To the thousands of cars and long-haul trucks that make their way east and west along Interstate 94, St. Cloud, Minnesota is an unremarkable spot on the map (or GPS). The interstate passes two miles from the southern edge of the city and five miles from downtown, so most travelers are unaware of the city except for highway signs marking the four St. Cloud exits.
With a population of 68,000 it is the tenth largest city in the state. St. Cloud grew from the 1850s as a center for fur trade and other commerce due to its location on the Mississippi River. It is known as the “Granite City” because of the many quarries that for over a century have provided granite for buildings, countertops, and cemetery memorials.
Travelers driving on U.S. highway 10 on the east side of the city pass right by a large gray granite prison wall. The Minnesota Reformatory, modeled after the original Elmira Reformatory in New York, was originally built for young male offenders (ages 16-30). The prison was completed in 1889, built of granite from a quarry on the prison grounds, with the help of prisoners. The prison is surrounded by a granite wall that is 22-feet high and 1.5 miles long (the second longest in the world built by prisoners, next to the Great Wall of China).
Referred to by residents as “the Reformatory,” in 1979 it was renamed the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud. A level four, close-security prison with an average daily population of 1,000 inmates, it is now the Intake facility for all men sentenced to prison in Minnesota.
The prison is one of the largest employers in St. Cloud. On regular class field trips to the prison I reminded students that a job in the prison was a great employment opportunity, with salary and benefits as a state employee that rivaled most other jobs in the area. The only catch: you had to be willing to work behind bars for 8-9 hours a day (or overnight) with a thousand convicted felons! But I also reminded them that working as a correctional officer or caseworker was not as dangerous as police work. Not surprisingly, very few of the students touring the prison with me during my 21 years at the university jumped at the job suggestion.
Working as a Prison Fellowship Volunteer after retiring from my faculty position in Criminal Justice, I am now greeted by numerous former students working in the prison. Yes, they were drawn by the salary and benefits as state employees; but they also find job satisfaction in having some small part in helping convicted offenders turn themselves around and make a better life for their children and families.
Prison and community corrections (probation and parole) workers are the “less visible” part of the justice system compared with police, attorneys, and judges. They work closely with thousands of criminal offenders. They witness first-hand the “criminal-thinking” and illegal behaviors of the countless “two- and three-time losers.” But they also see those offenders who are determined to change and leave behind the criminal lifestyle.
Criminology and corrections has been my life’s work for fifty years. That explains why even in retirement I remain connected and committed to a small part of facilitating offender change and rehabilitation. I am encouraged by the offenders who finally “make it” and by the commitment and dedication of the women and men working in corrections who help make offender change possible.