticize your best friend?' I preach it all the time. All the time. Not just me, but all these wonderful volunteers. They get it. The people we have here truly have heart."

A breakthrough occurred several years ago while the county jail housed a group of women for the Department of Corrections for 11 months.

"When they were here that's when I really started to dig deep into what brought them here. 'Why are you here?'" Day said.

She discovered that, for most inmates, the first time they got drunk or high was with their parents. Many that had sold drugs were taught to hustle by their parents.

"So the very people that are supposed to be teaching them right from wrong and helping them choose the right way are the ones showing the wrong one," Day said. "That's where I feel our role, as far as myself and the other volunteers and instructors that come in and even jail staff, have to be able to show them kindness and some compassion and understanding. Most of the time it's a generational trauma. They don't know a different way. So now this is our way of showing them a different way."

One particularly hardened, 20-year-old female inmate had a long criminal history. Day encouraged her to write down her goals and write a letter of gratitude to a childhood mentor. The inmate agreed — if Day could locate the mentor.

"So that became my mission," she recalled.

Through online searches, Day found that long-lost mentor, who began regularly emailing and sending motivational books to the prisoner. They continued to stay in touch. When the inmate was released, she stayed at her mentor's house, a safe and sober environment.

"Had we not put the connection together, who knows what would've happened?" Day said. "A lot of it was just taking the time to say, 'Hey, I care. What are we going to do? How are we going to fix this? What do you want out of your life going forward?' instead of making her feel stuck in this little cell."

Programs with a purpose

Often, Day said, inmates are "loaded" with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) — stressful or traumatic events, including abuse, domestic violence and neglect. ACEs are strongly related to the prevalence of chronic health problems throughout a person's lifespan.

"Most of the inmates here have addiction issues. The topic of addiction or alcoholism comes into play because they have that in their background, typically. It was a real wake-up call for me because I came from a really troubled past," Day said.

She speaks openly about her struggles growing up with an alcoholic father.

"For myself, if the cycle of abuse and alcoholism didn't stop with me, my two children would be dealing with that and their children and it would just continue more generational trauma," she said.

Now those difficult childhood experiences help Day relate to inmates.

"They trust me. They know I get it," she said.

John Szurpicki offers a faith-based, addictions treatment class at the Hubbard County Jail. He has served in that role since 2014, but also visits Beltrami and Becker County Jails.

Szurpicki, a minister, said he helps inmates "deal with a lot of wounds they've experienced in life and how to grasp some hope by applying basic principles about prayer and forgiveness."

Forgiveness is essential for releasing anger, bitterness and pain, he explained.

He works at Restore House, a chemical-dependency residential treatment facility in Bemidji, as well.

"The lion's share of people I work with — 90 percent — men or women, incarcerated or not, that struggle with addiction have been sexually abused. It's been so high, it's unbelievable," Szurpicki said.

The FearBusters curriculum is led by Mary Conrad.

"What she talks about is that fear is an underlying emotion behind any other one, so if you can get to the root of your anger and disappointment, your depression, your sadness then there's some fear behind that. If you can find the fear in the other emotions that you're experiencing, you're able to handle that emotion a little bit differently," Day explains.

About three years ago, Jody Ziemann began teaching art classes. Each week, she introduces different art styles or themes.

"There are coloring clubs springing up all over the country because people understand the therapeutic value," Ziemann notes. "It's a form of active meditation."

Inmates can create pencil drawings, ink art bookmarks, personal affirmation cards, greeting cards or artwork to send to their children or family members. They have colored plastic bottles for the library's community art project.

"It's just such a great, creative outlet," she said. "Our thoughts and feelings can come out through our hands. Just start putting the pencil and color to paper and see what happens."

She reads from her favorite authors, like Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra, or motivational podcasts to spark ideas, introspection and interesting conversations.

"We're all just people, doing the best we know how to do," Ziemann said. "I've learned so much, things I've taken for granted all my life."

She praised Day's efforts to expand programming at the jail.

Inmates have a desire to learn, Day said, indicated by the number of participants. They attend classes of their own freewill.

"Once they go and get some useful knowledge, they always go back for more. Our programs that are positive, forward-thinking, motivating and all that, they don't want to lose that privilege; therefore, they are better behaved inmates. They are more respectful of each other because they're learning how to be more respectful in those classes," Day said. "The knowledge piece, that's key."

Several former prisoners have sent letters to Day telling her they'd made different choices "and a lot of it had to do with the programming and the things they learned while they were here."

"I'm very, very proud of the information provided to inmates," she said. "I'm called here to help these people to believe in themselves, to learn, to be uplifted."

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