Mental Health, Character and Responsibility: Building a Bridge to Reentry

Mental Health, Character and Responsibility: Building a Bridge to Reentry Main Photo

5 Jul 2023

Workforce Stories

This piece is the fourth in a series of Fair Opportunities articles intended to raise awareness of the employment needs of justice-impacted individuals in Ramsey County and the benefits to employers willing to give these returning citizens a chance at meaningful employment. Watch for upcoming content with detailed looks into active area providers and resources, as well as businesses and individuals who have directly benefited from their interactions. Justice-impacted individuals and local employers can contact Ramsey County Workforce Solutions for assistance.

A positive community environment is vital to justice-impacted individuals seeking reentry into society. While there is much a local employer can do to increase their awareness of the possibilities these persons provide, the justice-impacted individual also needs a lot of mental strength and courage to overcome any fear or doubt they have to make that transition.

Aldrick Woodruff is one example of an individual who has exhibited and cultivated the mental tenacity necessary to restore his place in the local community. This month, the U.S. Air Force veteran will complete a thirty-year sentence in the Minnesota correctional system for taking another person’s life. With no criminal record before that crime and as a former U.S. Air Force sergeant, Woodruff already had a good work ethic and level of discipline.

“Committing that crime shook me to my core because that was not what I was supposed to be,” he said. “Going forward, I made a point to change my environment instead of letting my environment change me.” 

Bridge to hope

Woodruff spent the first twenty years of his sentence at Oak Park Heights, Minnesota’s only Level Five maximum security prison. He followed that with sixteen months at the Stillwater Correctional Facility, five years at the medium security facility at Moose Lake, eighteen months at the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility in minimum security and finally, the remainder at a Lutheran Social Service halfway house in Minneapolis. 

His work release at the halfway house included a 90-day term with the Bridge Program at MINNCOR Industries in Roseville. With a mission to transform the lives of incarcerated individuals for a safer Minnesota, MINNCOR Industries provides cabinets, shelving, furniture and more to public and private entities in Minnesota. The Bridge Program provides employment and work skills training to help participants successfully transition back into society. 

Woodruff has excelled in that transition, recently completing one year of employment at TKI, a family-owned depot facility in the intermodal industry in Minneapolis. His roles have included being a gate inspector, in equipment control and even training new management personnel, consistently receiving steady increases in responsibility and pay.

He is also significantly involved with a men’s group at The Power of People Leadership Institute, a reentry organization providing adults with financial support and employment services, with organizations like Saint Paul Steamfitters Pipefitters 455 and others.

Woodruff understands that employers may feel skeptical about taking a chance on hiring a justice-impacted individual. At the same time, those individuals can fear being far behind others who have not been incarcerated. But investing in anything always comes with some risk because everything is unknown until it is known, he said.

“If an employer only looks at an individual’s life on paper without getting to know them, that company is quite possibly missing out on something that could help their business,” he said. “The truth is, diamonds come from coal and taking that chance shows the individual they are redeemable, giving them hope.”

Responsibility to change

Woodruff’s dedication to changing his situation has been the underlying theme of the past thirty years. Early in his sentence, he converted to Islam and became a religious leader, leading to individuals seeking him in a mentor/tutor relationship.  

“They would come to me for advice on how to change their lives and I recognized the responsibility I had because I believe everyone is judged by how they treat others with kindness, no matter who they are,” he said. “Like the line in that old Cheech & Chong movie, ‘responsibility is a heavy responsibility.’”

As he spent more time counseling others, Woodruff began to understand the vital role mental health played in many of their situations. As his role with the Oak Park Heights population became more known, he was moved to live in a mental health unit to be available to those individuals at any time. When he first moved in, patients would rarely mingle with mentors. Within his first week there, the trust-building quickly became evident. Groups of individuals began frequently playing board games together. He started a class for mental health programming to help individuals move into the general population and became a conflict resolution mentor as well.

“I have realized my passion for being an interrupter in the lives of young people to divert them from making poor choices that result in prison,” he said.

The progress Woodruff helped augment at Oak Park Heights has continued to follow him. At Stillwater, he again became a mental health mentor, intervening in situations that otherwise typically would have resulted in an individual’s segregation. He also began a ‘Building Character’ twelve-week program to help add more compassion and kindness into the environment, not only for inmates but for staff training as well. After transferring to Moose Lake, Woodruff convinced the mental health director there that a mental health program would be beneficial. He used his years of prior experience to help establish the current mental health program that exists there today. Along with two case managers, he helped to start a diversion program there for young persons just beginning in the court system, allowing them the possibility of avoiding or reducing their jail sentence. 

“The better rapport between staff and inmates will help make it a safer environment for everyone,” he said.

During his time there, he became aware of Antonio Espinosa, a correctional officer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater for nearly 20 years, who has since formed Art from the Inside, an organization utilizing inmate-created art to interrupt the labor market punishment cycle through art education and awareness. Art from the Inside was featured in the Fair Opportunity Series in April.

“I attended the recent Part Two of the IDENTITY Series by Art from the Inside in April because I knew it had to be Espinosa,” said Woodruff. 

His leadership abilities also surfaced at Lino Lakes, as he quickly became a crew leader while working with Habitat for Humanity in home construction. 

Interrupting figure

As his parole date approaches, Woodruff looks eagerly toward continuing to work with youth and adults to be that interrupter for those going down the wrong path.

“I took something from the community with my mistake,” said Woodruff. “I believe the right thing to do is give back to the community by stopping others from making similar mistakes and diverting them to a different place.”

Other area organizations

In addition to MINNCOR, numerous other area organizations work to connect justice-impacted individuals with resources.

  • Fair Opportunities Hiring Resources are a collaborative effort between Ramsey County and the Workforce Innovation Board of Ramsey County to offer information, resources and events to help employers better understand the value of hiring individuals impacted by the criminal justice system.
  • The Minnesota Department of Corrections has several reentry services and resources, like the Minnesota Transition Coalitions. 
  • Repowered, formerly Tech Dump, is one of Minnesota’s largest e-waste collectors but is also a social enterprise that provides jobs and training for persons facing barriers to employment.
  • Twin Cities R!se has a mission “to transform the lives of those impacted by racial or socio-economic barriers through Personal Empowerment, career training and meaningful employment.”
  • Art from the Inside is an organization founded by a correctional officer to allow incarcerated artists to express themselves through art and community exhibitions.
  • We Are All Criminals is a Minnesota non-profit organization dedicated to challenging society’s perceptions of being “criminal.”