Special Report: Behind Bars, Looking Inside

Baihly Warfield
Updated: April 27, 2018 11:49 AM

MOOSE LAKE, Minn. - There are ironclad consequences for the decision to commit a crime.

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"Me, I was 16 when I came to prison," one inmate said. "It becomes real when the door slams behind you."

An inmate we are calling Sam said he was trying to prove himself, but it landed him in prison instead. Spending a dozen years behind bars could be enough to make a heart harden further.

But there are programs at the Minnesota Corrections Facility in Moose Lake to work on changing hearts and minds. 

"You'll fail. We know this. But it's how you overcome those failures," Moose Lake Prison Warden Nate Knutson said, speaking to prisoners. 

There are around 1,000 offenders at the Moose Lake prison. They are serving time for everything from homicide to drugs to theft. So the victims look different for each. 

But no matter the offense, someone is victimized. 

"A lot of them struggle at first when they first come to even recognize that they had a victim," Case Manager Chrissy Gamst said. "Somebody who maybe was a drug dealer sometimes comes in and thinks, I don't have any victims."

Knutson said that is just not true. 

"There's always a victim somewhere," Knutson said. "And vetting that out and fleshing that out and identifying that is complex, and it's key."

And it may take years. 

"Our offenders are with us for averaging 75 months, so we have some good time to work with them," Knutson said. 

It's enough time for offenders to hear directly from victims who may have seemed anonymous at one time. And it can be healing for victims too. 

"Victims need an opportunity to tell the person who has harmed them what that impact has been for them," Restorative Justice Coordinator Alicia Nichols said.

During National Crime Victims Week, a domestic violence survivor came to the Moose Lake prison to share her experience with the inmates who chose to attend. 

"These opportunities through these two weeks to bring folks together, even though they may not be the direct perpetrator or victim to one another, is incredibly impactful," Nichols said. 

For Sam, hearing from victims helps him reflect on crime's ripple effect. 

"When I go in there and listen to her story, you know, I see," Sam said. "I see what that harm has caused and reflecting on my case and the harm that I caused on my victims."

And the Minnesota Department of Corrections wants to make sure they have plenty of support for victims too.

Sam and the other inmates don't have to go listen. But Nichols said they come because they do want to be better men. 

"They are not happy with what it is they have done to land themselves here," Nichols said. "There's a lot of shame and a lot of guilt. And they don't have very many opportunities to hear from the other side what the impact has been."

Gamst agreed, saying that these experiences are incredibly valuable for the inmates. 

"There's a lot of processing that goes on," Gamst said. "A lot of times, they don't say anything right away but then come back and say, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't realize the effect that I had.'"

That's an outlook Sam did not have when he got in trouble. 

"The approach I had was I can't see you as a human. And I can't have no emotion, I can't have no heart when I look at you because if I do, I can't commit that crime," he explained. 

But he said thanks to the programs at Moose Lake, his vision has cleared. 

"I think it gives me that outlook to see the other side," Sam said. 

It makes a lasting difference across the prison too. 

"We see attitude changes," Gamst said. "We see less discipline. We see more accountability."

"It helps me realize that we're all human, we all have experiences, we all have feelings," Sam said. 

The goal is to rehabilitate and release rather than punish and release. 

"I think it's important for our community to understand that there are good things happening in here," Gamst said. 

Work to open eyes and change hearts. 

"It takes awhile," Sam said. "It takes a lot of realizing and self-reflecting, you know? To think about the harm and why are we in prison, you know? What have we done, you know? And where do we go from here?"

So that when the doors are finally opened, they can see the other side. 


Baihly Warfield

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