Warden Tracy Beltz runs things a little differently at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee. About 650 female prisoners are under her care, and the facility serves all five security levels, so security is key.
"Anybody operating a prison is going to tell you … bottom line—you've got to be a safe and secure environment," she says. "When [the prisoners] are worried about their safety, and the staff are worried about their safety, people aren't working on changing themselves" for the better.
Female prisoners have specific needs that differ from their male counterparts, and Warden Beltz is an advocate for gender-responsive programming in corrections. The women here at Shakopee have access to a variety of in-prison programming designed to help in rehabilitation. Programs like the Prison Fellowship Academy®, run by Prison Fellowship® staff and local volunteers.
Located in select prisons across America, the Academy takes men and women through classes that use evidence-based practices, proven curricula, and strong biblical foundations to tackle the roots of criminal behavior. Participants are guided by Prison Fellowship staff and volunteers to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison.
Last April, at Shakopee's in-prison Second Chance 5K, Prison Fellowship Insider spoke with three Academy students about their experiences with the Academy, and how the program has given them a chance to bloom—a chance to rise to their God-given potential.
RUNNING FOR SECOND CHANCES
WATCH: In April 2019, Shakopee held their own Second Chance 5K where prisoners—and a few of the corrections officers!—ran to celebrate the potential of the 1 in 3 adults with a criminal record.
JASMINE: 'WE'RE NOT THE LABELS PEOPLE HAVE PUT ON US'
"I did the program in 2017 for a year, and I learned so much, so I decided to stay with the program and mentor the people that's coming behind me," says Jasmine.
Life is changing for Jasmine. The Academy has helped Jasmine find healthy ways to approach conflict, and it has even helped her mend relationships with her family. "I have life skills that I'll be able to use for the rest of my life," she says. "... I worked on my education. I worked on life skills. And I'm dedicated to changing my life. I would never commit a crime again. Never."
In addition to graduating from the Academy program, Jasmine is also working on a bachelor's degree in communications. Her goal is to use her education one day to help other prisoners. "So many people turn their backs on us," she says. "We're not the labels people have put on us."
'I have life skills that I'll be able to use for the rest of my life.'
MEREDITH: 'A HUMBLE CONFIDENCE'
Meredith admits that during her first sentence at Shakopee, she didn't have respect for her punishment. "I didn't change my behaviors—I just wanted an easy way out," she says. "I was 22, and I knew what I was going to do. I knew what I was going back to."
This second sentence is different. The former drug dealer has done a complete 180 from her previous life. Instead of focusing on herself, Meredith has a steadfast heart called to serve others. "I'm a little bit older," she says humbly. "I'll be the big 3-0 next month, so I feel like it's time to grow up and make some different decisions."
One of the best decisions she ever made, she says, was enrolling in the Academy from the beginning of her second prison sentence.
The fellowship Meredith has experienced with the other women has influenced her greatly. They are "people that just take you where you’re at, and the grace—the astronomical grace! People that actually want to care about you and want to help you succeed. It doesn't feel superficial like so many of my other relationships … It's a humble confidence—knowing who you are deeply rooted in Christ, you don't need anybody externally to tell you about yourself."
'Knowing who you are deeply rooted in Christ,
you don't need anybody externally to tell you about yourself.'
ANGELINA: A TIME TO BLOOM
When Angelina first came to prison, she felt lost and helpless. Those feelings are all too common behind bars.
"A lot of times when women come into our program, they are broken, and they don't feel like they have a hope," Angelina shares. But then these women participate in the Academy. "They're going through first quarter, second quarter, third quarter—and then in fourth quarter you start to really see them change and bloom and be just who they are and [who] God made them to be."
Angelina needed a community to speak life into her, and God has used the Academy to do just that. Today, she says, "I'm courageous, and I'm strong." Although she is serving a life sentence, Angelina lives missionally. She mentors the other women in Shakopee and consistently comes up with new and creative ways to serve her incarcerated community.
'I'm courageous, and I'm strong.'
PRISONERS NEED COMMUNITY
An in-prison program like the Academy that prepares incarcerated men and women for reentry can move mountains. "This is not a soft-on-crime approach [to corrections]," explains Warden Beltz. "This is the stuff we know works to keep people out of prison. [Prisoners] need those community connections. They need people to support them in their reentry. They need people that are going to hold them accountable to do the right thing, while encouraging them."
For women like Jasmine, Meredith, and Angelina, their time in the Academy has seen them grow and mature. Jasmine has become a better parent to her children, even though she is incarcerated. Since this interview, Meredith has been released from Shakopee and is already giving back and serving her new community. And Angelina has embraced her life sentence by committing to serving her fellow prisoners, changing the culture from within.
"When you promote that [life] can be bigger than just a prison—do your time and get out—it does something to the psyche and to the population," Warden Beltz says. The women "start seeing things [differently]. They start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel."
"We've come here [to prison] because we have done something wrong," says Angelina. "To be able to have that second chance means everything."
LETTERS FROM INSIDE
Want to read more? "Letters from Inside" is a blog series by the incarcerated women at Shakopee. Hear from Jasmine, Angelina, and others in their own words about life behind bars.
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