Click to rate this post!
[Total: 0 Average: 0]

Episode 6 WoW Podcast From Surviving to Living
From Surviving to Living
(06) WoW (Shatter My Excuses)

In October 2011, as I waited to be released from seg, I received a kite (internal institutional mail) from the director of Shakopee’s Women of Wellness program (WoW). She invited me to participate in the six week “in-patient” mental health program. Already terminated from my job because of my disciplinary seg time I was eager to go! I felt drained and wished to effect some small measure of control. I would be transferred to Monahan, Shakopee’s mental health living unit.

I have previously mentioned Shakopee seemed far different than any preconceived ideas I had about prisons. MCF-Shakopee resembles a college campus with nice dorms and well-manicured lawns.

MCF-Shakopee Campus
Shakopee prison Roosevelt Living Unit
“Inside” prison grounds – a living unit

The above picture is not an outside look at the prison as the public would view it. This is inside the prison looking at a living unit while walking across the campus.

MCF-Shakopee doesn’t resemble a prison, as one might imagine prisons to look.

In 1986 MCF-Shakopee opened at its current location. It was state of the art for its time but almost immediately required renovation to meet its increasing population and programming needs. Eight years after its grand opening Shakopee experienced its first expansion. Six years later in 2000 Shakopee opened the Monahan living unit and 8 years after that expansion began again. A $5.375 million addition to the Monahan living unit opened adding another 92 beds (for a total of 154), making Monahan the largest living unit at Shakopee. The newest additions provided programming space for treatment and group therapies.1

Shakopee’s prison “cells” also seemed atypical to me. Cells do not have bars for doors, walking through a living unit is like walking through an apartment or dorm. Most cells have their own bathroom with a bathroom door for privacy, a nice sized window, and furniture is made of wood, not metal. Shared living areas include a TV, games, puzzles and books to pass the time.

Space for incarcerated women in Minnesota wasn’t always like this. Stillwater was the home of Minnesota’s first prison built in 1853 and originally housed both men and women convicts.

As unexpected that was, the Monahan living unit surprised yet again. Built later, it had a very different design. Entering Monahan was like stepping into another place. Instead of cold white paint and rough concrete block, it delivered soothing lilac colors and smooth bedroom walls! It sported large, airy classrooms, soft carpet, big windows. While I still felt resistant, uneasy and shut-down, I did feel relief as I stepped into this new environment.

Monahan cell
A Monahan cell
Monahan living room
A Monahan living room
A Monahan walkway
A Monahan walkway between living areas

And yet, space for incarcerated women in Minnesota wasn’t always like this. Stillwater was the home of Minnesota’s first prison built in 1853 and originally housed both men and women convicts.

Cell 143 at the MN State Reformatory in 1910

In 1912 this prison in Stillwater was torn down and rebuilt with a new “state-of-the-art” prison in the town of Bayport. That prison stands today as MCF-Stillwater.

In 1915, at a legislative hearing at the State Capitol, Mrs. Isabel Davis Higbee made a plea for establishment of a reformatory for women. Today MCF-Shakopee’s segregation unit is named after Mrs. Higbee. In fact every living unit at Shakopee is named after influential women in history, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt and so forth.

In a world of great emotional hurt this was COVID-19 type social isolation before the rest of the world had discovered such pain.

“That sure looks comfortable!” you may be thinking about Shakopee. And indeed, some people refer to Shakopee as “Camp Cupcake.” Where’s the difficulty? Where’s the stress? I believe Covid-19 and country-wide lockdowns helps us understand better what makes a prison a prison regardless of how gilded the cage is.

According to the article Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicidal attempts and death rates: a systematic review in BMC Psychiatry, “The evidence on the mental health harms caused by the response to COVID-19 [are] found to be overwhelming As new measures [are] imposed in many countries such as self-isolation and quarantine, which affects day-to-day activities, routines, and livelihoods of people, they may lead to an increase in loneliness, anxiety, depression, insomnia, harmful alcohol and drug use, and self-harm or suicidal behaviour.2

At Shakopee inmates were not allowed to touch anyone, ever, for any reason

Additionally the CDC reports, “The prevalence of severe loneliness was 21% during COVID-19 compared with 6% prior to COVID-19. This severe loneliness was due to isolation. The CDC indicates there are serious health risks linked to severe loneliness and isolation including risks that may rival those of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.”3

Not only was I separated from my family and friends in so many ways, but even within my own community we were subject to rules that prevented ordinary human contact and social norms. At Shakopee we were not allowed to touch anyone, ever, for any reason except for a few well outlined interactions in the visiting room such as a greeting hug with our visitor.

We could not give nor receive a hug or even a pat on the back if a loved one passed away. We could not high-five if we graduated college. No touching, ever. In a world of great emotional hurt this was COVID-19 type social isolation before the rest of the world had discovered such pain.

Are you feeling lonely or isolated? Are you or someone you love suffering from the effects loneliness and isolation may cause?

Matthew 11:28-29

Not long after I arrived at Shakopee, while I was still in R&O, we made a trip as a class to the library. Excitedly we perused the aisles, gathering good books to read later. One of my classmates was showing a recent find to the group and I sidled up next to her. Lisa,4 a returnee at Shakopee, was familiar with the rules in a way only a person who has experienced the consequences of them can be.

Scientific studies suggest that fright sears memories into our mind when other kinds of occurrences become increasingly difficult to recall with the passage of time, if we remember them at all.

Impatient to grab Lisa’s attention I patted her arm and excitedly held out my find. Distracted from her conversation she acknowledged me with a nod, finished her thought and then casually, calmly added for my benefit, “I will be right with you… and don’t tap me. Thank you.” She appeared for a moment as if she’d like to add more, thought better of it, then returned to her conversation.

Blankly my mind searched for the reason she might say such a thing. “Don’t tap me”?? Belatedly I recalled the no touching rule with alarm. I froze feeling rattled. I had touched her without thought!

The entire incident lasted less than 10 seconds, yet I remember it with clarity today. Scientific studies suggest that fright sears memories into our mind when other kinds of occurrences become increasingly difficult to recall with the passage of time, if we remember them at all.5 This hardly seems like a terrifying event, calm words in a quiet library, and yet it must have been! My social fabric was being altered. Social isolation was becoming a reality.

Over the coming days, weeks, months and eventually years I became extremely conscious of my every move and word, natural behavior coming into scrutinty. This led to further emotional detachment, social awkwardness, and anxiety.

WoW would provide me with skills to navigate my new circumstances, but it wasn’t a cure. WoW provided tools for behavior modification. I did need that – yes I did. I was unaware, however, that total life transformation is possible. WoW doesn’t provide a new life, it just helps one have a better day.

A transformed life was in my future; I just didn’t know it yet. And while MCF-Stillwater is the distant past of incarcerated women in Minnesota, Shakopee was my present.

Years later, MCF-Stillwater would emerge again to play an important role in my future.

4 Not her real name

Matthew 11:28-29

 “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and overburdened, and I will cause you to rest. I will ease and relieve and refresh your souls.

29 Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle, meek and humble in heart, and you will find rest (relief and ease and refreshment and recreation and blessed quiet) for your souls.” ~Jesus

Discussion Questions:

  1. Holly describes her transfer to the mental health living unit at MCF-Shakopee, which is known for its comfortable and non-traditional prison environment. How does the portrayal of the prison’s physical space challenge or reinforce your preconceived ideas about prisons?
  2. The passage provides historical information about MCF-Shakopee’s development and contrasts it with older prison facilities. In what ways do you think the physical environment of a prison can impact the rehabilitation and mental health of inmates?
  3. The passage draws parallels between the COVID-19 lockdowns and the restrictions within Shakopee, particularly the no-touching rule. In what ways do you see similarities between the experiences of incarcerated individuals and those who faced lockdowns during the pandemic? How does social isolation impact mental health, and what measures can be taken to mitigate its effects? Are you struggling with isolation and loneliness today? Do you need help?
  4. Holly highlights the impact of loneliness and isolation on mental health, citing studies that link severe loneliness to health risks comparable to smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. How has the COVID-19 pandemic increased awareness of the mental health challenges associated with isolation? What strategies can be implemented to address loneliness and isolation in different contexts?
  5. The passage describes Holly’s experience of inadvertently breaking the no-touching rule and the resulting emotional impact. How do strict rules and regulations within a prison environment affect the behavior and emotional well-being of inmates? Can you empathize with the challenges of adapting to a highly regulated social environment?
  6. Holly discusses the consequences of social isolation, including emotional detachment, social awkwardness, and anxiety. How might these consequences affect an individual’s chances of successful reintegration into society after incarceration? Do you face any of these challenges right now? Are you searching for help?
  7. Holly reflects on her initial perception of WoW as a provider of tools for behavior modification rather than a catalyst for total life transformation. What are your thoughts on the role of rehabilitation programs in prisons? Do you believe such programs should focus on behavior modification, complete life transformation, or a combination of both? Are you seeking personal transformation today?
  8. Holly hints at a future transformation in her life. What factors or events do you think will contribute to this transformation, and what kind of impact do you foresee it having on her overall narrative? Do you want help today at moving forward with future transformation and hope for your own life?


Click to rate this post!
[Total: 0 Average: 0]