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Facing Institutional Hurdles: Battling the Psych Department

“I was kicked out of Anthony.”

I turned in my chair to see who was speaking. Vikki, one of the ABE students, was talking with the teacher, Ms. Shaibley. It was a Monday afternoon in August 2016 and the school day was nearly over. I’d been reviewing a kite to me from the psych department, their response to my asking for a copy of my records.

Facing a trial for my parental rights next month, I thought my psych test results might help me in court. I was being accused of many nasty character traits and believed my psychological test results from 2012 might combat these. I reviewed the most recent kite I’d sent to the psych department and their response, “We will need a psychologist to go over your results with you. I can make an appointment.”

Frustrated, I’d written a new kite explaining, “I don’t want to review them with anyone, I just want a copy. I will be using them in court. If they need your explanation, will you testify for me and explain it to everyone? I doubt it. Either they explain themselves or they are useless to me. I want a copy to decide.” It was the third such kite in this bizarre battle with the psych department and I was baffled and upset. Time was running out.

MCF-Shakopee classroom

MCF-Shakopee prison classroom

“What happened?” Ms. Shaibley asked Vikki as she set down her work, giving Vikki her full attention.

Have you ever felt pressure to solve a problem in a time-crunch? Did you encounter obstacles? How did it feel when someone or something got in the way, and how did it affect your sense of control and independence?

The Parenting Program in Prison

“What happened?” Ms. Shaibley asked Vikki as she set down her work, giving Vikki her full attention.

Just as Vikki responded the P.A. system burst to life, drowning out her answer. “Two-thirty movement is open! Movement is open!” I watched Ms. Shaibley console Vikki and made a note to talk to Vikki after class.

Vikki was a small person, shorter even than my 5-foot frame. Older than me by an indeterminate number of years, Vikki came to prison with a third-grade education. I remember being shocked when she told me she’d left school permanently at age 9. I didn’t know such a thing was possible these days.

She lived, or had lived, in the Anthony unit, also known as the parenting unit. Vikki had no young children herself, rather she was a helper for those in the unit who did. When I arrived at prison in 2011, the Anthony unit gave incarcerated moms the opportunity to have their children spend the weekend with them in prison. The children slept in the same room as their mother, on trundle beds kept under the mother’s bunk.

A few months after I arrived at prison a suspension of all children overnights went into effect, due to drugs found in Anthony. The Anthony unit had higher standards for its occupants than the rest of the prison, and this new discovery left everyone dismayed. It was announced that the suspension would last 90 days, however before that time was up drugs were found again. Eventually overnights for children were abandoned altogether.

The prison readjusted its parenting program to include all-day Saturday visits inside the prison for children whose moms were in the Anthony unit. These fun visits often included special holiday parties. Kids were allowed to wear Halloween costumes, for example, and special decorations were made by the Anthony unit to celebrate. Women without children, who passed the Anthony living unit standards, helped. Vikki was one of these women.

Extra bed underneath the bunk in MCF-Shakopee

the Anthony unit gave incarcerated moms the opportunity to have their children spend the weekend with them in prison. The children slept in the same room as their mother, on trundle beds kept under the mother’s bunk.

It was prudent to check everything. Linens were often torn or missing. One might also find candies or notes from the men’s prison hidden inside.

Breaking Rules: Survival or Something Else?

Catching up to Vikki after class I walked beside her out of the Core building. “I heard you mention moving to a new unit,” I began. “What’s going on?”

Vikki lifted her shoulders and sighed as she answered, “They did room inspections and found an extra pillowcase in my linens.” She shook her head ruefully, adding, “I didn’t realize that was so serious or I wouldn’t have done it.”

Linens, or bed sheets and towels, were distributed weekly on “Linen Exchange Day.” Inmates were required to strip their beds and fold all linens neatly in a stack. Wing by wing each unit would call women to the day room to receive new, clean linens.

We’d leave our rooms holding the dirty linens, wait in line to have these items counted by a guard (“You’re missing a towel” could often be heard) and then dump these items in a large canvas bag held by an inmate volunteer or worker. Next stop was the linen cart on wheels, which looked like a rolling closet. Inside were pillowcases stuffed with fresh linens.

Receiving one’s pillowcase of clean sheets and towels, the next step was counting and inspecting what was inside. Not everyone bothered with this last step, simply spinning and returning to their rooms, however it was prudent to remain and check everything. Linens were often torn, severely stained, or missing altogether. One might also find candies or notes hidden inside from the men’s prison where these items were cleaned and assembled.

Vikki, like many women, had probably hidden extra linens so she could wash them herself, in her own preferred brand of detergent, disliking the harsh industrial smelling soap used by the DOC. While one could receive permission to do this, most women didn’t ask, simply breaking the rules.

Vikki’s comment drew me up short with a shock. The past several months had been transformational for me as God taught and changed me. Recognizing that offending Him hurt our relationship (as such behavior would harm any relationship), I’d began working to identify sinful behavior in my life. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, so I’d begun asking God to show me my own wrong thinking and behaviors.

I thought of my own linens. While I did not have extra sheets or towels, I did have an extra blanket and pillow. I’d gained the extra blanket many years previous from a past roommate who had permission for it. She gave it to me when she went home. I had stolen the extra pillow outright a year or two afterwards.

I recalled the incident clearly. “What’s all of that?” I asked someone near me in the dayroom, pointing to a pile of pillows, blankets and tubs at the bottom of B wing’s stairs.

“Missy is moving,” was the reply. I noticed there were several plump pillows amid the jumble.

“Why does she have so many pillows?” I asked and was told Missy had M.S. so she had medical permission. The stack of items, while at the bottom of B wing’s stairs, was also near the guard desk. My own pillow was neither plump nor soft. ‘I could use another one,’ I thought.

Storing up courage I made my move, walking past the pile and grabbing a pillow on the way to my room. I figured since she had special permission, she’d be given another. I’d kept the pillow and extra blanket ever since.

Now I felt convicted. Worse, I was surprised I hadn’t thought of it. A few months earlier I’d read these verses in I Peter:

13 Be submissive to every human institution and authority for the sake of the Lord, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 Or to governors as sent by him to bring vengeance (punishment, justice) to those who do wrong and to encourage those who do good service. I Peter 2:13-14

I wanted to obey God. At first, I’d determined to follow rules I knew about. After a while I realized that my “rules don’t matter” attitude had blinded me to what many rules were! If you don’t care about rules, you won’t care to know what the rules are.

I’d dug up my policy handbook soon after. Learning the rules, I’d then sought to do better. Linens, however, had not crossed my mind. Walking beside Vikki I shook my own head, wondering at my blindness.

Returning to my room I folded the extra blanket and grabbed the pillow. Officer Letcher was at the guard desk when I came back downstairs. I briefly considered leaving the items without a word but thought better of it. “I have these extra items,” I said quietly, “I’ll leave them here.” Letcher appeared surprised, uncertain of how to respond. I quickly turned and hurried back upstairs.

13 “Be submissive to every human institution and authority for the sake of the Lord, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 Or to governors as sent by him to bring vengeance (punishment, justice) to those who do wrong and to encourage those who do good service. I Peter 2:13-14

If you don’t care about rules, you won’t care to know what the rules are.

Family Disfunction: Struggling for Connection

“Hi Noel, how are you?” I asked as soon as he answered. We talked for a bit and then I asked as I had several times all summer, “Have you called Tim?”

Up until now the answer had always been, “Not yet.” While I had few people left to call, Tim had even fewer people calling him. I wanted to encourage family connections, which had become increasingly important to me.

I was becoming quickly frustrated, however, with my family’s lack of enthusiasm. I could understand their reluctance to care about me, a felon, but I could not understand ignoring my young son Tim. Once again Noel answered, “No, not yet.”

Tension was growing high in me, the closer the trial loomed. Everything seemed to be taking on an importance it wouldn’t otherwise have. I was sad and upset as I tried to understand all these new changes. I went to my room after the call and stewed. I decided to write Noel an email expressing my concerns about Tim and my frustration with Noel’s lack of support for Tim.

Soon I received an email from Noel. It was devastating. He was angry. He did not appreciate me pointing out my concerns about Tim and his lack of action. While it was a short email, it was vicious. Then Noel stopped talking to me too.

Looking around the small room I felt the walls closing in. I was scared and intimidated by her outburst.

Monahan – the prison mental health unit

Mental Health Help Gone Wrong

Time slowed down yet sped away as the trial loomed ever closer. Checking my mailbox a few days later I saw another response to my kite from psych. After weeks of wrangling with them to receive a copy of my tests, they had relented, with a caveat. They insisted a therapist be in the room with me while I reviewed it myself. The therapist named was one I’d had issue with the in the past.

The prison often hosts interns, including people studying to be psychologists. The previous year I’d asked for counseling sessions and been paired with an intern. Our first session was our last. Seated in a small room in the mental health unit, I’d faced her, my new therapist. Between us lay a table and windows facing out toward the guard desk.

“How can I help you today?” she’d asked, and I’d been quick to share my growing concerns.

“I want to be well prepared for my release,” I answered. “I do not know what to expect for reentry, but I want to do well. I have a question for you,” I added. Nodding, she waved to me to continue. “How much experience do you have with inmate reentry and the possible stresses one might experience?”

Her eyes narrowed. Crossing her arms over her chest she leaned back and demanded, “What do you mean by that?”

Confused by her reaction I tried to explain further, “Well, I do not know what to expect when I’m released. I imagine it could be difficult for me, however I don’t know in what ways. I’d like to prepare. I’m asking if that’s something you can help me with.”

Her eyes had grown dark with anger as I spoke. Sucking in a breath she launched, “HOW DARE YOU! How dare you question my education and skills! Who do you think you are?” Spit flew onto the table as she raised her voice higher, “What gives you the right to question my abilities? You should be ashamed of yourself!” She finished with a shrill shriek.

The room echoed with silence as I stared at her in shock. She’d scooted further back in her chair. She began tapping her toe. She challenged me to respond. I began slowly in a near whisper, “I wasn’t doing that at all. I had already assumed that your assignment here today means you are qualified for the work of a therapist. I’d have no reason to think otherwise. I was asking how familiar you are with the incarceration experience and reentry.” Her posture remained tense.

Looking around the small room I felt the walls closing in. I was scared and intimidated by her outburst. I wanted to leave badly but didn’t know how to end this. Tentatively I spoke up, “I am very uncomfortable,” I started. Her toe tapping sped up. “I’d like to return to my room please,” I finished.

Waving a hand at the door she said nothing. After a moment’s pause, I fled from the room. Still wanting the help I’d requested I wrote a kite to the intern’s supervisor at the prison asking for a new therapist. I shared my recent experience. The supervisor’s response was brief, “No. You can resolve your issue with the intern I gave you or have no therapy at all.” I gave up and went without help for reentry.

Unexpected Answers: Discovering Truth

I re-read my newest kite from mental health services and noted this same supervisor was the appointed person to sit with me while I reviewed my tests. I sighed, certain this latest kite battle had not increased her like for me. What I didn’t know was that this appointment was about to be an answer to prayer in a very unusual way.

A week later I found myself at Monahan, the mental health unit, sitting in another small room. I was there to review the test results of the psychological tests I had taken here in 2012, just before I began sex offender treatment. The door opened and the supervisor entered holding a file. She set it before me and sat against the wall quietly. The room seemed tense with her in it.

I flipped it open, not sure what to expect. Inside was a 15-page report, written years ago by the treatment staff. I flipped through it, hoping to quickly find what I was looking for – positive statements about my mental health. After a few minutes of scanning I realized I may need to review each page instead. The first 9 pages were written reports based on interviews I’d had with staff. I skipped to the bottom of page 10 and found the results of my written assessments.

It began well enough, stating, “Ms Aho did not exaggerate or approach the test in a guarded manner. She did not attempt to portray herself in either a favorable or disfavorable light. Results suggest that she was cooperative, attentive and focused.”

this appointment was about to be an answer to prayer in a very unusual way.

Open movement, inmates heading to work

Relaxing a little, I continued to read and was immediately stopped short. I read, “Results suggest that Ms. Aho tends to be self-centered, insensitive, lacks empathy and demands attention and affection.” Slowly I read the rest of the paragraph which included phrases like “irresponsible, unreliable, moody and resentful.”

I set down the report and took a breath, considering. Cautiously I peaked at the next page and found more of the same. Another page turn and more of the same. I reached for my notebook and pen, which I’d brought with me. I began taking notes, page after page, as time ticked away.

After a bit I wondered how much time I had left. There was still a lot to take in. “Um, can I take more notes?” I asked the supervisor, who had remained sitting quietly. Xerox copies might take more than a week to receive.

With a look of sympathy she nodded, responding, “I know these can be difficult to read.”

I turned to face her and replied with certainty, “Oh this is all true. Or it was.” Surprise lit up her face as she read my eyes. I nodded at my pen and paper adding, “I’ve been praying for God to show me my own sin. Here’s an entire report about them. I want to start doing better today.” I returned my gaze to the table, lifting the report.

The supervisor thought a moment, her features and body language suggesting an attitude change. She stood and held out her hand. “Would you like me to make copies for you? I can do that right now.” She smiled. Now it was my turn to be surprised. I looked up into her face, now open and kind. I nodded eagerly and handed her the pages.

 I had not read this report when it was first created in 2012, but I knew if I had, that is exactly what I would have done. I would have been angry and hurt, fiercely defending myself.

Later in my own room I puzzled over the conclusion of the report, which started, “she will likely resist psychological interpretations of her problems and when the reality of a situation is pointed out, she may be unable to see her role in it and claim the clinician simply doesn’t understand her.” I had not read this report when it was first created in 2012, but I knew if I had, that is exactly what I would have done. I would have been angry and hurt, fiercely defending myself.

It finished with the statement, “Treatment prognosis is poor, as her problems appear characterlogical and not readily amenable to change.”

I’d never seen the word “characterlogical” before and wondered what it meant. Not finding the word in a dictionary I went to the guard desk for help. I found Officer Letcher sitting at his computer and explained the problem. Would he look the word up online? He did and I learned something important.

I learned it meant “relating to character.” In essence it meant – born that way. The report was saying I was born with all these bad things and the person writing the report obviously believed a leopard doesn’t change its spots.

Considering, I lifted my eyes again to the paragraph just above, reading again, “she will likely resist psychological interpretations of her problems.” Well that was not true anymore, was it? I saw truth here on every page, an accurate description of my life and myself. What did that suggest? That I had changed, was changing already. I was a new creature. I smiled at the thought and thanked God for my new life.

I didn’t have anything here that would help me at trial, but I’d received an even bigger answer to prayer and evidence of God’s work in my life. Nothing is impossible with God!

“You have been regenerated (born again), not from a mortal origin (seed, sperm), but from one that is immortal by the ever living and lasting Word of God.
I Peter 1:23

23 “And be constantly renewed in the spirit of your mind [having a fresh mental and spiritual attitude], 24 And put on the new nature (the regenerate self) created in God’s image, [Godlike] in true righteousness and holiness.”
Ephesians 4:23-24


  1. Reflect on a time in your life when you faced challenges or adversity, and how your faith in God helped you navigate through them.
  2. In what ways does Holly’s struggle with institutional rules and authority figures mirror the biblical narratives of facing worldly opposition while striving to uphold God’s truth?
  3. Discuss the significance of Holly’s realization of their own flaws and the subsequent desire for change, in the context of biblical teachings on repentance and spiritual renewal.
  4. How does the portrayal of redemption and transformation in the narrative align with biblical principles of God’s forgiveness and the renewal of one’s heart and mind through Christ?
  5. Consider the role of forgiveness and acceptance in Holly’s journey, and how these elements reflect the biblical themes of God’s mercy and love towards His people.
  6. Reflect on the importance of seeking God’s guidance and relying on His strength in times of spiritual crisis or transformation, as portrayed in the narrative.
  7. Discuss the significance of self-reflection and introspection in Holly’s journey towards spiritual renewal, and how these practices align with biblical teachings on examining one’s heart and seeking God’s will.
  8. How does the narrative challenge or affirm biblical notions of redemption and transformation through a personal relationship with God? How might this challenge inspire or deepen your own faith journey?



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