Corrections Officer Heather Hansen On Proposed Closing of MN Correctional Facility Togo

Oct 1, 2020

Since March, all of us in Minnesota have had a different life. All of us in the world are figuring out how to live in a pandemic.

Politics have divided not just our small towns and families, but the Minnesota Legislature and the executive branch. Governor Walz is one of 49 governors around our nation that still hold executive power. During the pandemic, along with President Trump.

Each month, the Governor calls a special session to deal with what didn't get done during session - like passing a bonding bill, which provides jobs in Northern Minnesota - and the supplemental budget bill, which would have included money for the corrections department. Because the money for corrections wasn't passed the corrections commissioner Paul Schnell announced the closure of two prisons, both in Northern Minnesota. The Minnesota correctional facility at Togo, and at Willow river.

There have been rallies,community support,hearings, but still no supplemental budget. It's our job at KAXE/KBXE whether we're in a pandemic or not to bring the stories of people, of workers in our communities to light.

Heather Hansen is a corrections officer at MCF Togo. She joins us today to talk about her job, what she's facing and what the community can do to make a difference. Heather, thanks for being with us today.

Heather:  Hi Heidi. Thanks for having me.

Heidi: You're welcome. So let's talk about your job. Where do you work? What happens there?

Heather: I work at the Minnesota correctional facility in Togo. We are a minimum security prison. The population that we work with, our adult men, they are doing a volunteer program. We call it CIP it's, para military bearing bootcamp style program. It's all volunteer and they're working towards the reduced sentence. So some of these men can get up to 48 months, reduced from their sentence by completing our program.

Heidi: We're talking on a day where you will be headed to work pretty soon. Is there any kind of a typical day for you as a corrections officer in Togo?

Heather: A typical day in Togo is a lot different than a typical day in a normal prison setting. We work a lot on relationship building and appropriate boundaries. Our men work very hard, so there's a lot of work crews this time of the year, we're working on getting our gardens - finishing off and putting the gardens to bed for the year - and a lot of raking and cleaning up. This fall has been absolutely beautiful. And in Togo, it's no exception, but we do have a lot of work to do with all these leaves coming down, but we'll do physical training. The work crews around the facility work on positive change through appropriate relationship building. It is the biggest thing that we do.

Heidi: Do you think where this correctional facility is - in the midst of the woods and a long ways away from other things, do you think that adds to the work that you do there?

Heather:  I do a hundred percent and I am biased because I love living in this part of the world. I've talked to the men who are incarcerated in Togo and ask that question from their point of view. Does it make a difference? A hundred percent of the men that I've spoken with about it say yes, if they were in an, in another facility, they wouldn't have the opportunity to stretch their comfort zone to the same way they would still be behind the razor wire. And getting out of that environment allows your brain to shift a little bit and nature is healing in itself. And when we can go out and do hikes through the woods, or just sit and stare at the Lake, you just get a different experience with the world than you would. If you were sitting in a prison, looking at that wire fence and concrete walls.

Heidi:  And the recidivism rate is really good at a place like Togo, isn't it?

Heather:  I believe so. I don't know the exact numbers, but we have to be better than no programming. The program that we have teaches a lot of different skills that a lot of guys wouldn't get coming out of a traditional prison setting. We have a really incredible education department and transitions department, and it's because we're smaller. We're able to take the time and help the men with things like driver's licenses and keyboarding skills and resume building and mock interviews just to work on them. Some of those things that you need going out into the world, and it just makes a big difference when they get that more one on one time

Heidi:  We are talking with Heather Hansen today, she's a corrections officer at the Minnesota correctional facility in Togo. So when did you find out about the possible closing? What was that like?

Heather:  Well, we got our notice as the staff on August 5th and it was terrible. I was standing in my kitchen when my captain called and said he had some terrible news and I just cried. It was all I could do.

Heidi:  I bet it wasn't something you thought you were going to have to deal with in such a stable job in Northern Minnesota.

Heather:  Yeah, I thought for sure the corrections field was very stable. I had no idea I was completely blindsided by that stuff. It was just completely earth shattering.

Heidi:  So has this changed you in how you interact in the world about the things you care?

Heather: Yes. Before this happened, I was not involved politically with any of the process. I didn't have any knowledge about how things worked and I certainly had no idea that local leaders had such a great voice at a bigger state level. I've been just a lot more active and learning and reaching out and talking to people. It's been a huge learning process.

Heidi:  You've also testified before a house committee?

Heather:  Yes, there was a house committee hearing. It was that was really nerve wracking to be (it was a zoom meeting) but to still be interacting with the people who decide our fate was really cool to be a part of that process.

Heidi:  So as I've been talking to people who are running for office, now, this issue comes up a lot because it seems like both Democrats and Republicans are behind keeping open the facilities at Togo and Willow river. And yet it's a political issue when it comes down to it. What can people do if they want to get their voice out there for this issue? it's weird. It's not exactly because of the pandemic, but yet it is such a strange time.

Heather:  October 1st, MCF Togo employees will receive notices. It's really hard because we're in an election year and we know we're going to be at some point where they're not going to be having any special sessions because of the election. But I think what people can do right now and what I'm just encouraging, everybody I know to do is to call the governor and say, please call a special session. And please make sure that the supplemental budget bill is on the agenda. Because if the supplemental budget bill isn't on the agenda, then it doesn't matter.

Heidi:  Before we go, Heather - it doesn't happen that often to any of us where our job is in jeopardy like this, where you need the community to support what's going on. There's been rallies, you've talked to people in such a different way. What has it felt like to be at a rally to keep this facility open in Togo.

Heather:  You know, I can't say. I wasn't able to go. I chose not to go. I chose to stay behind at the facility so that other of my coworkers could go and attend and hopefully spark some interest. There's a fire in my belly  -I'm already burning for a change, but I was hoping that some others who were able to go would get something from that. So I can't speak to the rally specifically.

From the August 24th Rally at the Nashwauk Pavilion to save MCF-Togo
Credit Timberjay

Heidi:  That's Heather Hansen correctional officer at Minnesota correctional facility in Togo, Heather. I really appreciate your time. I know this. Isn't an easy thing to be talking about right now.

Heather:   Thanks so much for having me on. I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to get the word out and ask for help

Heidi:  Heather Hansen mentioned contacting Governor Tim Walz's office, she and her coworkers recommend you ask for another special session and to put the supplemental budget on the agenda. This could keep correctional facilities in Togo and Willow river open keeping good paying jobs (over 100) in small communities in Northern Minnesota, the governor's office is (800) 657-3717.

This is member supported KAXE/KBXE connecting you to Northern Minnesota. We are beginning a new project - All Business. Last week, John Bauer talked to Steve Purdum from Camp Mishawaka about how the pandemic has affected his business and the camp. We want to hear your stories. We want to hear the people in our community. Email and tell us how the pandemic has affected your job.