Hennepin County jail program offers H.O.P.E.

Value of Incapacitation

As conservatives, we strongly believe that a lack of accountability for crime only begets more crime. We put value in a swift, sure, and stern response to crime, meant to protect society while it metes out punishment, deterrence, and efforts to improve those people inclined to commit crime. 

Often that response comes in the form of incarceration. Incarceration offers society a chance to rehabilitate people while we have them incapacitated for a time. Providing mental health and chemical dependency counselling, educational opportunities, job skills, anger management, and life skills, helps reduce the likelihood those incarcerated will reoffend.

It’s completely “conservative” to want people coming out of custody to be better than when they went into custody.

Historical Programing Efforts

The Hennepin County Jail routinely holds about 750 — 850 inmates, the majority of whom are not convicted and are being detained pending trial. That’s similar to the inmate population at the state prison in St. Cloud and is 2.5 times more than the inmate population at the prison in Oak Park Heights. 

I ran the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center (Jail) for four years in the late 2010s. Unlike a post-conviction facility — a prison, workhouse, and many of the state’s smaller county jails – the Hennepin County Jail sees frequent turnover. Many are booked and released within days, and the average length of stay is less than a week. The old rule of thumb was we booked 100 new arrestees per day and released about the same number each day. 

That level of turnover, and the physical makeup of the jail, was always a deterrent from us investing much time or effort into programming — counseling, education, religious services, etc. 

While we had some basic mental health programming, some religious based programing, and mandated high school classes for inmates who were still in school, the mindset was that expanding programing wasn’t feasible and wasn’t our responsibility — so we left more in-depth programing for the post-conviction facilities.

A walk through the housing areas in the Hennepin County Jail 10 years ago wasn’t very uplifting. Hundreds of inmates doing much of nothing. TV was the primary outlet but was also a source of fights and disagreements. There was an hour/day for rec time, some limited book carts available, and some card games, etc.

Prison inmates writ’d in for court were quick to say how much they hated staying in the jail, because it was just “doing time.” 

HOPE Program

That began to change in 2021, when then HCSO Major Dawanna Witt heard a presentation at the National Sheriff’s Association Convention by the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO) from Flint, Michigan.

As the story goes, in May 2021 the GCSO Sheriff was watching news of the riots breaking out in Minnesota and elsewhere following the death of George Floyd. He thought there had to be a better way to handle the inmates in his jail, so they improved rather than regressed while in custody.

He decided to make a culture change immediately and fast tracked a program in his jail to incentivize computer-based education courses for the inmates. These courses provided them with ways to better themselves and offered something more than simply “doing time.” 

The program was given the title “IGNITE” which stood for Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education. The mission was “Eliminating generational incarceration through education, by restoring value, hope, and purpose to our incarcerated population.” 

Now — eliminating generational incarceration is a mighty big goal, and unlikely to occur with jail programing alone. But it’s a significant move in the right direction. 

Major Witt liked what she heard and sent a three-person team from the HCSO out to Genesee County to investigate. Sgt. Adam Hernke, one of the three, was amazed at housing units full of inmates on computers working on a variety of educational and vocational learning platforms. It was a world of difference from 40 inmates sitting around watching daytime television, gambling, napping, or fighting.

The HCSO team brought back ideas and a belief that they could replicate something similar in the Hennepin County Jail — a “culture change.”

They chose the acronym H.O.P.E., which stands for Helping Others by Providing Education. Since 2021, the HOPE program is one of 15 similar programs across the country that were spawned from the Genesee County IGNITE initiative.

Sgt. Hernke was assigned to lead the HOPE program and started by creating a General Education Diploma (GED) course in conjunction with Minneapolis Public Schools. Hernke recognized that the demand was higher than the MPS could support, so the county jail applied for and became its own independent adult education facility and hired a full-time teacher supported by two volunteers, using federal funding. 

Since the inception of the GED program, the HCSO has had 70 inmate students participate. Given the short duration of stays, none of these 70 have completed their entire GED coursework in the jail, but the program aligns with the programs in the state prison and county workhouse, as well as adult education options in the community.

The GED program success spurred more ideas, and Witt, who became Sheriff in 2023 was fully supportive of expanding the program beyond GED classes. 

“There’s one common denominator when you think about repeat offenders, and that’s that they have no hope. They don’t think they deserve a better life; they don’t know that they can have a better life. If we don’t provide hope for people to think that they can do better, that they do deserve a second chance … then we’re just going to continue spinning our wheels doing the same thing over and over again.”

Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt

Hernke brought in a life skills curriculum through the American Community Corrections Institute (ACCI). The program is offered in workbook format allowing inmates to work on the curriculum at their own pace. Each workbook takes about 15 hours to complete and the curriculum challenges self-defeating thoughts by exploring values, attitudes, behaviors, and consequences.

Testimonials and data highlighting the success of ACCI’s life skills programing can be found here.

Upon completion of each section, inmates receive a certificate of completion. That recognition for completing something productive, while in custody, has been profound and serves to incentivize continued involvement and improvement. The feedback from inmates who have participated has been encouraging.

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

Hennepin County Jail inmate commenting on the value of life skills curriculum.

As of this past fall, 35 inmates had completed the life skills curriculum, and 124 had completed at least one of the phases (15 plus hours). That is significant given the turnover experienced in the pre-trial facility. 

The incentive-based programing also opens up other opportunities. When an inmate completes at least one phase of the life skills program, they become eligible to participate in a job skills program that is designed to introduce inmates to a variety of employment opportunities. When an inmate finds a job skill they are interested in, the program helps put them in touch with employers who are willing to hire people with a criminal history. 

This job skills program is offered in partnership with EMERGE Minnesota, a local workforce development group. Data from EMERGE suggests that just 8% of participants have re-offended in the year following their participation with EMERGE. 

Other programing that has been folded into the HOPE program includes the Freewriters class that allows inmates to express themselves through writing. This program was started by a former prosecutor who created this non-profit group to offer freewriting opportunities to inmates. It is one of the most popular programs in the Hennepin County Jail, with over 10 volunteers coming in and offering classes six days a week. The founder, Nate Johnson, has earned the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association Volunteer of the Year award for his work creating the Freewriters.

Read more about the Freewriters program in this National Association of Counties (NACo) article here.

Since 2021 the number of volunteers coming to the Hennepin County Jail to provide programing has expanded from about 70 to nearly 170. The testimonials from inmates who have participated in this expanded programing is encouraging. Read one such story on page 6 of this National Sheriff’s Association newsletter found here.


It is a fact that the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated will be released and return to society. It is in our collective best interest to ensure that those returning have the tools necessary to make a successful go of it. People need the chance to redeem themselves. Without that chance we are ensuring a great deal of people will resort to continued criminal activity.

It isn’t “soft on crime” to recognize and value the power of redemption, and conservatives are wise to support efforts that value redemption, such as the HOPE program in the Hennepin County jail, and the wide variety of programing in our state prisons.

Incapacitation of criminal offenders is a valuable tool and is only enhanced through efforts like the HOPE program.