RED WING -- Jails, like the rest of the country, were impacted by COVID-19 and the restrictions that have been put in place because of the disease. In Goodhue County it was first thought that the adult education classes provided to detainees would have to be put on hold until after the pandemic. But classes in jails followed the path of local schools: they went online.

Kayla Eckblad was an elementary school art teacher when she began looking for a new job. Jill Rivard, the director of Hiawatha Valley Adult Education, offered a position teaching detainees in the Goodhue County jail. Eckblad didn’t know how she would feel about the position, but she decided to try it.

“I needed work and the jail needed a teacher and I thought, ‘I’ll try this for a year and see where it goes to try something new,’ and then I absolutely fell in love with it," she explained.

Eckblad teaches a variety of classes in the jail, including a GED prep class, resume writing, career access and money management. The money management class became hugely popular and counties in southeastern Minnesota began hearing about the classes Eckblad was teaching.

Bruce Linder with the Rice County jail received a call from Steele County about six weeks ago and learned about the programming that was being offered in Goodhue County. He decided to join the classes taught by Eckblad so Rice County Jail inmates could participate.

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Now, Eckblad teaches detainees from Goodhue, Rice, Steele, Freeborn and Mower counties, all from her home.

Because of confidentiality issues inmates from different jails are not allowed to see each other. So, while Eckblad can see everyone in her class, each jail only sees Eckblad. She explained that this resulted in her needing to change her teaching style:

“Specifically I like to teach with a lot of discussion. So instead of me explaining what a budget is, I ask them what a budget is. But now that there’s so many other jails involved I had to adjust that.”

Kayla Eckblad. Photo submitted by Jill Rivard.
Kayla Eckblad. Photo submitted by Jill Rivard.

Eckblad went on to say that she still sometimes asks a question of the virtual class before realizing that no one is going to be able to respond.

At the end of the each session students are able to ask questions.

Even after Eckblad and other teachers are able to return to teaching in person, Eckblad's Zoom classes may continue for some counties.

“As of right now they said they want to continue this and what they’ll have me do is I’ll be in the Goodhue County Jail and they’ll stream just me so the other counties won’t be able to see the other inmates for privacy reasons,” Eckblad said.

Studies have found that inmates who participate in educational programs and earn degrees are less likely to reoffend. Northwestern University has a program that focuses on prison education and its impacts. The website explains:

“The Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners. One study, which tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison, found that about two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were rearrested within three years of release and more than three-fourths (76.6%) were rearrested within five years. … However, there is a 43% reduction in recidivism rates for those prisoners who participate in prison education programs. Indeed, the higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate is: 14% for those who obtain an associate degree, 5.6% for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree, and 0% for those who obtain a master’s degree.”

Linder told the Republican Eagle that he likes the education program for four main reasons:

  • It increases programming as no one was teaching finances in the Rice County Jail before Eckblad.

  • Zoom classes mean that jail staff doesn’t have to worry about COVID-19 spreading from people going in and out of the jail.

  • The class is secure.

  • It is taught by a professional.

Linder stated that he would like to see Hiawatha Valley Adult Education’s classes for detainees become an option for jails and prisons statewide.

“Once they get out they can hit the ground running with a new skill,” said Linder of participants in Eckblad’s classes.

For Eckblad, she doesn’t plan to stop teaching detainees anytime soon.

“My future, when I think about it, is very based on the incarcerated community; it wasn’t necessarily an interest of mine but it very quickly turned into a big part of my life.” She added, “It’s a really good group of people and they’re obviously misunderstood and underserved, but I always like to tell people I’ve never met a bad person working in the jail.”