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A ‘win-win’: County inmates learn valuable skills while constructing affordable houses in Perham

Men working on the Perham homes include, from left to right: Cole Fredrickson, Ryan Plafcan, Michael Nguyen, William Tjaden, Jesus Leal and David Wagner. Joe Bowen/FOCUS

West Central Minnesota Community Action, in a partnership with the Department of Corrections, has been building a group of three energy-efficient houses in southwest Perham with the help of inmates from the Douglas County Jail in Alexandria.

The inmates provide the majority of the construction labor, including finished carpentry, said WCMCA Affordable Housing Coordinator John Eggert, who oversees the program.

The workers are paid, at most, a dollar and a half per hour, said Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections Ron Solheid, and the wages they make are provided through the sale of the home.

The savings are then passed on to homebuyers, who are often paired with favorable mortgages by the WCMCA, Eggert explained.

“People have been able to get interest rates as low as 1 percent,” he said. “We’ve had people get into homes with a mortgage payment that’s less than they were paying for an apartment.”

Eggert estimated that the average monthly payment for the home on which the inmates are currently working, located at 813 Ninth Ave. S.W. in Perham, would be roughly $700 per month, although the payment has been under $600 in some cases.

“It’s kind of a win-win because we can produce an affordable house and the inmates are getting training, so once their sentence is over they won’t reoffend, and maybe get some gainful employment,” Eggert explained.

“We did a study on it – many went on to construction-related jobs and higher wages,” Solheid said last week as he toured the house, which is nearing completion.

The inmates in the program have committed a variety of offenses, but all are classified as “non-dangerous” and “minimum custody” by the Department of Corrections, They have all been in the prison system for a year or two already, and have 18 months to four years left on their sentences.

Cole Frederickson has been working within the program since February, when he was told about it by his case worker.

“It’s a lot of fun. You learn a lot,” he said last week while taking a quick break from putting the final touches on the basement. “Pretty much by the time you’re done with this program, you should know everything you need to know to put a house together.”

Frederickson hopes to do similar work when his sentence ends and feels he is adequately prepared to do so.

Eggert agrees – “I’d put ‘em up against anybody. It’s real quality work.”

The WCMCA’s program also benefits the community at large by hiring local subcontractors, such as electricians and plumbers, to do specialty work.

“We didn’t want to be involved in coming in and doing everything ourselves,” Eggert said.

“We wanted local partnerships.”

The program “pumps a lot of dollars into the local economy,” he added.