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Housing downturn affects EDA-jail program: State prisoners turn from building houses to doing volunteer projects

In April 1998, the Minnesota Department of Corrections began an innovative program where carefully selected, non-dangerous, minimum-security inmates were sent to participating counties to construct affordable housing for low-income families.

Currently, Becker County is one of seven counties in the state that participates in the program, according to Sheriff Tim Gordon.

"We are contracted with the state for six beds," he said. That means six inmates from state prisons are given the opportunity to come work in Becker County, while finishing out the last of their sentence in the local minimum security jail.

This program, known as the Inmate Community Work Crew program, allows the inmates to work on affordable housing projects through the Becker County Economic Development Authority.

In return, the state DOC pays the county room and board for the inmates' stay in the jail. And while the county must pay the licensed carpenter who is hired by the state to supervise the ICWC workers -- as well as the inmates themselves for their labor -- that money is refunded when the homes are sold, according to Jon Thomsen, housing director with the Becker County EDA.

"The State of Minnesota hires a licensed carpenter (as ICWC supervisor), and they pass along a (labor) cost associated with him, and the inmates," Thomsen said. "Our agency pays that cost monthly -- but the labor cost (including the ICWC supervisor's salary) is worked into the cost of the home when we sell it."

Unfortunately, the housing market is currently experiencing some lean times, Thomsen says.

"The housing market has slowed down, and right now I have an inventory of homes (for sale)," he says, adding that the EDA currently has four new homes for sale that were built through this program.

"The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency grants us money to build these homes," Thomsen explains. "We draw that money down, pay the interest and use that (grant) to pay our construction cost. Part of that cost is (using) ICWC."

In addition, when the EDA does not have any new construction home projects for the ICWC crew to work on, "it's an EDA and county obligation to make sure we have something for them to do," Thomsen says. "They've assisted me with various repair projects, helped build the fence at county highway department next to the humane society, and they've done work in the courthouse and here at human services (the building where the EDA is housed), helping to remodel the break room and some office areas.

"They've been very valuable to us. They do good work," Thomsen says. "I'm hoping by next fall that the housing market will have improved and we can start building new construction homes again."

And that's not all they do for the county, Gordon says. "A lot of them volunteer another 10-20 hours a week in the community, doing service projects at the county fair, street fair, art in the park."

Though the crew must still be supervised, even when doing volunteer work, the hours they spend on these community service projects are not required, Gordon notes.

"They also volunteer their time with the city, on weekends and on Mondays (their designated day off)," Thomsen says. "They are very valuable to this community, and to the taxpayers."

The county receives $53 per day, per inmate for boarding the six men at the minimum security jail -- and the inmates must go through a very careful screening process before they are assigned to Becker County, Gordon adds.

"For every 30-40 applications we receive, I have one opening," he says. "If we see something we don't like (on the inmate's application), we don't have to accept them."

The reason why the program is so popular is because the inmates have the opportunity to learn a trade that will help them gain employment once they are released back into society.

"They work 40 hours a week, learning a trade," Gordon says. "They also go to church, treatment programs, etc. -- it's a reintroduction to society. The work is just part of it."

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

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