With GED classes, social etiquette training and life coaching, contract workers and volunteers aim to keep inmates from coming back.
On this particular day, Bill and Gaby Postiglione are teaching a dozen or so inmates at the Dakota County jail about fractions, decimals and percentages.
For some it's easy; others don't immediately grasp that four-eighths is the same as one-half is the same as 50 percent. With patience and humor, the father-daughter team take the men through it step by step and there are smiles and laughter all around when the light bulb goes off.
"Mathematics is not about numbers," Bill Postiglione tells the class. "It's about relationships. If you understand the relationships then you can solve almost any problem."
The Postigliones have been teaching GED and college-prep classes at the jail three or four times a week for the past 16 years. Both know that their work is about far more than reading, writing and arithmetic.
So do the others — like Jeff Wynne, 47, who brings in celebrities and motivational speakers to talk to the inmates and spends time one-on-one with the men "to make a difference."
"We don't make any bones about it," said Bill Postiglione, 76, a retired instructor at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. "We want to give them alternative behaviors. If they have something that's going to be a goal for them and they work toward it, it's going to help them change their lifestyle. If they go back, they're going to be a frequent flier. We don't want that."
There are dozens of other volunteers and contract workers, too, who come to help the inmates learn how to function in society when they finish their jail or prison sentences. The myriad programs include social etiquette classes to teach the men how to look someone in the eye, how to shake hands, the proper attire for a job interview or even table manners. There are also Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, job and motivational fairs, parenting classes and Bible study.
Wynne brings the perspective of an ex-offender himself. He was born and raised in Hastings and was thrown out of school in the eighth grade, he said. He ended up in a treatment center at age 12. He bounced from odd job to odd job and crime to crime until he ended up in the Dakota County jail in 2008.
He had "no direction in life, whatsoever," Wynne admitted. "None, absolutely zero. I was on a mission just to be selfish. My life was about selfishness.
"I was on a mission to die," he said. "The alcohol had taken over, the drugs had taken over."
Then, from somewhere inside, something clicked, and through good behavior Wynne moved into the Inmates Motivated to Change (IMC unit). He started volunteering, scrubbing walls and floors.
"One of the things a guard here told me years ago, he said, 'Get up in the morning, make your bed, say please and thank you, take a shower every morning even though you're not going anywhere. Try that once.' "
Wynne wore a crisp blue shirt and tie when he visited the jail last week, and he repeated that guard's words to inmates Shane Lloyd, Michael Dorman and Brandon Fraher outside the Postigliones' class.
"Sometimes you have to go back to the basics of life to get it," he said. "So when I went back to the basics of life, I did get it."
By the time Wynne was released in 2009, he knew he wanted to come back. But this time it would be to make a difference.
"They laughed at me, said nobody comes back without handcuffs on, Mr. Wynne," he remembered.
Wynne received the 2013 Community Hero Award from the American Red Cross for his work with inmates.
Shane Lloyd, 35, has been in prison six times since 2006. In the past, he waited until the last three months of his sentence "to make this miraculous change."
Now, although he's facing a possible five-year prison sentence, he knows "if I don't start now, I'm not going to do it."
Michael Dorman, 27, has spent nine years and 11 months of his adult life in jails or prisons. He was out for 21 days before he landed in the Dakota County jail in September for auto theft.
Last week, he sat grading GED pretests and assessments for Gaby Postiglione.
"It's about time I start doing something for someone else," he said. "I do things like this, it makes me feel good."
Dorman has finally begun to realize that there might be a life outside of correctional facilities, and he credits people like the Postigliones, Wynne and jail staff for that.
"You can see the care. And people who care? In a jail?" he said incredulously.
Dorman's dream is to go into a residential program such as Teen Challenge or a halfway house when he gets out of jail. Someday he'd like to reopen a bait shop that his foster family owned for years.
"I ain't never had dreams coming out of jail before," he said. "I had dreams of 'I'm getting out for a little while, I'll be back.' I didn't know no other thing. Now I may not know no other thing but I gotta do something to learn something else."
Bill Postiglione got tears in his eyes when he showed his class a newspaper photo of Michigan State basketball star Adreian Payne, who developed a special friendship with an 8-year-old girl with cancer.
"If you have the opportunity to do the right thing, do it," he told the men.
"Do it," one inmate echoed.
"Amen," said another.
The Postigliones make it a point not to know the inmates' crimes. They don't want the bad to take away from the good.
"Our students, they made a mistake, but if we don't give them an opportunity, some hope for an opportunity, they're going to be right back in," Bill Postiglione said.
"We believe in second or third or fourth chances," he said. "I'm going to do this until I die. My goal is to have them carry my dead body out of here."