Heather Lindstrom: Working with special-needs inmates

Photograph courtesy of Heather Lindstrom.

“My day is never the same thing twice. I could plan it out, but it could all go out the window in the first five minutes. That’s why I love it.
– Heather Lindstrom

“You’re never going to do anything the easy way,” one of Heather Lindstrom’s professors at Mankato State told her years ago. “You’re a good teacher, but we’re going to lose you to special education.”

At the time, Lindstrom couldn’t picture it. Even less could she picture where she’d eventually wind up: as the only female teacher working with inmates with special needs in the segregation unit (i.e., solitary confinement) at Minnesota’s maximum-security prison.

“I’m very passionate about education,” says Lindstrom – and it shows. The single mom of a teen daughter has juggled multiple jobs in her quest for a doctorate – she’s earning an Ed.D. in teaching and learning from the University of Minnesota Duluth. She has even slept in her car sometimes (Duluth hotel rooms weren’t cheap on summer weekends, when she had classes). Some people are surprised to learn that pursuing her doctorate has been an economic struggle for her, says Lindstrom, “but I didn’t want to go deep in debt to finance my education when my daughter’s [college] education was coming up.”

For the past eight years or so, Lindstrom has been an adjunct professor at Augsburg College. One of her students says she’s known for teaching students that others have given up on – and her classes usually have waiting lists.

Lindstrom brings the same passion and dedication to her work with inmates. “In the same way my beautiful daughter has a right to an education, so do those guys in prison,” she says. “If I don’t give 110 percent for those men, who’s going to do that for my daughter?”

One constant: change

Lindstrom, who has spent 26 years in the education field (mainly in alternative educational settings), works for the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC). Her main assignment is to provide special education services to inmates age 18-21 who are identified as having a disability and need extra support. Her work takes her into several correctional facilities.

Life has placed her in settings and situations where she hasn’t felt safe, Lindstrom says, “but not in the DOC system. Prison is a violent, sexualized environment – but [corrections officers] make sure, if non-uniformed staff is working, they look out for you. They’re incredible, very professional people.

“I know [the inmates] aren’t there for singing too loud in the choir,” she adds. “I’m always aware, but I’ve never felt I can’t do my job” due to safety concerns.

Lindstrom’s work varies widely day to day, and within the course of a day. She might provide academic instruction (whole class, small group or one-on-one), help with resumes and career searches, co-teach a job skills class, work with inmates on social skills and anger management, facilitate a Fathers of Children with Special Needs group, teach about financial aid and post-secondary options, call about transcripts, and that venerable catch-all, “other duties as assigned.”

“My day is never the same thing twice. I could plan it out, but it could all go out the window in the first five minutes,” says Lindstrom. “That’s why I love it.”

In college, Lindstrom envisioned teaching world studies or history (like her father) in a private school setting, but working as a student-teacher in that setting convinced her otherwise. Knowing what she’d be doing every day, year after year – down to what page of the textbook she’d cover each day – wasn’t for her.

In 1999, on a whim, Lindstrom applied for a teaching job at DOC’s juvenile facility in Red Wing. Most of her career has been spent working with older adolescents who have behavioral issues and can be aggressive.

Impacting the future

While she hasn’t experienced it at work, Lindstrom’s past includes violence at the hands of a partner (not her ex-husband and father of her daughter).

“I can’t run away from or erase that experience. Some people say ‘just get over it’ – well, you can’t,” says Lindstrom. “I also don’t want it to define who I am. I can put that energy into work [with offenders] around problem-solving in hopes it helps them make better choices – that maybe, just maybe, it will be preventive.”

On her own time, Lindstrom has made presentations at women’s shelters, something for which she accepts no honorarium. “When I was dealing with it,” she notes, “there were not a lot of resources for me.”

Reflecting on the young men she works with, Lindstrom notes that they “aren’t people who are going to send you Christmas cards saying thank you for changing my life. I go into this hoping their great-grandchildren won’t go through the kinds of things they did.

“I’m building a ship I’m not going to see sail,” Lindstrom adds. “And I’m OK with that.”