Melissa Ludin on advocating for second chances in Wisconsin

April 29, 2024

By Melissa Ludin (Leading with Conviction™ 2024 participant):

In 2007, at the age of 24, I returned home after serving five years in prison. I came home to a job, a mentor, a circle of support, a safe place to live, and the ability to pay off a judgment to get my license back. I was told to push forward and leave my incarceration in the past. Shortly after returning, I was hired to work as a weight loss coach and was able to work with 80 clients a week. I was able to put skills I taught myself in prison to use in the community. I also started a family.

Growing up, I had a privileged life and a great group of friends. I grew up in a house where one of the things I learned was, in order to gain respect, you do it with fear. We see this way of thinking play out in society all the time. I didn’t take all B.S. and didn’t allow my friends to take any either, or my family. I was a fighter and a protector for most of my life. Ultimately, that way of thinking ended me up in the juvenile system. When I was 17, mid-summer, my father unexpectedly died from acid reflux. The same day he died was the day I was released from juvenile supervision. Instead of celebrating that moment and day, we were planning a funeral. I was very close to my dad, and I blamed myself for not being able save him when I heard what I thought was snoring, but was actually choking in his sleep. I was not prepared for how that level of trauma would impact me.

Two years later, I was convicted of first-degree reckless endangering safety and second-degree reckless injury.

Second chances don’t often support people categorized under violent offenses.

I was sentenced to serve five years in prison, 10 years on extended supervision, and 10 years of probation to run consecutively. Faced with a reality of limited access to no medical care, therapy, programs, and wellness resources, I turned to the solace of books and magazines that I ordered and the relationships I was building with the women I was in prison with. Within the pages of these materials, I found the knowledge and inspiration to develop exercise and nutrition plans, nurturing both my physical and mental resilience. It was in the relationships that I was building with women in prison that I would begin to feel, heal, and gain knowledge. It was through college courses that I created a bigger vision for myself.

After returning home, I was able to make amends with the person whose life I almost took, and the people impacted by my choices that day. I kept true to my word and was a mentor and connector for women across the state who had just gotten released from prison.

Today, I am a mother of four boys, a homeowner, and work with the ACLU of Wisconsin as a stateside coalition advocate. I am not only an advocate for myself, but I also advocate for others across the state who are justice-impacted. I am still a fighter and protector, yet in a much different way. I have come to learn that trauma and violence impact all of us differently and that a person not only wants someone to listen to them without judgment and shame but also with empathy. I understand violence to be a language. A language we need to listen to in order to bring understanding and healing. By being empathetic and centering humanness, we can understand how a person ends up in the criminal legal system. A system that is, by itself, violent. A violent environment and system will never be able to heal or resolve violence.

While I have been home since 2007, I am still under control of the Department of Corrections with never having a probation violation. I have three more years to go before I can be free from the system. I am one of many in Wisconsin home in the community, yet still serving 15-20+ years or life on some form of supervision. The majority of them don’t even look like me. I recently petitioned the court for an early termination of probation, because I met all the criteria except for my charge is violent. It was denied, because of this statute, nothing else was factored in.

Second chances don’t often support people categorized under violent offenses, yet we are often the group of people not returning to prison after release or cycling through the system. It is my hope to change this for others. We are deserving of second chances that include early incentives for release like others are.


(Photo above: ACLU of Wisconsin)

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