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Writing to Connect: A Mom Behind Bars

At my desk, I finished another letter to my children. Suddenly, movement was called over the P.A. system. I looked over at my clock radio to check the time. It was noon, time to pick up my canteen in the Core building.

I did a quick scan of my room, which was clean but not so neat. Unmade bed, papers, pens and envelopes spread across my desk; time had gotten away from me. Movement between buildings lasted 5 minutes. I still needed to put on my shoes and glasses. I had no time to tidy up! Feeling rushed, I grabbed keys and badge, dashing out of my room.

Jogging down steps to the day room, I made a beeline for the sign out book. Women were filing out of Tubman, eager to eat lunch or pick up their own canteen. Quickly I signed out, adding my name, OID, current time and destination in the book.

Joining the women I walked quickly, not wanting to be last in line. It was the beginning of June 2016, and the weather was beautiful. Flowers had popped up around the property.

Photo of Holly Bot taken in prison in 2016

A fast 15 minutes later I was back at Tubman, carrying my bag of canteen. Signing back in, I noticed Sgt. Laabs in the hallway. He oversaw our living unit, and five years earlier, had given me LOPs (Loss of Privileges), often.

I’d mistakenly thought he was a stickler for the rules, giving everyone a hard time. Since then, I’d begun to suspect something different. Laabs seemed to be testing new arrivals. His goal? Learning an inmate’s attitude towards authority.

 

Battling Rules and Relationships: Insights from Prison Life

Sgt. Laabs would give every new arrival an LOP. If he could not find a legitimate reason to write someone up, he’d make something up. LOPs were delivered as yellow tickets outlining the offense. Inmates were asked to sign it.

Over the years I’d watched as women angrily argued their LOP, also watched as other women silently signed without complaint. I’d saw that women who didn’t argue were unlikely to receive an LOP from him again, even if they deserved one. Women who argued, on the other hand, would become targets, relentlessly punished for everything. I’d probably been the arguing type when I first entered prison.

I knew very well why I’d failed. Maybe I hadn’t learned as much as I thought, trying to wheedle my way out discipline.

I passed Sgt. Laabs in the hall. He held room inspection forms and appeared surprised to see me. I nodded and ducked into my room, where I noticed a failed room inspection form on my desk. The form noted an LOP would be waiting for me at the staff desk.

I grabbed it and headed back out of my room. Laabs remained in the hall. Usually, I am at work right now. I wondered if he thought I was gone for the afternoon as usual.

“Sgt. Laabs?” I said, holding out the form, “I was only gone for 15 minutes. Why did I fail?” I knew very well why I’d failed. Maybe I hadn’t learned as much as I thought, trying to wheedle my way out discipline.

“You left the building,” he replied, waiting. He did appear sorry for me.

“Yes,” I answered, “but I didn’t go to work. I have the day off.” I stared at the floor.

Sgt. Laabs sighed as he responded, “You have to make your bed before you leave the building.”

“I see,” I said thoughtfully. I looked up again, and that’s when I made an insincere promise. “I will never do it again,” I vowed.

“While I grew more confident of God’s power, my parents seemed to reject the idea.”

Spiritual Growth Amidst Family Struggles: Lessons in Faith

Two days later, my LOP over, I called my mom. I was learning about God and looked forward to sharing with my parents. I’d also begun sharing the Bible with my children in letters. Recently I’d emailed my parents copies.

“Hi Mom! How are you?” she sounded less than thrilled at my call. Things had been strained between us for many years. Recently I’d told them about my Bible studies, certain God could help me in our relationship. While I grew more confident of God’s power, my parents seemed to reject the idea.

“I was reading in the New Testament today,” I began, “and learned something interesting!” Phone time was expensive, so I considered what to say next. “It builds on what I sent in my emails,” I added.

Quickly my mom snapped, “I haven’t read your emails. Good grief, we’re busy around here! I don’t have time for that.”

Ever since I’d mentioned the Bible, my relationship with my parents had worsened.

Surprised, I stopped short, hurt. My excitement turned to shame, my cheeks reddening.  “I understand,” I responded. “I thought we could talk about it anyway.” Looking back, I realize I was desperate for approval, and lonely as well. I wanted my parents to be proud of me.

“I don’t have time to talk about it,” she retorted. “I have to go now.” Slowly I hung up the phone and returned to my room, deflated.

Ever since I’d mentioned the Bible, my relationship with my parents had worsened. Recently, my mom had demanded angrily, “You think God can use you? You!?”  in response to my desire to teach my children.

Back in my room, I noticed the Reflector, the prison’s quarterly newsletter, on my desk. Flipping it open I looked for my drawings. Occasionally I’d submit artwork. The content of the Reflector was created by inmates, from the articles to the artwork and photography.

The last page featured my most recent drawings –my son Thomas and daughter Vivianne. I’d last seen them 3 years earlier, and they were growing fast. I was determined to remain emotionally bonded with them, engaged in their lives.

After a few years in prison, I’d noticed that while they grew up, I still imagined them as small children. This scared me. I began choosing photos of each and drawing them in fine detail, life-size portraits that took me hours to complete. I navigated through time, drawing portrait after portrait.

After a while, I noticed something amazing! As I drew, I began to internalize their older ages. Now, when I imagined them, they were no longer the small children I’d left. They had begun to grow up for me.

I turned to the mail left on my desk, three letters. Two were from my parents; I set those aside. The third was from another inmate, a man. I read the return address – Corbyn, at MCF-Oak Park Heights.

Women at Shakopee prison often received letters from incarcerated men hoping for a new pen pal. I’d received many such hopeful letters. I never wrote back, sometimes throwing the letters away without reading them.

I left the letter from Corbyn on my desk, carrying my parents’ letters downstairs. Kyla sat in the day room. I headed for her table. I’d known Kyla for 5 years and needed her help.

“Kyla! Can you help me?” I said as I sat. Dropping the envelopes from my parents on the table I slid them over to her. She read the return address as I continued, “Will you read these? Tell me if it’s okay for me to read them too.”

 I was concerned that these letters might not be helpful. As God showed me His power, I became motivated to obey Him. This included His commandment to honor parents. My parents, however, doubted this would happen.

“As God revealed His power, I became motivated to obey Him.”

“Kyla, you know how things have been with my parents,” I continued, and she nodded. “I want to have a loving relationship with them. Please read these, tell me if I should read them.”

Kyla pulled out the first letter and read. I studied her face. She began shaking her head, eyes widening as she flipped over the paper. Setting it down she opened the second letter. A few minutes later, pale, she met my eyes and said, “I wouldn’t read those. No way.” She shook her head again for emphasis.

Stuffing the letters back in their envelopes I sighed, hurt. I thanked her and headed for my room. Once inside, I opened my closet, which included a deep, high shelf. Grabbing a chair, I stepped up and set the letters in the dark recess. I didn’t want anger to tempt me into using them as fuel for an argument.

“I received your letters,” I told them an hour later. I dreaded this call. “I didn’t read them.” My mom gasped in shock, and I rushed to explain. “I don’t want anything hurting our fragile relationship. I’ve saved your letters. If in six months you feel strongly that you want me to read them, I will then. If they aren’t relevant in 6 months, they aren’t important enough to risk hurting our relationship today.”

“If you really want to honor us,” my mom replied, “you’ll listen to us and how we feel you can honor us.” I began to wonder if that’s what the letters discussed.

“No,” I replied. “God will explain all this to me. It’s His commandment, I’ll do it as He wants. You can be honored, without feeling honored. I need to know how God sees it, first,” I finished. Outraged, my mom hung up. She stopped visiting, wouldn’t answer the phone, and ignored my emails.

Disappointed, I returned to my room, remembering the other envelope from some guy named Corbyn. I looked at the clock. Again, I had the day off work. Again, it was canteen day. I had 10 minutes to wait.

Unexpected Gifts and Consequences: A Lesson in Boundaries

Tearing open the envelope I read, “Hi, my name is Corbyn Bot, and I’m looking for a pen pal.” Leaning back in my chair I continued to read. Corbyn had a long sentence – 30 years. How sad. He’d said he was only 23 years old, which made it even worse.

Towards the end of the letter he added, “Oh, and by the way I sent you a present.” Confused, I wondered what he meant. Prison rules were strict. No one could send an inmate a present, especially not another inmate.

‘Well, he’s gone crazy,’ I thought. Just then movement was announced on the P.A. Time for canteen! I looked around my room before leaving and noted my unmade bed. I thought, ‘Sgt. Laabs isn’t here today, it’ll be fine,’ I told myself.  I’ll be back fast. Grabbing Corbyn’s letter I tossed it into a garbage can on the way out.

“‘Well, he’s gone crazy,’ I thought.”

At canteen, I was in for a shock. A guard handed me a clear plastic bag, filled with my order. Opening the bag, I pulled out my receipt and an item. I hadn’t ordered it.

Startled, I dug into the bag, stirring items around. Shocked, I realized there was at least $100 worth of stuff in my bag that I hadn’t ordered. Quickly I nodded to the guard and walked down the hall. I hoped she hadn’t noticed my surprise.

“What’s going on?” Brandi asked me, as I stood beside her, waiting to leave canteen. I stood frozen, reviewing Corbyn’s letter in my mind. This must be the ‘present’ he’d mentioned!

I whispered, “There’s a bunch of stuff in this bag I didn’t order!” Brandi looked down, considering. “I think some guy filling orders did it on purpose!” I added. I’d heard of this before, however it had never happened to me. Shrugging, Brandi stared off, now bored.

Movement was announced and I raced back to Tubman, hauling my canteen. Quickly I signed in and headed straight for the trash can. Women stopped to stare at me as I began digging in the garbage. “What are you DOING?” Linda asked, concerned.

Ah-hah – There it was! I pulled Corbyn’s letter out and stood. I noticed the stares and blushed. Embarrassed, I grabbed my canteen again and headed for my room. Passing the staff desk I noticed an officer with room inspection forms talking to Sgt. Laabs, who had just come on duty. ‘Oh no!’ I thought, recalling my unmade bed.

Sure enough, another LOP was waiting for me. Setting down my canteen I read the ticket, realizing when I had promised Sgt. Laabs “it would never happen again,” I’d really meant – “I’ll behave when you are working.” These were prison rules, however, and I was trying to avoid discipline, not actually do the right thing. I made a mental note to write Sgt. Laabs an apology.

Spreading my canteen across the bed I reviewed the order, which included sweatpants and shirts I hadn’t requested. I peeked at a label, sized XXL. Surprised, I checked the rest of the clothes, all the same. Men often wrote women they saw in our Reflector. I realized two things as I considered the clothing – Corbyn seemed to think XXL was typical, and he hadn’t seen me in the Reflector, as I was an obvious extra small.  ‘How cute,’ I decided, ‘he doesn’t see all women as Barbie dolls.’

Nevertheless, pulling out paper and an envelope I began a letter to him:

“Dear Corbyn,

You are bad! I got your letter and canteen. I assume this is your ‘present’ to me. Don’t do that again! You could get in trouble, and I could too.

I am a Christian and the Bible says God gives us everything we need. I don’t know if you have a Bible so I will show you:

“Therefore do not worry and be anxious, saying, What are we going to have to eat? or, What are we going to have to drink? or, What are we going to have to wear?

“For the Gentiles (heathen) wish for and crave and diligently seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows well that you need them all.

“But seek (aim at and strive after) first of all His kingdom and His righteousness (His way of doing and being right), and then all these things taken together will be given you besides.” Matthew 6:33-35

God has been doing some amazing things in my life, and I need Him. I don’t want to ruin that. Here’s where you can get a free Bible and I hope you get it and read it so you can know this for yourself.

Just so you know, I will not write to you again, and do not write to me, please. I only write to my children and family. I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I believe you just want a friend, so I will tell you I get pen pal requests often and have never written back to anyone before. You will be the first and last.

I am also adding you to my prayer list.

Take care,

Holly”

“Therefore do not worry and be anxious, saying, What are we going to have to eat? or, What are we going to have to drink? or, What are we going to have to wear?

“For the Gentiles (heathen) wish for and crave and diligently seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows well that you need them all.

“But seek (aim at and strive after) first of all His kingdom and His righteousness (His way of doing and being right), and then all these things taken together will be given you besides.” Matthew 6:33-35

Embracing Change: From Rebellion to Redemption

I mailed the letter, added Corbyn to my prayer list. Next, I grabbed an institution kite, and wrote to Sgt. Laabs:

“Sir, I want to apologize. Recently you gave me a failed room inspection for my unmade bed, and I told you it would never happen again. Today it happened again. I realize now I’d not made a commitment to do right, I only meant to avoid discipline.

I want to thank you for holding me to this standard. I realize this attitude could get me into worse trouble when I leave prison, where failure to follow rules while on probation can lead to worse punishment than an LOP. I want to do better. I will do better.”

God was opening my eyes, Rebelliousness being replaced with a teachable spirit.

Little did I know, as I included Corbyn in my prayers that night, that I was praying for my future husband.

I’d just met Mr. Corbyn Bot.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  1. Reflect on moments in the story where Holly’s faith is tested. How can you apply her resilience and trust in God to your own challenges?
  2. Explore the theme of forgiveness in  Holly’s journey. How can you practice forgiveness and reconciliation in your own relationships to foster spiritual growth?
  3. Discuss the role of prayer and scripture in Holly’s life. How can incorporating regular prayer and studying scriptures enhance your spiritual journey?
  4. Consider Holly’s creative outlet through art. How can engaging in creative activities help you express your faith and emotions, fostering spiritual growth?
  5. Reflect on Holly’s evolving understanding of authority and submission. How can you apply humility and respect for authority figures in your life to deepen your spiritual journey?
  6. Explore Holly’s approach to handling conflicts and challenges. How can you apply patience, compassion, and faith in God’s plan to navigate difficult situations in your life?

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