MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Inside the walls of the Shakopee Correctional Facility, which houses solely women prisoners, hard work helps those doing hard time pass it.

When WCCO visited, we met inmate Samantha Heiges, as she carefully maneuvers colorful fabric underneath the needle of a sewing machine.

“I’ve actually been in this facility almost 11 years,” Heiges said. “It seems like every day I’m working on something different.”

Sewing skills came natural for Heiges, quickly making her a regular in the textiles room. On this day, Heiges is weaving together holiday-themed mittens. She sits alone on a row of several sewing machines, humming to herself as she pedals the time away.

A half-dozen other inmates quietly work on other projects, such as crafting tote bags or sewing patches onto clothing. Heiges said she’s sewing or crafting about 35 hours per week.

“I’ve had a little hand in kind of everything that we’ve made here,” she said.

It’s all part of the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ MINNCOR program, helping inmates across six prisons learn technical and soft skills before transitioning back to society.

“Definitely a lot of communication skills have been utilized and worked on and made better since working here,” Heiges said.

(credit: CBS)

Growth is the common thread, embodied by the slogan “Making Things Right,” which can be found on their finished products.

“Making the product right and trying to make themselves right at the same time,” MINNCOR Director Lisa Wojcik said. “People should be forgiven at some point. They have to be able to be productive members of society. And so instilling this pride in them is just a small piece of what we could do as a department to help them when they get out.”

Each prison has inmates specializing in different types of products. Some facilities focus on woodworking, with inmates building tables, chairs, and birdhouses. Others try their hand at artwork, drawing or painting portraits and landscapes in a skillful manner.

The program sells the products to the general public at its Roseville headquarters, with plastic tote bags being the top seller, according to Wojcik. But for the first time, they organized a pop-up shop amidst the holiday season for friends and families of inmates like Heiges.

“[My family] knew that I made the mittens, helped with the totes, so they bought some of those, but they were super impressed with kind of all the products that were there” she said.

Wojcik added that one set of parents bought everything their son made, which was greeting cards.

The pop-ups popularity happily caught Wojcik by surprise with people on Facebook, asking how and where to buy the custom creations. It’s a demand they’ve happily embraced.

“We’re [now] working on how do we make a decision about where we have the pop-ups, how often can we have them,” Wojcik said.

Money from sales goes back into MINNCOR and other MNDOC educational programs. Artists are the only inmates who actually pocket a portion of the sales. But Wojcik said the bottom line isn’t the bottom line.

“There’s a great emotional return on investment, seeing their pride and seeing the pride their family members have I think is one of the best things ever,” she said.

Heiges has roughly five years left on her sentence, but the outside world doesn’t feel out of reach thanks to what’s already in her grasp.

“Now all these people are buying [the products] and we actually are kind of running out so we have to make more,” she said. “It’s definitely impressive and it makes you feel good that we made them from scratch and are doing so well with them.”

MINNCOR’s headquarters is located at 2420 Long Lake Road in Roseville. Many of the products remain on sale at that location Monday through Friday. The next pop-up shop has yet to be scheduled.

Jeff Wagner