“I need to be a better person for my kids,” Jesse Bryant said. “This is a wonderful program. I learn about my kids and myself.”

Bryant is an inmate at Carlton County Jail and a parent of two boys. He explained that he didn't have a positive male role model while he was growing up and had little adult supervision.

A new program at the Carlton County Jail is helping teach Bryant and other interested inmates how to improve their parenting techniques and communicate more efficiently. The goal of the program is to help support children and their parents by changing policies to be more family friendly.

The Family Friendly Jail Initiative began in the Carlton County Jail in the summer of 2018 and has been doing well, according to program coordinator Stephanie Upton. She said the regular 30-minute visitations allow two people at a time; one person needs to be an adult.

If a parent has more than one child, the visits are spread out, sometimes over weeks. Many parents or caregivers forego visitations altogether as it becomes too difficult to juggle planning the visits.

Incarcerated parent view of visiting room. The colorful Sesame Street characters decorate the visiting area to be more child friendly as kids visit their incarcerated parent. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal
Incarcerated parent view of visiting room. The colorful Sesame Street characters decorate the visiting area to be more child friendly as kids visit their incarcerated parent. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

The new program allows several children to visit at a time in a room that has been decorated with almost life-size "Sesame Street" characters on the walls and door. The waiting room has also been altered to include mini-chairs and a sofa as well as books for younger children.

In April, the program added mandatory inmate parenting classes for the inmates; 100% of incarcerated parents said they were interested in participating. Currently, 88% of Carlton County inmate parents have participated since the classes began. Inmates are required to behave and follow the rules to participate in the program.

The class educator is a collaboration with Carlton School District with funding through the Early Childhood Family Education program that pays for the teacher.

“Parents were not aware of the impact their incarceration had on their kids,” Upton said. She said there is a trickle-down effect of incarcerated parents to their children and from the children into the schools and communities.

“Being incarcerated is not easy for anyone involved. My children's behavior was showing rapid deterioration.”

Bryant agreed. His children live with their mother, but he has regular contact with them when he isn't in jail. He said he had no idea how much his incarceration affected his kids.

“I learn how to cope with problems and work with my kids behavioral issues,” Bryant said. He said his relationship with his children has improved greatly because of the parenting classes.

Upton said it also helps that Bryant has a good relationship with his children's mother.

The incarcerated parents read “Parenting From Prison” as part of the requirement for the parenting class. Even though the parents and children are separated by the glass, copies of the same book are on each side so they can read together.

A study by the University of Minnesota before the program was implemented found that incarcerated parents were interested in learning how to deal with several child related issues. Included on the list were, how to handle their kids feelings, how to help them be happier, how to properly discipline, dealing with teenage behaviors and attitude as well as several other concerns.

According to the study, Minnesota has a higher proportion of inmates who report being parents and living with their children than the national estimates.

Appreciative inmate parents write letters to express their gratitude and share their experiences with jail staff. One letter reads: “This program is very beneficial for me and my children. Being incarcerated is not easy for anyone involved. My children's behavior was showing rapid deterioration ... their grades were showing low scores with no improvement.”

The author, Zach, has two children. He said in the letter he had no idea how much his behavior affected his kids. The book provided in the parenting class, as well as the classes themselves, taught him how to communicate with his children and their behavior has improved.

Child size furniture, a bright colored rug and children's books are part of a program to help children feel more welcome when visiting a parent in Carlton County Jail. The waiting area was furnished with the help of Carlton County Children and Family Initiatives Department. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal
Child size furniture, a bright colored rug and children's books are part of a program to help children feel more welcome when visiting a parent in Carlton County Jail. The waiting area was furnished with the help of Carlton County Children and Family Initiatives Department. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

“Having to face them made me see what I’ve been doing is wrong — way more than just a jail cell ever will,” Zach said.

While the program has been in the Carlton County Jail just over a year, the feedback from incarcerated parents has been positive and staff are optimistic.

During that year, 49 inmates participated in the program, including 26 men and 23 women who took part in 57 parenting classes and 25 family-friendly visits. There were 130 children under age 17 who visited their parents during the year.

Several entities have collaborated to make the program possible: the Carlton County Sheriff's Office, Carlton School District and Early Childhood and Family Education, other local school districts, Carlton County Children's and Family Mental Health Services Collaborative, Carlton County Children and Family Initiatives Department, CHILD Network, United Way of Carlton County, Carlton Area Lions Club and the Carlton Public Library.

This game is one of many educational and family friendly games and books provided with the help of Carlton County Children and Family Initiatives Department for incarcerated parents and their children at the Carlton County Jail. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal
This game is one of many educational and family friendly games and books provided with the help of Carlton County Children and Family Initiatives Department for incarcerated parents and their children at the Carlton County Jail. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

By the numbers

In 2017, the University of Minnesota sent a survey to correctional facilities statewide. Of the 80 facilities, 81% participated. A total of 2,675 inmates completed the survey out of 3,201 or 84%.

  • 69% are the parent of a minor child;
  • The average age range is 26-30, which accounts for 26%;
  • 82% of parents who completed the survey were men;
  • 18% of parents were female;
  • 53% white;
  • 21% black/African-American;
  • 14% American Indian/Alaskan Native;
  • 9% multiracial;
  • 3% Asian;
  • 1% Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander;
  • 61% of fathers were employed prior to being arrested;
  • 65% of fathers were living with their minor children prior to arrest;
  • 32% of mothers were employed prior to arrest;
  • 64% of mothers were living with their minor children prior to arrest;
  • 37% of children were 0-5 years old;
  • 42% of children were 6-12 years old;
  • 21% of children were 13-17 years old.