Prison Work

Zhi Kai (center) with friends Rebecca Chang and Devika Ghai (l-r standing) and Max Foster and Lex Horan (l-r kneeling). This photo was taken in Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee’s visiting room on July 15, 2023.

It is said that life is what you make it, but we aren’t all born onto a level playing field, with a good coach and instructions on what life is all about.

In 1987, I was a completely self-absorbed 19-year-old high school graduate. Prison was not something I ever thought about. If prison is a deterrent, it must only affect people who believe they have a future. I became pregnant and killed my fiance. I felt I had changed who I was to meet societal expectations about gender norms and femininity, yet he was leaving me. I lacked the coping skills to deal with rejection and had no idea what love was. There is no excuse for taking his life; I am sorry to the people who love him, and that is its own book.

Most of my decisions back then and their consequences have made my life exponentially more difficult than it needs to be. I cannot fully articulate the emotional stupidity, regret, and thoughts about how I wish I would have done things differently. These have become a cornerstone of my existence.

I’m a trans male, and the person in Shakopee who has been incarcerated the longest — 36 consecutive years. While on bail, I escaped to Thailand to meet my grandfather and returned to the U.S. months later because my adoptive mom was sick; then the FBI arrested me. The escape put me in Shakopee solitary confinement for five years until it was acknowledged as inhumane. I was housed in California for 14 years and Oklahoma for 12 years. I arrived in prison with a perspective that, with a life sentence, you probably die at age 40. I mention this to explain my unique point of reference.

Work is not mandated in the California or Oklahoma prison systems. In California, the majority of incarcerated women work because they want life skills, a hustle, or to be with their homies. During my 14 years in California, my wage started at 8 cents and maxed out at 25 cents an hour. Prisoners usually have a side hustle related to their job. I was trained in multiple vocations: tutoring, graphic arts and printing, mill and cabinetmaking, small engine repair, horticulture, and dental lab certification.

Vocational training skills are practiced through completing services for prisoners and officers, at minimal charge. I compare it to a plantation with low-wage resident workers, but prisoners can learn skills that become useful when they get out. California has family and conjugal visits — and gang violence — so prisoner behavior ranges from excellent to deplorable. I have seen inmate-on-inmate fatalities.

During my 12 years in Oklahoma, state prisoner standard pay was 10 bucks a month for everyone, whether you worked or not. I graduated from computer, warehouse, forklift, and construction programs. I spent four years in a residential Faith and Character program, becoming a mentor and a clerk, and an editor for the newspaper. Later, I worked as a tutor for adult basic education and English as a second language. I was also a participant in victim’s impact, restorative justice, peer health education, and programs helping troubled youth.

Due to my adoptive mom’s death and a financial windfall, I became a self-pay college student. When Pell grants became available for prisoners, I graduated magna cum laude from Ashland University with a BA in communications and dual minors in business management and sociology.

In Oklahoma, I was also witness to inmates jumping off the top tier of the cell block and an inmate who committed suicide by hanging herself with a curling-iron cord.

In 2017, I was returned to Minnesota, where I had been originally sentenced; after Shakopee completed additional security measures, they brought all “troublemakers” back from out of state. State jobs are mandated, and most jobs pay 50 cents an hour.

I have worked all the jobs available in Shakopee, except parenting and cosmetology. There is rubber industry work (picking excess rubber off parts), diversified work (packing mylar balloons into packages), janitorial work, kitchen work, a meager drug recovery program, and an even smaller parenting program. The most successful skill taught in Shakopee is cosmetology. I have known women who have finished that program and obtained jobs upon parole.

Yet, I believe the majority of women incarcerated at Shakopee won’t have the employment skills they need to survive upon release.

Shakopee doesn’t have drug or gang problems on site. However, I perceive derivative issues from past drug use, dysfunctional relationships, lack of education, and mental health issues are ubiquitous.

When Covid restrictions were lifted, the first associate’s degree program started at Shakopee. Students take three classes and a study hall and are paid 50 cents an hour. College is considered their state job, but there is no on-site oversight or accountability. Most of the women cheat; it seems about three women do the homework for 30 students. I’m not sure if free world professors are afraid to flunk prisoners, pity them, or truly haven’t figured out that they are experts at cheating themselves out of an education. I wish I didn’t know these issues exist, but this is what I see.

About the same time as the associate’s program was opened, prisoners in Minnesota were offered a two-year scholarship to the American Bar Association accredited paralegal program via North Hennepin Community College with funding from All Square Restaurant. Because the endeavor was not state funded, it has been treated as an extracurricular activity; the majority of study was independent with tablet access to law professors.

Statewide, only five of us had the credentials and interest to be accepted, and have graduated as paralegals: three from Shakopee, including myself, and two prisoners from Stillwater and Lino Lakes. We are not allowed to have access to other inmates’ paperwork; ergo, we have no forum to help our peers with their legal cases. Tablets were taken upon graduation, so we don’t have easy access to legal research.

The Minnesota DOC mandates that graduate work is self pay and 100 percent correspondence based. Yet there is not a Minnesota college that meets DOC criteria to offer a 100 percent correspondence based master’s or doctoral program.

The jaws of life arrived for me when my retired Oklahoma DOC supervisor, Trish Forsythe, provided a scholarship to me. My last semester of paralegal studies was my first semester as an MBA student enrolled in Colorado’s Adam State University. I am currently the only MBA student in the Shakopee prison population.

Shakopee has an open computer lab one day a week. I am not allowed to access research materials because I do not attend a Minnesota-based contracted college. Instead, my friends and pastor send me research articles that I can’t find in the library. (I have been written up for getting college material via the mailroom instead of the college liaison.) I purchased a $400 typewriter with my tax refund. Non-reusable typewriter ribbon is $15 each; correction tape is $15 for a six pack. Minnesota prisons take a percentage of all incoming money prisoners receive from the outside, and a percentage of the wages they earn, for the cost of confinement.

In other words, I work a state job with pathetic wages and rely on funds from outside sources as an exhausted college student. I’m simultaneously struggling with managerial economic trigonometry, working the kitchen, and typing on thin, cheap paper. Who sits in prison wishing they had more time in a day but me?

I’m determined not to be a drain on society when I’m out. People are incarcerated because of mistakes — some mistakes are more permanent than others. But not only are we capable of change, it is inevitable. At 56 years old, I am not the same person that entered prison at 19 years old. Natural maturity and education have been enormous contributors to my changes.

I am painfully aware of my station in life. I am a consummate minority, born Asian, trans male, and no matter what else I may become, I am forever branded a murderer. I am a first- and-last time offender. I believe the overall key to change is a combination of therapy, vocation and college skills, and eventually a sense of purpose. I want society to understand that prison is not a sustainable answer to the crime problem.

I would like to offer pro bono paralegal services via distance work to tribal lawyers and reservations. I would like to broaden my knowledge of federal and constitutional law. I would gladly perform legal research and draft documents under a lawyer’s tutelage for any marginalized community.

I have not been able to get permission from the Minnesota DOC for this type of endeavor. I have been told by a DOC commissioner that incarcerated individuals cannot engage in the practice of a profession, even pro bono.

There is an untapped incarcerated work force that can be held accountable and trained; they will be proud, dedicated employees, if given the opportunity.

I think most people are apathetic about prisoners, figuring we all did something to be in prison. While that may be true, the majority will return to a neighborhood. Incarceration is a social issue. Repairing and reengaging broken people, including the marginalized, can help stop the desperation that leads to poor decisions.

I say this because I have met granddaughters, moms, and grandmas, all in prison together: generational incarceration.


Zhi Kai H. Vanderford (he/him) is a trans male, activist, writer, and artist for human rights. He has been incarcerated 36 consecutive years and seeks parole support by petition.


Editor’s Note

We asked the Minnesota Department of Corrections to share information about the programs they offer to people who are currently incarcerated. This is what we learned:

  • Are incarcerated people at Shakopee required to have a job? Are they paid?

Shakopee is a working facility as are all the Minnesota State Correctional Facilities. Incarcerated people (IP) are paid for the work hours that they complete, ranging from Step 1 = $.25/hour to Step 8 = $2.00/hour  MINNCOR assignments may pay at a higher rate depending on the product. A percentage of their earnings are placed into an account for their gate fee as well as to cover any restitution/fines and facility cost of confinement. Remaining money is placed into an individual account that can be saved or used towards purchases.

  • What kinds of jobs are there in the MN prison system? Are jobs at Shakopee different than other prisons?

Shakopee offers various work assignments including food service, maintenance, cleaning, IP assistants, Tutors, Clerical, Industrial (MINNCOR), Education, Treatment. Many of the work assignments are consistent among all our facilities.

  • How many Minnesota students tend to be engaged inside the prison system?

Typically, 25 percent of the population is working to obtain their High School Diploma or GED. For Shakopee, in fall of 2023:

  • 24 students will be working on their associate degree with Minnesota State University – Mankato;
  • 9 students will be working on their paralegal certificate with North Hennepin Community College;
  • 10 students are working on their bachelor’s degrees through Ashland University;
  • 1 student is working on her Juris Doctorate with Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

We also allow students to do correspondence courses through a variety of partnerships that work with correctional facilities. All our Higher Education students have access to an American Prison Data Systems (APDS) tablet which holds their learning management system D2L on it. It is the same D2L system that MNSCU uses at their campuses, just in a more secure format.

At Shakopee, all our education programs are supervised by trained DOC staff that teach within the programs or by trained professors that come in to teach in our Higher Ed program with Minnesota State University – Mankato.

  • How is this funded?

Correspondence courses may include accredited college classes, career technical programs, religious courses, language courses, and other topics approved by the facility education director or designee. These are funded by the incarcerated person or by someone on the outside.

For NHCC and Minnesota State University – Mankato – most of the funding comes through the Second Chance Pell Grant, Mellon Grant and/or philanthropic donations through the company All Square for the Paralegal program. All Square also collects philanthropic dollars to pay for tuition and books at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Our Career Technical programs are paid for by the DOC. These programs include a fully licensed cosmetology program through the Minnesota Board of Cosmetology and a CISCO Certified Support Technician program on cybersecurity, among others.

  • How does DOC assist with employment after release?

The DOC’s Reentry Services Unit offers opportunities to support people transitioning from prison to community living. Facility Transition Services offers reentry classes and seminars to assist people in identifying and creating connections to overcome barriers, such as general sessions on job-seeking and -keeping, along with resume building and interviewing skills. We help people outline skills and talk about their experiences on resumes. Transition Services’ community partnerships for employment services stretch across the state, connecting people to opportunitiers in their home communities.

EMPLOY offers more direct services for employment connections upon release, working with employers around the state in an attempt to create living wage jobs for people. The program was on hiatus during COVID for lack of funding. We are working to prioritize funding and offer this service to anyone interested in more supportive employment services. This past session, DOC had a legislative package to fund EMPLOY and other employment strategies; unfortunately, it was not included in the budget.