Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office life skills program making a difference at the jail

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office life skills program making a difference at the jail

Hennepin County Sheriff's Office life skills program making a difference at the jail

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office is working to give inmates at the Adult Corrections Facility the tools they need to succeed when they are released. This month, the agency started a program that teaches them life skills.

The program, created by Sgt. Adam Hernke, includes three phases. It starts with a workbook on cognitive awareness.

“You have to complete that so you understand your thinking and your actions mean something,” he explained.

The second phase gives inmates a choice of workbooks on either personal responsibility, anger management, or parenting. The final phase teaches skills related to employment.

The inmates can complete the lessons with a volunteer once a week or on their own.

“We only allow 10 people in the door at a time and there’s a line out the door,” said Sgt. Hernke. “I didn’t expect it but I hoped for it and I was pleasantly surprised my hope came true.”

Dajon Kelly was one of the first inmates to sign up for it. He’s been at the jail since December as he waits for his court date on Thursday.

“I’ve been in the day space doing it, in my room doing it,” said Kelly of the workbooks.

Each booklet takes at least 15 hours.

“In order get through it you have to deep dive into your emotions and your background, like your past trauma,” he said. “It has you thinking about certain things that you really don’t want to talk about but at the same time I guess it is good to heal.”

Fellow inmate Courtney Locke, who’s been held at the jail since August, agrees.

Program participants are asked to complete one booklet in each phase. Kelly and Locke are the first two inmates to complete all three phases. They are now working to finish the two remaining optional workbooks.

“It’s a process but it’s also a process of healing,” said Locke. “It gives me more comfortability with myself, the psychological issues I was dealing with. Just by doing the workbooks, it gave me more time to change behaviors from negative to positive, giving me more insight into myself.” 

The life skills curriculum is part of the Sheriff’s Office’s HOPE program, which was launched in fall of 2021 with the goal of helping inmates get their GED.

“The part that was missing was educating people who already had formal education,” said Sgt. Hernke. “We talked with some residents or inmates here and said ‘What are you looking for?’”

The work has special meaning for Hernke. A seizure and traumatic brain injury suffered on the job a few years ago led to an epilepsy diagnosis that changed his trajectory.

He said being offered the jail programs coordinator position was a “turnaround moment” in his life.

“I went from being a dive team commander for the Sheriff’s Office, a patrol sergeant, to hiring bible study volunteers and enrolling students in school, it was a whole change in my process,” said Sgt. Hernke. “I said to myself, ‘I had a second chance, I need to return that favor.’”

While the program has started with a smaller group of inmates, he hopes to expand it to the entire jail.

“The HOPE Program actually gave me a lot of resources not only for here but for the community also so once I’m released so I know where to go, I know what to look for, the things that I missed prior to even being here,” said Locke. “Maybe if I’d had the resources prior to coming back here, I would have abstained from making my return trip here.”

Kelly also feels these resources are coming at the right time.

“A way to break the cycle, the cycle of the life I started in,” he said. “This can be another way to use those skills that I’ve learned to stop coming back to jail.”