Incarceration & Children: How a Little Phone Call Can Make a Big Difference

By Sarah Orange, Certified Student Attorney, Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The work of the Community Justice Project civil rights clinic focuses on training law students to serve as social engineers who create new inroads to justice and freedom.


Children across the Nation are often the invisible victims of mass incarceration. In June 2013, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street, recognized this challenge when it launched a new program called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.” This program seeks to reach the 2.7 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent through videos, crafts, music, and more. In one of the Sesame Street videos about incarceration, Alex (if you haven’t watched the show in a while that’s the orange puppet with blue hair) talks about how his father is incarcerated and the difficulties that he and other children like him face, including not always being able to talk to their parent. This program recognizes the importance of maintaining communication between children and their incarcerated parent. Maintaining routine communication is essential for helping children to understand and successfully cope with this difficult situation. A little phone call can make a big difference in the lives of children with an incarcerated parent.

Did you know: of the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent, 15,000 of them live right here in Minnesota?  However, Minnesotan children are often denied the ability to maintain close contact with their incarcerated parent. First, because prisoners are incarcerated an average of 100 miles away from their families making in person visits difficult. Second, because it costs over $17 to make a 15-minute collect phone call out of a Minnesota prison. It is cheaper to call Singapore. These phone calls are so expensive because prison phone providers attract government contracts by offering the state a kickback – a percentage of the prison phone provider’s profits. In Minnesota, the prison system receives 49% of the profit that the phone provider makes from prison phone calls. However, community members and local civil rights organizations are taking action to stop this injustice. The Federal Communications Commission recently adopted policy changes regarding interstate prison phone calls which will lower phone rates across state lines and in federal prisons, however, these reforms do not affect intrastate (local) calls in Minnesota. Much more work is needed to address this issue within Minnesota in order to support children and families. For the children impacted, this cost barrier to communication can have devastating effects, resulting in emotional stress and behavioral challenges.

The impact of limited contact between children and parents has a far-reaching impact on Minnesota’s children. Studies have demonstrated that “lack of regular contact with incarcerated parents has been linked to truancy, homelessness, depression, aggression, and poor classroom performance in children.” (Federal Communications Commission, Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, FCC 13-113 (Sept. 26, 2013)). Furthermore, studies indicate that maintaining contact with an incarcerated parent is one of the most effective ways to improve a child’s emotional response and reduce behavioral problems. But in Minnesota the high cost of making a phone call from prison prevents this critical communication between the parent and child.

This problem most significantly affects children from communities of color. African American children are nine times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than White children. But the problem does not stop there. Forty-four percent of African American households in Minnesota live below the poverty line. For these families the cost of communicating with a loved one in prison can mean having to forgo basic necessities and places on strain on family budgets. The high cost of prison phone calls can be a significant barrier preventing African American children from maintaining communication with an incarcerated parent. Hence, the impact of the high cost of prison phone calls is far-reaching. However, a solution to this challenge is within our reach.

We can make a big difference in a child’s life today by raising awareness related to prison phone justice and educating others about this important issue. By reducing the cost of a prison phone call, we can ensure that families can remain connected. This is essential for promoting strong families and safe communities in the state of Minnesota. Take action today by visiting the Prison Phone Justice Campaign website at and signing up to help fight for prison phone justice in Minnesota.


An Organizer’s Story: Change, Discovery, and Leading the Fight

3611273461By Justin Terrell

One of the best parts of being a mentor is the look on Malik’s face when he discovers something new.

Malik is 16 and a junior at North High School. He plays football and helped the North High Polars move to the second round in the playoffs this year.

Now that football is over, the kid needs a job. When I asked him where he would like to work, he smiled and said Target. So last week, Malik and I went down to Target and filled out an application in the store. At the end of the application I asked him “any questions about criminal background?” He smiled and said “no.”

Discovery is powerful, and even though he didn’t say it, I know that Malik understands that change is possible. He was at the Target the Racial Jobs Gap event a few weeks ago when Target announced they would be removing the question about criminal histories from their applications across the country. He was also there when I told him we were flying to Denver to talk with Gregg Stienhafel the CEO of Target about fair hiring. And Malik was there when we called, door knocked and brought the community together to encourage Target to be a stronger partner. But, I am not sure he understood what all that meant until he filled out an application.

So what does it mean?

We know that our state has the worst racial jobs gap in the country. African Americans are 5 times more likely to be unemployed and 10 times more likely to be impacted by the criminal justice system. This creates barriers to economic growth and I would argue even safety concerns in our community. Minnesota has a recidivism rate (percentage of people re-offending and going back to prison) of 61%. People have a hard time staying out of the streets if they can’t get a job. Removing barriers to employment is one way we can start to close the gap. This year when Second Chance Coalition partners and Target Corp. supported Governor Dayton when he signed”Ban the Box” into law, our state moved one giant step forward.

To do that, we had to connect people to each other and to their democracy. Now we are going back to the Capitol and asking that our state take the next step. We want to see reforms to expungement laws. When an applicant for expungement stands before a judge and earns the sealing of his criminal record, that record should be sealed from their criminal history. We want employers to no longer have access to arrest, dismissed, sealed, or any type of non-conviction records. Bottom line, if a judge says I am innocent, an employer should not be given the right to judge my suitability for employment based on my non-convictions.

The good news is that people are working on all of the above. Senator Bobby Joe Champion and Representative Deb Hilstrom are leading a workgroup and have people from both sides of the political spectrum looking at this issue. This work is backed by dedicated community leaders like Representative Raymond Dehn and the Second Chance Coalition. My hope is that the next thing Malik discovers is that he is also leading this fight.

Justin Terrell is the Justice 4 All Program Manager at TakeAction Minnesota, which is a partner of the Second Chance Coalition.


Let’s Build on What Works: Career/Technical and Dual Credit Programs Help Close Graduation Gaps

By Marisa Gustafson and Joe Nathanimg

Marisa Gustafson is Assistant Director and Joe Nathan is Director of the Center for School Change. Their guest blog post highlights a practical and effective strategy for closing gaps in opportunity in high school and beyond. 

Equity and reducing gaps in education are hot topics in Minnesota right now; this has been recently demonstrated by the Minneapolis mayoral race. While this is a much-needed focus in the Twin Cities and throughout the state, some public schools are taking action now to give their students better opportunities. These opportunities in turn are producing very encouraging results.  Some schools are using proven programs that can greatly reduce or virtually eliminate the graduation gap between races and income levels.

Here are two separate, but related research-based approaches that have proven to be very helpful.  They involve the use of career-technical and dual credit courses.

A great deal of deserved attention has been devoted to how strong early childhood programs can improve the transition to kindergarten and beyond.  But additionally, we need to give more attention to the transition between high school and some form of higher education.  Like high quality early childhood programs, these strategies have positive, continuing results. 

Provide more opportunity for students to take strong career/technical courses.





4-YR MN High School GRAD RATE (2012)

[taken from MN Dept. of Ed. data center website]




 [students took 2-3 courses in career/technical education (CTE) field]

Black, non-Hispanic






American Indian/Alaskan



Asian/Pacific Islander



White, non-Hispanic



Limited English proficiency



Economically Disadvantaged



Special Education



Source: Minnesota Department of Education’s Carl Perkins Core Indicator report –State Basic 4S1 – NCLB Grad Rate, 2011

A report released by the Minnesota Department of Education demonstrates that participation in programs like these (in this case, taking 2-3 courses in a career or technical field), can bridge graduation gaps.  The table below shows that not only are the graduation rates nearly double that of the state average for some groups (i.e. American Indian), but also everyone does better—those from low income families, ELL, special education, and even white students.

Sounds great, right?  So what’s the problem?   Not enough Minnesota students and families have adequate access to career and technical courses, especially those who stand to benefit the most—those from traditionally underserved groups.  Although we think offering more traditional advanced courses is fantastic, we know that not all students are interested in and motivated by math or Shakespeare and would rather learn about more ‘hands-on’ fields.

Expand access to Dual Credit courses, especially for traditionally underserved students.

Some of the career-technical courses mentioned above can be taken through Dual (High School/College) Credit programs, but taking any type of Dual Credit course is helpful.  In these programs, students can earn credit toward high school graduation and free college credit at the same time. They also gain valuable exposure to and experience with college level classes and career and technical fields.

A report from a well-respected research organization Jobs for the Future found that students who took even one Dual Credit course in their high school career were about twice as likely to enter a post-secondary program, and twice as likely to persist and obtain a degree or credential.

Furthermore, an extensive report on the outcomes of taking Dual Credit conducted by a research group out of the University of Minnesota found that the impact is indeed greater for students who tend to be excluded from these courses:

Males, low-income students, and low-achieving high school students all appear to benefit from their participation in dual enrollment to a greater extent than their dual enrollment peers who enter college courses with more social, economic, and educational advantages. This indicates that dual enrollment may well be a strategy for encouraging postsecondary success among students not typically seen as college-bound. It also indicates that contrary to the arguments of some critics of expanding dual enrollment programs, dual enrollment can benefit a range of students, not only those who achieve at very high levels in high school. Indeed, dual enrollment may be the most beneficial to those students who are often excluded from participation.

–Karp, The postsecondary achievement of participants in dual enrollment: An analysis of student outcomes in two states,” 2007, p. 63

Given this (and lots of additional) convincing research, we are convinced that not enough Minnesota students and families know about Dual Credit programs, especially those who stand to benefit the most—those from traditionally underserved groups. 

Some Dual Credit courses are offered in the high school, such as Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), concurrent enrollment or College in the Schools (CIS), and Project Lead the Way. Available to any high school student is Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO).  PSEO courses are taken on college campuses or online, beginning in 10th grade with career/technical. What we need to focus on now is expanding access to make sure all types of students are informed of and encouraged to participate.

Here are the participation rates in Minnesota for various Dual Credit programs by race and income:



Statewide, 38% of Minnesota students are low-income and 27% are students of color, but this is not reflected in all Dual Credit programs. In Advanced Placement (AP) for example, just 9% of students are low-income and only 16% are students of color.

The good news is that more schools than ever before are offering and promoting Dual (high school/college) Credit programs as a way for students to become better prepared for not only high school graduation, but also post-secondary education and careers.

The bottom line is that we need to do a better job of utilizing programs that already exist and have evidence to show dramatic benefits for traditionally underserved students (and all students). Many Minnesota schools have been working hard to increase these opportunities for their students, but we can (and should) do better. Every high school, higher education institution, and community organization should be working with and helping students participate in programs like career/technical courses and Dual Credit so that they have the opportunity and tools to change what some might call their ‘demographic destiny.’

If you want more information, including student videos, an interactive map, and other resources, visit  There you can hear from students themselves in 7 different languages: English, Spanish, Hmong, Arabic, Karen, Somali, and Dakota.

Check out the video below and see what the students at the High School for Recording Arts have to say about Dual Credit programs and “how you can get a Jump Start on your future.”