Amy Englebretson said when she arrived at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, she was angry at God. She was heartbroken. She had been convicted of second-degree unintentional manslaughter after an infant died in an accident at her daycare. Englebretson described the tragedy like a nightmare.
The community she found in the PFA program was her support.
“The program was life-changing,” Englebretson said. “When I got here, I was so broken.”
The program helped pull Englebretson from despondency. “I have to keep putting on my faith filter over my fear filter. I learned to reframe.”
She was one of six women who shared words of freedom from inside the walls of a prison March 21, as warm spring sun backlit a podium topped with a much-needed tissue box.
Englebretson and Megan Cater, Briana Martinson, April Ploshnik, Brittany Reichard and Tesa Sifuentes celebrated with friends and family the accomplishment of redeeming their incarceration in Shakopee, as they graduated from the Prison Fellowship Academy in an emotional ceremony.
Prison Fellowship is a faith-based national organization that partners with the Minnesota Department of Corrections to improve the lives of incarcerated people and advocate for criminal justice reform.
Its programming includes ministries and classes, the most intense of which is the Prison Fellowship Academy. To graduate, participants complete 12 months and around 800 hours of rigorous programming structured to educate prisoners and foster positive personal change.
Shakopee PFA program manager Pamela Page opened the event by addressing the graduates, congratulating them and reaffirming the community of their predecessors and successors.
Incarcerated women made up at least half the audience, all current or former participants in the PFA program.
“Your success matters not only for you, because I care about you, but for others like you,” Page said. “This is a community of women. It’s a movement.”
According to Warden Tracy Beltz, graduating from the PFA reduces recidivism by 40 percent.
“That’s our goal,” Beltz said. “We want safer communities, we want safer prisons.”
Beltz, who has participated in Prison Fellowships Warden Exchange, a nine-month leadership training program, is familiar with the work the incarcerated women have put into the PFA.
“I am very proud,” Beltz said. “(The Academy) is not an easy program. There is a lot of accountability. You have to kind of face some demons.”
Lt. Tom Vavra, a watch commander who has been at the Shakopee correctional facility for 17 years, said it was “very rewarding to see the change in the women.” He noted a change in morale.
“It rubs off on other women who are struggling.”
As graduate Tesa Sifuentes said, “The woman I was is not the woman I am today.”
“It wasn’t easy being open and honest with the people in my class,” Sifuentes said. She encouraged future classes to stick with it. “When things go wrong you don’t just give up.”
According to the Rev. Charlie Bench, the program changes participant perspectives by encouraging them to “examine incorrect thinking against positive thinking.” Bench and his wife Sally are volunteers with the Shakopee PFA program.
Bench was formerly the PFA program manager at the Lino Lakes correctional facility. Bench said “Before I can teach them, I have to earn their trust. I have to accept them where they are right now.”
“It’s important to see women empowered,” said Dwayne Gibbs, the PFA program director at Lino Lakes.
Shakopee is the first women’s prison in the nation to incorporate the fellowship academy, which operates both on volunteers and full-time staff. According to Page, 54 women have joined since 2007.
State Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell and Deputy Commissioner Michelle Smith congratulated graduates and praised the program. Schnell thanked volunteers, as well as family and friends of the graduates for their support.
“Your role is critical,” he said, and encouraged graduates to recognize the people in their lives who invested in them.
Page thanked staff and volunteers, saying, “I am continually amazed at the dedication and creativity of this team.”
Members of each upcoming, current and former PFA class read scripture verses to introduce the graduates’ personal stories.
When it came time for speeches, the graduates thanked their loved ones and the PFA staff, specifically Page and Jeanine Hale, the program counselor who was not able to attend. Graduates shared stories about how they came to be at Shakopee, and emphasized how the program changed their experience.
“I didn’t know prison would set the stage for the rest of my life,” Brittany Reichard said.
“I’m not what people said I was,” Megan Cater said.
Tears were shed in the audience and behind the podium as graduates shared their stories, but every time a speaker’s voice broke, her pause was met with warm words of encouragement from other PFA classmates, graduates and alums.
“I want this to be about hope,” Briana Martinson said. She encouraged future classes to lean on each other.
The program has a Christian curriculum, but the program is open to everyone regardless of religious preference. Charlie and Sally Bench teach the basics of the Christian tradition in the Alpha course as part of the Academy.
Though 56 percent of the facility lists Christianity as their faith preference, Bench said a good number of women come into the program with little to no experience with the religion.
“Keeping God as my center is everything,” Amy Englebretson said.
Moving forward Englebretson wants to speak at child care centers to raise awareness and prevent stories like hers. “Daycare was my passion,” Englebretson said. “I wasn’t ready to be done.” She also has dreams of starting a foundation, or a scholarship for the baby’s surviving brother.
“I will now live for both me and Susanna,” she said.
The graduates are looking toward the future. Reichard hopes to become a chemical dependency counselor. Ploshnik also plans to become a counselor. Martinson is taking college classes and plans to tutor GED students. All the graduates said they felt equipped and supported by the PFA staff, volunteers and community, “taking it one day at a time,” Sifuentes said.
Some of the graduates will move on from Shakopee, whether they are released, on work release or paroled. Some will stay and mentor future classes. Beltz charged graduates to “create a positive culture here,” and encouraged them in all things: “do well.”
“Thank you for the effort you’ve put into this,” Gibbs said in his address to the graduates. “Be encouraged. Look everyone in the eye. Look them in the soul.”