The Carlton County family-friendly jail initiative is set to launch a new position using federal funding through a joint grant.

The Second Chance Act Addressing the Needs of Incarcerated Parents and Their Minor Children program grant comes from the U.S. Department of Justice and was given to the county in collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Health, according to the county newsletter.

The three-year grant awarded $127,267 to the jail, which will provide funding for the temporary position of a family liaison within the family-friendly jail initiative, as well as additional staff training and resources.

“It’s a really awesome opportunity," Community and Families Initiative Director Donna Lekander said. “We’re investing life hours and changing futures.”

The jail initiative has been working for over the past couple years to provide support to inmates and their families through periods of incarceration.

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The Carlton County Courthouse (left) and jail in Carlton. (Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Pine Journal)
The Carlton County Courthouse (left) and jail in Carlton. (Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Pine Journal)

It works to connect inmates to their family members, as well as to other community resources such as district schools.

Since January, seven female inmates and 16 male inmates, representing 57 children, have participated in the parental education program incorporated in the initiative, according to Tess Christensen, a community and family initiatives coordinator involved in the effort.

All funding for the initiative comes from outside sources, according to Lekander.

She explained that the new liaison position will further that effort by working outside the jail to facilitate partnerships and connections between the inmate and their community, as well as their family.

The position is an upcoming parent education program called “Parenting Inside Out,” which provides instruction for parents both in and outside of incarceration.

“Our intention is to provide those services on both sides,” Lekander said.

In addition to the liaison position, the initiative is hoping to continue with the expansion of technology in order to allow incarcerated parents connection to the outside world through video conferencing and other tools.

The initiative is done in partnership with the MDH and the University of Minnesota, as well as jails across the state. Due to the state partnerships, Lekander said they have been able to learn and talk with experts across the country.

“We’re part of a learning community,” she said. “It’s just bringing a whole different level of resources available to us that we wouldn’t normally have in Carlton County.”

As of date, prior phases of the program have already implemented environmental and systemic changes at the jail, such as allowing more than one child to visit a parent at a time and creating a more kid-friendly space in the visiting center.

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

The county has also purchased books that allow parents to record audio messages of them reading to their children, and multiple local organizations have contributed to the program throughout the years.

An example is found in the pairs of books donated by local schools so that parents can read to their children through glass walls.

According to Christensen, participation in the visiting portion of the initiative has decreased significantly in the COVID-19 pandemic, but she said the county has maintained programming nonetheless.

Lekander said the program has adjusted visiting protocols in light of the pandemic, but that they are still finding ways to connect families.

She shared that the normalizing of video conferences has allowed incarcerated parents to actively participate in more meetings such as school conferences without feeling ashamed, and that the lack of group sessions has opened up opportunities for more individualized programming.

“This program is very beneficial for me and my children,” one inmate said in a reflection of the initiative. “The realization of how much my kids need me turned my attitude right around. Having to face them made me see what I’ve been doing is wrong way more than just a jail cell ever will. Within a few visits, my children’s school lives as well as home life improved noticeably. I am so grateful.”

This story was updated at 9:53 a.m. March 22 with additional information provided by Tess Christensen. It was originally posted at noon March 20.