Breaking Down Walls: How One Woman Found Her Life Mission In Prison

Breaking Down Walls:

How One Woman Found Her Life Mission

In Prison

When we find ourselves in moments of darkness it can be nearly impossible to see the light. Jennifer Wilkov, however, was able to do just that, even while spending almost half a year behind bars for a crime she didn’t commit.

“The district attorney decimated me,” says Wilkov. “I was given a felony for something I didn’t do, sent to Riker’s Island, I had no address, they took everything I had.”

It’s hard not to feel frustrated listening to Wilkov’s story. The former finance executive was sentenced in 2008 to six months behind bars at New York’s notoriously violent penitentiary, Riker’s Island, where she spent her days in an eight foot by three foot cell. Throughout the entire experience Wilkov resolved to make the best of it and not let herself get consumed by the darkness surrounding her.

“Ten percent of your life is what happens in it, the rest of it is how you are going to move through whatever is happening,” she says. “Take a deep breath and figure out for yourself what are you going to do about it. There are things we can control and there are things we can’t and that is really important [to remember].”

In 2004, Wilkov was a Certified Financial Planner for American Express Financial Advisers. After being advised by a friend, Wilkov invested in a California business that would buy, flip and resell foreclosed homes at a profit. The trouble started after she began mentioning the business to clients, independently from her company, being sure to fill out securities forms recommended by her American Express compliance officer. The following year, Wilkov, also the author of Date Your Money and co-author of Boys Before Business: A Single Girl’s Guide To Having It All, launched a financial planning business, which was immediately successful. After a year, however, she and her investors no longer received any returns on the real-estate business, which sent up a red flag.

“So an attorney and I paid a visit to the owners of the California company,” Wilkov told Marie Claire in 2009. “After our meeting, the attorney deemed the operation a scam and said I should report it to the authorities.”

Again, Wilkov followed the proper procedure, immediately notifying officials in October 2006. A month afterwards, she was visited by a group of policemen who confiscated her phone, computer and files.

Eight months later, when I was sitting in my office one morning in a favorite outfit — Ralph Lauren top, white pants, white heels — the police returned,” she told the magazine. “I was arrested and accused of being part of a $1.6 million real-estate fraud, since I’d recommended the investment and had received standard referral fees.”

In 2008, she took a plea deal, on recommendation from a lawyer, which would give her six months in jail, as apposed to a potential four years.

“I’m still one of those people who rails at the sky and says why is this happening,” says Wilkov, who is Jewish and studied the Torah during her prison stay. “I know that I am willing to look for the silver lining, [and focus on] what is the blessing in this, and what am I supposed to learn, [I’ll be OK] .”

Despite feeling completely lost at the time, Wilkov realized she had to rally.

“When I left the courtroom in handcuffs, I looked at the guard who was part of my process of going to jail,” says Wilkov. “He looked at me and he said ‘it’s really not as bad as you think.”

Despite trying to reassure her, Wilkov says she was petrified.

“Where I went next was a cell that had been cleared out for me and I was by myself staring at a payphone for an hour trying to figure out if I’m allowed to [use it],” she says. “When you’re in this situation you’re scared out of your mind. I feel l like I’m in a foreign country. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know if I have to ask.”

Her first collect call was made to her mother from an area of the prison called “the bridge.”
“I said ‘I don’t know how long I have on this telephone but I want you to promise me right now that we’re going to make this the most positive experience ever,'” says Wilkov.
Her mom didn’t answer.
“On the other end of the line she was whimpering,” recalls Wilkov. “I said ‘right now you have to agree to this; promise me we’re going to make this as positive as possible.’ In that moment she said ‘yes’ and the line clicked off.”

During her time at Rikers, made even more complicated by the fact that she suffered from Chron’s Disease and was a longtime organic vegetarian, Wilkov was committed to seeing the silver lining. Her mom helped ease the situation by scheduling visitors any chance she could and ensuring that Wilkov had mail every single day. Despite these reprieves, Wilkov reports she lost 14 pounds in the first six weeks and barely slept during her time at Riker’s due to a constant fear of being attacked.

“It was very difficult to maintain my own sense of self and grounding,” she says. “I had to decide that they weren’t going to break me.”

It was her African American Muslim bunk-mate that taught Wilkov the biggest lesson in ‘finding the good of the situation’ of all.
“The thing we had in common was this desire for peace,” says Wilkov. “I taught her some hand motions and the two of us started, maybe six weeks before I was leaving, sitting together praying for peace in the middle of the room, very quietly, and the dorm would relax in that moment. And literally we started bringing peace to this environment where peace didn’t belong.”
When she got out of jail, with the help of her supportive friends, Wilkov launched a website where she wrote the truth about her ordeal and about the crime she was convicted for. Rather than be angry about her experience, she has instead focused on bringing to light the surrounding proxy crimes, in which the person sentenced had no idea about the law infringement.
 “When you are in the financial industry you are supposed to be looking at your superiors who are supposed to be more educated than you and more responsible to the company you work for,” says Wilkov. “In a business that’s government regulated you’re supposed to follow a certain protocol. When all of a sudden people are going outside of that protocol and you don’t know it because you are following the protocol you’ve been told, all of a sudden when it bites you in the back and you find people calling you a scapegoat making you the person who is guilty and horrible and horrifying, it’s demeaning and it’s really something that can destroy people.”
Eventually Wilkov was exonerated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority as it was determined she had merely followed the industry protocol. To help stop this experience from happening to other women, she is now a lobbyist, sitting on the board of directors for an organization called It Could Happen To You.
“I speak to legislators and the governors council about how false accusations and false convictions and wrongful convictions happen to licensed professionals and destroy their lives,” she says. ‘When that happened to me… the system just absolutely failed. All the attorneys who look at my case say the same thing; ‘wow the system really failed you.’”
“It’s incredible what happens when you open up your eyes and ears.”

Wilkov has also founded Speak Up Women, an organization designed to empower women  and create momentum for them to “drive forward their own passionate personal and professional agendas and causes” in order to make social change.

“I really want women and men to understand the impact we have when we speak up in our personal, professional and philanthropic lives,” says Wilkov. “When you speak up and you’re clear about what it is and you’re not trying to sugarcoat it, it’s really the thing that turns the dime. It changes lives” sometimes [affecting] millions of people, sometimes one person.”
All-in-all, Wilkov says the experience helped her find positivity through a difficult time, and perhaps most importantly, her voice. She’s now dedicated to helping other women find theirs.
“I think it’s very human and important for us to admit and acknowledge that we all fall,” says Wilkov. “You hear people talk about rock bottom and they just don’t know where they’re going to go, [they wonder] ‘why is this happening to me’ or ‘how am I going to survive this?’ If you can connect with how you feel then you can actually figure out who you’re going to be.”
Although it is easy to give up and feel sorry for yourself when unfair things happen, Wilkov said it is actually those moments which prove what you’re made of, it’s those moments you must be the strongest you can.
“I’ve forged my own personal ability to not give up, stay the course and keep my commitment to what I said I wanted to do,” says Wilkov. “‘How am I going to experience this?’ and ‘How am I going to handle this?’ are [phrases] that I really connect with. They keep me grounded and actually infect the people that are around me, who look to me and say ‘I don’t know what to do in this moment’ and I always say ‘OK who are you going to be?’ You have the right to remain fabulous.”
Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

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