The day Shawntelle Fisher decided to turn her life around, she had just begun serving her seventh stint in prison for writing bad checks, and had been in and out of prison for nearly two decades. But now, she wanted things to change, so she started working in the prison tutoring program. As one of the few inmates with a high school credential, Fisher was able to help others earn their GED. She was eventually put in charge of the program.
When she came out of prison in 2011, Fisher enrolled at St. Louis Community College – Florissant Valley to study broadcasting. She started a gospel radio program and earned high enough grades to get inducted into Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society.
Mentors encouraged Fisher to apply for the All-Missouri USA Today Scholarship. She won it, which paid for her to enroll at UMSL, where she majored in educational studies and media studies but minored in social work. She was hooked. “When I graduated from UMSL, I knew I was going to grad school to do social work,” Fisher says.
She just didn’t know where yet. One of her mentors at UMSL suggested Washington University’s Brown School where Fisher, who in the meantime had become a minister, could get her MSW and master’s of divinity. Initially, Fisher balked at the suggestion, thinking she wasn’t smart enough.
“When you’ve been through so much, society makes you buy into the lie that you can’t do certain things,” she says. Her mentors convinced her that she could excel, so Fisher applied, and she was not only accepted to both the Brown School and Eden Seminary for the dual degree program, but she also won a prestigious Olin Fellowship offering her a full-tuition benefit.
“When I got my acceptance letters, I just knew from this moment forward that my life really would never be the same again,” she says.
How did you first get incarcerated?
I started using my smarts to break the law, which just entailed basically writing bad checks around town and things like that. Just small things. And eventually, it led to me being arrested when I was 17 for the first time. So that was the first time I heard a jail cell close behind me.
I wound up getting locked up again. That was my seventh time, and the day that I got locked up, I was just like, you know? This is it. Enough is enough. I had never been raised in church or anything like that, but I did always believe that God existed. So I just cried out to him, and I said, “You know, I’m sick of this. I’m sick of my life. I’m sick of me. I’m really just sick of everything and everybody, so if you can do something with my life, it’s yours, because I don’t want it anymore.” And he did that. And he has done that. He’s done something great with my life.
That was the beginning of the transformation that I’ve gone through that people are blessed to see now. So from the day that I walked into jail and surrendered my life to Christ, I’ve never been the same person. I had been to prison six previous times, so when I get back to prison, they’re expecting to see this same person that fought all the time, that was a real angry person, that had a filthy mouth, and they didn’t see that.
How does incarceration affect families and the community?
Incarceration has a huge impact on the community, on the individual, as well as on the family unit. We’re supposed to be concerned with family because that’s what we’re built on. But [felons] first of all [are] stripped of all of their rights. You don’t just go in, do your time and come back [out] and just move on with your life. When you come out, you’re faced with all these challenges. Now you’re labeled as a felon. There are certain licensures that you can’t have; there are certain jobs that you can’t hold. Most companies won’t hire convicted felons. Nowadays, you can’t live certain places because you’re a felon. It’s just like a snowball effect that affects the individual, that effects the family, that affects the economy, that affects the community.
What does your nonprofit, SoulFisher Ministries, do?
SoulFisher Ministries has two pilot programs, so to speak. One is called Educate Now to Achieve Later and we just use the acronym ENAL. And then the other one is the Adult General Achievement Program of Education, which is the AGAPE program. So what ENAL does is we provide after-school tutoring for children who have a parent that’s incarcerated. That’s our target population. And then what the AGAPE program does is offer re-entry services for those currently and formerly incarcerated.
The SoulFisher Ministries has just taken off, and it’s done amazing things. Things that I never could have hoped for. Things I never could have imagined. [It is] transforming the lives of children, transforming the lives of ex-offenders, transforming the lives of our volunteers, [and transforming the lives of] the teachers at the schools where we’ve worked. I mean nothing that I could have ever dreamed would happen [has] through the SoulFisher ministries.