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Prison work program helps preserve historic southern Minnesota church

Ron Parker stands in front of the Holy Innocents Episcopal Church near the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault, Minn. Parker is leading an effort that has prisoners at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault building new doors for the historic church. Suzanne Rook / Faribault Daily News1 / 2
Two inmates, front, at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault helped to craft new church doors to be used at the historic church in Cannon City, Minn.., which the Rice County Historical Society is working to preserve. Program instructor Todd Paquette, back, of Faribault, connected with Ron Parker, of the historical society, to make the collaboration happen. Philip Weyhe / Northfield News2 / 2

FARIBAULT, Minn. — There's a 2,000-plus- person working community sitting on the edge of Faribault, and the way some see it, local organizations might as well utilize it.

The Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault, hidden away at the southeastern edge of town, is considered a working prison. That means its approximately 2,025 inmates are expected to perform some form of labor, generally five days per week.

That includes woodworking, a program the Rice County Historical Society is taking advantage of.

"I think the prison on-site program has been fantastic," Historical Society Board member Ron Parker said. "I think it's a great way to give men at those places a chance to learn how to work outside when they're released. I think community organizations should utilize it more than they do."

The Historical Society is working to preserve the 1869 Holy Innocents Church, which was originally in nearby Cannon City. In the late 1950s the church was moved to the Historical Society site near the fairgrounds in Faribault. At nearly 150 years old, the church needs new doors.

The originals are badly damaged and the prison's woodworking program can provide them for less.

The prison charges for the materials, but not for labor as inmates are paid anywhere from 25 cents to $1 per hour for their work. The total cost of the products, then, is lower than the market standard, which helps nonprofits like the Historical Society.

As for the offenders working on the products, the knowledge their work will be put to use in the community serves as motivation and a source of pride.

"It definitely does motivate me, just knowing we're doing something to give back, something to provide the community," one inmate said.

The program

The woodworking program — referred to as cabinetry — is one of many at the facility, which is considered level three, medium security, and is the largest prison in Minnesota.

The facility hosts MINNCOR programming, which is facilitated by the Minnesota Department of Corrections and "provides premium manufactured goods and services to thousands of government, educational, nonprofit and private companies."

There are 13 different MINNCOR industry programs at the Faribault facility, according to Associate Warden of Administration Karen Sorenson. She believes the programs are crucial.

"Our goal as a Department of Corrections is to teach offenders something while they're here, so they can go out and be successful and not return to prison," she said. "These programs not only give them some skill and education, but a sense of empowerment that they can learn something new and take that with them when they leave. Ninety-five percent of offenders eventually leave the facility."

For the last 19 years, Faribault resident Todd Paquette has served as the full-time instructor for the woodworking program, which has been around since the prison was established in 1989.

Paquette works with about 16 inmates at any given time, teaching them the basic skills as well as cabinetry and woodworking terminology. There are three sub-programs students can take. The first earns them a basic cabinetry certificate, the second is a cabinet-making diploma, and the third is an advanced cabinet-making certificate. The prison is partnered with Century College, which provides matching certificates/diplomas based on credits the offenders earn.

Paquette said he has his students work on anything from napkin holders to bed frames and bookshelves. The inmates get to work with basic equipment, like table saws and power sanders, to more advanced equipment, like CNC machines and 3-D printers. Soon, he hopes to add a few computers, so students can learn some of the basic design programming.

He sees great value in the program.

"They take great pride in what they're doing," he said. "The goal is when they leave, they will have the general knowledge of basic construction and the terminology of the trade."

The two inmates who worked on the doors for the Historical Society have both finished all three woodworking programs, and they'll have to move on to other work at the prison.

Both, though, said their confidence has been bolstered by the work, and they aim to pursue a job in the field after release.

"I look forward to doing more of this work," one of the inmates said. "I always ask questions. 'Where is the product going? How much did we pay for the material?' I'm very inquisitive, because I care about it and I'm interested in it."

Church project

Holy Innocents Church has required significant renovation work from Historical Society staff, board members and volunteers. Ron Parker, a former president of the society, has led recent efforts to repaint the building and bring in the new doors.

Parker, 81, is a 30-plus- year member of the society's board, in addition to 30-plus years at River Bend Nature Center and 45 years on the Rice County Fair Board. He is a retired engineer, previously working for B.H. Heselton Construction Co., where he led the design of the River Bend facilities and the initial prison ground preparations decades ago.

At that time, he started utilizing the prison's programming.

"I worked with all the different wardens over the years. I used to have a pass to go in and out of the (prison) facility," Parker said. "I got involved with the Historical Society and realized we could use the programming at the prison. So over the years, their wood shop has made us windows, shutters, all kinds of things."

Parker further iterated that nonprofit organizations, like the Historical Society, often look for affordable ways to carry out projects, and the prison is a unique local option.

"We accept what they give us," he said. "We've always had very good quality products. It's a very good deal. Their help has been tremendous for us."

The new church doors are expected to be installed Thursday. They'll represent the newest quiet contribution the correctional facility's working population has provided the community.

They likely won't be recognized, but the offenders aren't worried. They're just glad to be part of something positive.

Said one inmate: "I love getting to take picture of the projects when we're done and sending them to my family and letting them know what I'm capable of doing."