" I've continued to work hard to be my best self. I met some strong, courageous women who have touched my life deeply and for them I am grateful." - Laura Wilkens
by Laura Wilkens
I was being transported to the intake garage at Shakopee Women's Prison on a gray, lifeless December morning in 2014. All I could think of were the lost years ahead of me and how I could get out.
The previous day I had been sentenced to 42 months (3-1/2 years) behind bars for a probation violation stemming from an almost five-year-old DWI. I was entering a maximum-security prison and I was terrified.
I began a letter writing campaign to plead my case to anyone who might be able to help me. My only results were a graveyard of empty ballpoint pens. I quickly realized that I was powerless and voiceless in a system that simply didn't care. They have heard it all before.
I learned of the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP), a six-month, highly disciplined boot-camp-style program. I eagerly applied. Hope bloomed anew. I began training for the physical qualification test, which prison legend warned was tougher to pass than Army boot camp. I hit the gym and was vigilant about following all of the seemingly endless rules in order to avoid any discipline. Besides an early release, what interested me most about CIP was the reentry services offered. I would need them, since I lost my business when I gained a prison term.
I wanted prison to work for me; I did not want to work for the prison. I lived sparingly. On a not-so-merry Christmas morning, I began my first job in the kitchen baking for all 650 women. In my free time I took a sociology class. I frequented the library and read voraciously. I enrolled in a technical college office-support program, one of the few vocational programs offered at the prison. I attended AA where I connected with the few women who have become lifelines for me in this spiritual desert.
I was accepted into CIP and left the general population of the prison in early May 2015. I excelled in the program and was ecstatic about shaving 11 months off my sentence. Six weeks before my graduation and return home, a clerical error was discovered and I was immediately sent back to serve the remainder of my sentence. Welcome to life in prison.
My battle through the remainder of my sentence has been soul crushing at times. I am fed a daily diet of frustration and disappointment on top of the ugliness and vice that runs rampant here. I've continued to work hard to be my best self, be of service to others, and to search for the positive.
I continue to work out daily and recently ran my second 5K. I met some strong, courageous women who have touched my life deeply and for them I am grateful.
I don't know what to expect when I'm finally out. Time does not move in prison, but life keeps on moving outside. I am one of the lucky ones; I still have a home to go back to, an amazing family and friends who love and support me. I am stronger and better than I was when I came in. I have hope. I am going home. I'm getting out.
Laura Wilkens wrote this essay when she was an inmate at Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee. She was released in June 2016.