Safia Khan is the government and external relations director at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, where she is leading multiple reform efforts. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

Having spent most of her career advocating for victims of the criminal justice system, Safia Khan never thought she would find herself working for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

But then, the department commissioner, Paul Schnell, asked Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan who’s lived in the U.S. for 14 years, to become the government and external relations director for the department. Suddenly she realized the level of influence she could have: She could take the work she had been doing for nonprofit groups, like the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, and bring it to the very state agencies she felt needed to change. 

The Department of Corrections oversees 11 state prisons, including one juvenile facility. As of January, more than 7,500 people are currently in prison in Minnesota. The department also oversees almost 20,000 people under supervision: that is, people who are on probation or released from prison.

Prior to working at the Department of Corrections, Khan worked as the policy and legal systems director for the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, where she spent nine years. As an advocate for victims of the criminal justice system, Khan became aware of the power dynamics between the department and incarcerated people.

“I was always kind of navigating policy development,” Khan said. “What is safe and what is not safe to do for the people who we represent?”

Almost three years—and a baby—later, she pushed the Healthy Start Act, which places incarcerated women who are pregnant or immediately postpartum into community shelters with their babies. The legislation, led by Representative Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL–Roseville), has been celebrated as a bipartisan bill: A record 35 women in the statehouse co-sponsored the Healthy Start Act. 

But like most bills introduced in the nation’s only split-party state legislature, the Healthy Start Act took quite a journey. It started with Khan and the conversations she had with incarcerated women in Minnesota.

Sahan Journal sat down with Khan to get a closer look at how the Department of Corrections operates, what changes are occurring, and how she’s brought her reform agenda to the table—at a seat she never saw herself filling. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a bit about you and your role with the Department of Corrections?

Our team works together on thinking through the strategic direction that the department should take over our time here. I also oversee our tribal relations, and our external relations with our criminal justice system and justice system partners. So that includes our county attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement folks, courts, counties—a whole host of partners that we closely work with on a variety of issues. We have a small but mighty team.

I lead the development of our legislative agenda and platform. In my experience, the department before Commissioner Schnell got here was not used to carrying out some deep policy work. A lot of our work was focused more on our budget, which is always a priority for us. But that was really it.

We’ve taken a different approach where we’re really wanting to—and are—leading on criminal justice reform issues within corrections. We have really upped the game of what we bring forward as department proposals.

Did you imagine yourself working at the Department Corrections growing up?

Even if you told me three, four years ago that I’d be working for the Department of Corrections, I would have laughed. I never thought I would be here. I worked with amazing allies over time, but I just didn’t see a lot of people like me in these positions. Even now I think I’m one of the very few people of color in these positions.

I’m not from Minnesota, so it took me a while to understand all the dynamics here. But every state agency has a version of my position. So every commissioner has their own legislative director. These are really influential positions.

What I have noticed over my decade of living and working in Minnesota is these positions don’t reflect the diversity of our state. You see a lot of people of color more involved in the community engagement and outreach type of roles. These roles are really important.

But the roles that really lead the inner workings of state agencies, you don’t have a lot of folks of color in those spaces. You don’t see yourself in those positions when you’re watching from afar. But here I am.

Can you tell me what it was like growing up in Pakistan and then shifting to working for a state agency in the U.S.?

I came to the U.S. from Pakistan for college at Denison University in Ohio in 2007. I’m from Karachi and my family’s still there.

It’s very different. So there are seven of us siblings and I’m the youngest. My sister and I were the first girls in our entire family to go to college. My mother, for example, is an amazing intellectual person—she just didn’t learn English in school. My father grew up in really poor, unusual circumstances in the Interior Sindh area. Even now, some of my family members are street law enforcement, like constables. They’ve worked many years in those positions without much advancement.

I always felt like there was a lot of hard work that the women in my family put in to push each generation forward. And that’s how I ended up where I am. I don’t come from a family where women are active in the workplace or politics. But having said that, I do think that my father and mother and my grandparents (and everyone who pitched in) did emphasize the importance of education and finding your path. 

When I look back I see a lot of sacrifices they took to get me here. I get emotional about it. 

You do see women reaching elected roles there—obviously, there’s Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister, and that was amazing. But when you look at who the advisers and staffers are, you don’t see a lot of women.

Do you sometimes get that same impression with the Department of Corrections or law enforcement here?

It’s interesting. The department itself overall is very male-dominated. I think we’re pretty far behind other state agencies. But in public safety generally, there are a lot of women in policy-advising roles. When you look at the legislative directors, there are also a lot of women in these roles. 

Do you feel like you were in a unique position to push something like the Healthy Start Act?

That was a special proposal for me. I have a baby myself and she’s nine months old. I came back from maternity leave and started working on the proposal, so I was postpartum myself. I think it was just a whole different experience than it would have been any other year. I was invested in a different way.

“If you told me three, four years ago that I’d be working for the Department of Corrections, I would have laughed. I never thought I would be here.”

Safia Khan, government and external relations director at the minnesota department of corrections

Can you tell me more about pushing the Healthy Start Act? 

When I was at the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, I was working with the department on a number of different projects. Some of them were focused on our Shakopee Correctional Facility population and the women there who are incarcerated. When I got here that was the first place I wanted to go visit. Then I looked at which organizations are working with incarcerated women, which ones are made up of formerly incarcerated women, and learned what their priorities are. 

We did a few listening sessions. Both the lieutenant governor and Representative Becker-Finn were really interested in coming to Shakopee as well. So I helped organize a listening session. They came into Shakopee, and we also brought in a large group of women legislators. The lieutenant governor and Becker-Finn just had a visceral reaction to hearing about babies being separated from their mothers and how the current system is set up. I certainly had the same reaction, as well. 

We heard directly from impacted folks what their experiences and needs were, and then used our expertise and thought about what we can do administratevely versus legislatively. Then we translated that into a policy and mapped out what things we can and can’t change. 

So we can’t change a person’s sentencing, for example. But we can confine someone in a safer setting when we have something like the Healthy Start Act.

It’s formerly incarcerated mothers who planted the seeds. And we made sure the interest of the child and mother is centered. It doesn’t impact a particularly large population. However, it has a profound impact on two generations at once.

We actually introduced the bill for the first time in the last session, right before COVID hit. We had prepped a lot. 

Coming back this year, I knew I had to address a divided legislature. This issue seemed to speak to women generally. I saw that we have the largest number of women coming into the state legislature. That just switched a lightbulb in my head. I talked to Becker-Finn, who is our chief author, and Representative Marion O’Neill (R–Maple Lake), who is our second author. I asked them both if they could get women from their caucuses to sign on. 

Usually I could just walk around and get signatures myself. But I couldn’t do that because of COVID. So they were both very willing to roll up their sleeves and help. 

We wanted to make sure it was an all-women-led bill. It was also really bipartisan, because it was women leading on something that we understood. It showed that there are issues that are bigger than the politics of our legislature.

Once we had strategy in place, we pivoted to building broad support. I work in public safety, but I knew it was bigger than public safety. So I tapped into the state’s Children’s Cabinet [which examines policies relating to children and families in the governor’s office] with the lieutenant governor. They were just instrumental in bringing on all sorts of advocates, doctors, nurses—a broad coalition. 

I certainly played a role, but there were so many helping hands: incarcerated women sharing their stories to all these advocates. So I’m not surprised that it was one of the bills that passed this session.

What other changes are on the horizon?

We have a number of proposals that are still pending. We have a large juvenile justice reform package. We have another really critical bill that has also been led by mothers, the Hardel Sherrell Act, which is a large reform bill to change how we license our local jails and also to put in safeguards, such as a duty to report neglect from staff in correctional facilities.

And then we have the Minnesota Rehabilitation and Reinvestment Act, which basically creates an earned credits system for people who are incarcerated. Let’s say you and I both go to prison today and we have 100 months left to serve. You go through every program that is available to you, you participate in treatment, you do really well and stay out of all sorts of trouble. 

And I do none of that. In fact, I cause problems. 

We are both, today in our system, walking out on the same day. On top of that, the state is going to spend the same amount of resources on supervising both of us. So this system would create incentives so that your prison time could be reduced if you’re doing well under supervision.

What is your work environment like? What should readers know about working in Corrections?

It’s undeniable that we have cultural issues here. We had an audit in February 2020 that showed the deep cultural problems we have. I would also say that coming in as a community partner, I didn’t expect so many people here to be so willing to roll up their sleeves and say we want this to change.

Before I got here, I had experienced a really disturbing sexual assault by a staff member at the DOC and had a really terrible experience with the department at that time. That’s also another reason why I was like, I’m never working here. But when I was offered this appointment by the commissioner, the fact that I was even being offered a seat at the table was a lot. It was really promising.

The last two years have been a reckoning. There are similar stories here and we’re not willing to push it under the rug anymore. I don’t think any of us would deny that there are deep-rooted cultural problems here. But I would also say that there is deep commitment from the people who make up this agency to not allow that to continue.

I feel like you’re really coming to this role with a reform-minded background. Do you feel like you have the support needed to push a lot of that reform? 

I do have a lot of support from our leadership and our staff. Also, a lot of the reforms we’re talking about within corrections actually have a lot of bipartisan support nationally. Sometimes we get stuck in the politics of things. But we’re just getting started. And we have all these other things in the works. 

I know we’re not going to get everything passed. But I measure success by how much of the needle we’re able to move. 

That’s an important part of doing legislative policy work: Redefining success and not just basing success on whether or not a bill passed, but how far you were able to move the needle and raise the bar.

As someone who is new to government, I’ve seen that there is a role for people who are reimagining a new system. And it’s a really critical role. It’s overwhelming when you come into these leadership roles as a former community advocate, but advocacy has made me more informed now about how to strategize change. 

As surprising as it is to think of the Department of Corrections as leading change, state agencies can be a really powerful tool if you set them up right—and if it’s set up to engage the very people who are impacted by those systems.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.