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One afternoon in May 2017 as I sat in the prison dayroom, I noticed my coworker Sylvia being pushed in her wheelchair by her roommate. Sylvia’s hands trembled as she struggled to recall where she was. Her eyes looked lost and confused, searching the room for something familiar. ‘What day is it?’ she whispered; a question that had become all too common.

Sylvia, who rarely socialized, began talking to another inmate. I wondered why. The next day at work I asked her about it. “My roommate is being released soon,” Sylvia answered, “and I’m afraid of getting a bad roommate, so I thought I’d interview some women willing to be my roommate.” She looked at the floor and added, “I don’t want to be taken advantage of. I know I’m becoming forgetful and I need help every day.”

I cringed remembering the woman she’d met with yesterday. She would not be good to Sylvia. A wolf in sheep’s clothing for sure. Concerned, I decided to pray about it.

That night I prayed for a good roommate for Sylvia. Suddenly, I felt God suggesting, ‘What about you?’ My eyes flew open. I was horrified. I loved my private room and feared losing it forever. I looked around my single room, the only place where I felt any peace. The thought of losing it made my stomach churn. I clenched my fists, picturing the crowded, noisy alternative. In a place of few comforts, I didn’t want to give any up. But then God urged, ‘Live with her so she can learn about Me.’

One thing I had learned over the past year, and it was that God gives me the ability to do what He wants me to do and the desire to do it. Thinking about that, I prayed again, “Lord, I hate this idea, but if this is what You want me to do, please help me!”

The next day I proposed my idea to Sylvia. Smiling with relief she appeared pleased. Later that day, at the guard desk, Sgt. Laabs dismissed my request to be her roommate, which secretly relieved me. I didn’t know then how much things would change by summer’s end.

Have you ever been asked to do something unpleasant? How did you respond? Did your feelings change after a time?

The next morning, I lined up for my depression meds, which I’d taken for decades. Lately, I’d noticed changes in myself and wondered, ‘Do I still need these?’ Quitting was daunting, but I came to a decision. I would stop taking these meds but keep them in case I was wrong. Within a few days I was sick from withdrawal, nauseated and suffering cold sweats. Recovering, I spent the rest of the summer wondering, ‘Am I better?’ My resolve would soon be seriously tested with an unexpected stay in seg.

As I wrestled with this decision, life in the facility continued with its usual unpredictability. It was now July, and the prison was on another lockdown. Everyone living in Tubman knew the reason – two women living across the hall from me had been caught selling drugs. Administration spent days tearing apart their room trying to find the drugs and eventually brought a drug dog to search all of Tubman.

“Upper B to the dayroom,” the PA squawked. Doors snapped open and we filed down the hall. Sitting at a table in the dayroom we waited. I couldn’t see the search team, so I didn’t know the dog was ‘alerting’ at my door.

Back in my room, I soon received a visitor. “Ms. Aho, would you come with us please?” Two guards stood in the doorway.

“Ok,” I said, confused. As I was ushered to a holding cell at the prison’s intake area, I didn’t know what to think. At prison, interruptions to normal routine are never explained to residents. Work is cancelled without warning, programming ends early without reason, guards run here and there, and inmates are never told why. The prison has an “Institution Channel” on tv, and I used to joke I wished they had a ticker tape scrolling across the bottom of the screen like CNN, updating us on breaking news inside the prison.

I couldn’t see the search team, so I didn’t know the dog was ‘alerting’ at my door.

I was used to being uninformed in prison and didn’t question what was happening. I did not know that I had been singled out and it was difficult to imagine what the rest of the day would bring. An hour later, I was asked to do a drug test and brought into a bigger holding cell which had a toilet. Before I could perform a drug test, I was strip searched. This is a ritual I’ve performed thousands of times during my incarceration. It only got easier through emotional numbness. While two guards watched, I carefully removed each item of clothing I wore and shook it out before placing the items on a metal bunk to my left.

Standing naked, I bent forward, my hair falling in a curtain around my face as I shook it out, fingers combing through to prove nothing was hidden. I felt vulnerable and rushed to finish. I tried to think about something else, pretend I was somewhere else, as I continued. Standing upright again I was asked to open my mouth with my hands, so guards could check for hidden items. Next, I must pull each ear forward to show nothing is hidden there either. Now arms up and out to show nothing is hidden under my arms, and then I turn to the wall so the guards can gaze at my back.

Putting both hands on the wall for balance I lift each foot, one at a time, and wiggle my toes to indicate nothing is hidden. Finally, I must squat and cough three times, three deep knee bends while guards stare at my rear. The strip search is done but the horror is far from over.

Now I was told to remain naked and was given a cup for collecting urine. As I sat nude on the toilet the two female officers stood inches from my knees and stared between my legs. Self-consciously I willed myself to urinate so this could be over. I wondered what the guards were thinking.  Casually they talked about their day as they waited to watch the urine leave my body, to confirm the test was valid.

Many women “fail” the drug test (and are sent to seg for this failure) because they cannot urinate while two strangers stare between their legs. Filling the collection cup I breathed a sigh of relief. Soon this would all be over, I thought. I was wrong.

The drug test completed, the guards left me alone to redress. “She passed the drug test,” I overheard as I sat against the wall. Two hours later two more guards, this time a man and a woman, appeared at my holding cell. Unlocking the door, they asked me to step forward, then handcuffed me behind my back. “Ms. Aho, we are taking you to seg at this time,” the man said.

I was completely baffled. By this point in my incarceration, I’d actively sought to learn the rules and follow them exactly. My prison policy handbook was well read. I thought over all the rules I’d broken in the past and how diligently I’d worked at change. Now I couldn’t think of a single rule I could be accused of breaking. “What? Why?” I asked.

The man smirked and said, “I don’t know. What have you done wrong?” He laughed at me. The woman said nothing.

“I’ve done absolutely nothing,” I responded confidently, truthfully. Soon I would learn otherwise, although not in the way the prison intended.

“Yeah right,” the man laughed, and pulled on my arm. Bewildered, I walked between them as they brought me down the hall to the segregation unit, each tugging on an elbow. Entering seg we passed cells filled with women until we reached the end of the hall where a cell door stood open. Three more female guards waited. One held a black wand.

I was shown inside, and the man left. All four women, however, followed me into the small cell. “You are going to remove all your clothing while we watch. Shake out each item after you remove it, and then set it on the bed,” I was told. Another strip search, only this one was even more of a violation.

I was then told, “Turn around, stand with your legs spread apart, and hold your arms straight out from your sides.” Again, I did as I was told, and I heard the woman with the black wand step close. Waving it above and below each arm, down my back and again over each leg, she then commanded me to turn around and remain standing in the same position. The room was cold, adding to my discomfort.

I turned to find the four women staring at me. I dropped my gaze to the floor, embarrassed. Having turned, she then performed the same ritual on the front side of my body. As she finished, a fifth guard entered the small space holding orange folded clothing and slippers, which she set on the bed. “Put these on,” she said and left. The other 4 women left with her, and I was alone again, baffled. I still had not been told why I was here.

I turned my attention to the clothes on the bed and discovered I’d been given two shirts and no pants. The shirts were 4 sizes too big for me. I scanned the room as I donned underwear, shirt and socks. A quick glance told me the toilet paper holder was empty. ‘Just great,’ I thought, as I had to pee again.

All four women, however, followed me into the small cell. “You are going to remove all your clothing while we watch.”

A scraping noise caught my attention. To the right of my door was a shelf attached to the wall, with a slot in it. The slot opened and a food tray slid onto the shelf. Quickly I knocked on the door to get the attention of the guard outside. “I need pants and toilet paper!” I told her. She nodded and left.

I looked at my dinner, noting it arrived with paper napkins. ‘That will have to do,’ I thought, setting them over the toilet paper holder.

“Hey!” someone nearby shouted, “who did they just bring up here?” I recognized the voice of a former student.

“I don’t know,” a voice across the hall yelled back.

“Well get up and look at the name on the door!” returned the first voice.

Shuffling was heard and after a pause the woman across the hall answered, “It says ‘Holly Aho.’”

“What?” the first voice responded in shock, “the ABE tutor??”

“No, you idiot, the tutor has been here for a while,” the voice across the hall answered, misunderstanding, mistakenly referring to my coworker, math tutor Noelle.


Noelle was a math tutor, and a few months earlier she’d gotten herself in trouble during a different lockdown and raid. Noelle, wanting perfectly shaped eyebrows, had taken apart her disposable razor to shave them more accurately. During a raid one’s room is thoroughly searched, and not wanting the broken razor to be found (it would be called a weapon), Noelle put it in her pocket. That’s where it was discovered during her strip search shortly thereafter and she was brought to seg on a weapons charge. She’d been in seg so long now she’d been given a seg job.

The yelling voices continued like Abbot and Costello. “No, you are the idiot! I’m not talking about the math tutor. You said ‘Holly Aho’ is in there.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said. So what?” a now sullen voice responded.

“You read that name wrong cause that’s impossible. She’s the English tutor and she just wrote me a letter. I got it right here! She can’t be in here.” The girl across the hall didn’t answer. A pause and then, “Holly? Is that you?!? HOLLY AHO is that you next door?” my neighbor hollered at me.

I sighed and answered, “Yes it’s me.”

“What are YOU doing here?” the woman responded, shocked.

“I have no idea,” I answered.

“Well, that’s one person I actually believe,” she answered and laughed.

Suddenly Noelle appeared at the door, staring at me in shock through the window. I had been writing her encouraging letters as well, ever since she went to seg. I gave her a little wave. “What are you doing in here??” she asked. I shrugged in confusion. Looking at my bare legs, I asked if she could find me some pants. She nodded and disappeared down the hall.

I stared at the walls and thought. It might be days before anyone told me why I was here. A significant stressor for most inmates when they are sent to seg is the “room pack” performed by guards. An indication an inmate has been removed to seg is when a guard or guards pack up their room, putting all belongings in gray tubs. Each tub is 12” wide, 18” tall and 30” long and has a removable lid.

Each inmate is only allowed two tubs worth of property, plus a third tub (or bin as they are also called) for linens, pillows and blankets. While this limit is easy for a newcomer to obey, I’d never seen a long-termer who could fit their property into 2 bins. We had running jokes about all the property a long-termer is apt to collect over the years, especially if they never move to a different room (which requires using the tubs to move their items).

When doing a room pack guards do not make executive decisions about an item’s importance to the inmate. They grab everything in sight and dump it into the bin. When 2 bins are full of whatever was nearest to hand the rest of the items are bagged and an inmate can choose to mail these items out or “donate” them to the prison (where guards take what they want).

Inmates often lose precious items in this way such as photos of children or parents. Expensive electronic items are also frequently broken during careless room packs. In an environment where an inmate has precious little control and even less to call their own, such experiences can be painful and traumatic.

In an environment where an inmate has precious little control and even less to call their own, such experiences can be painful and traumatic.

10 Trust not in and rely confidently not on extortion and oppression, and do not vainly hope in robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.

11 God has spoken once, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God.

Psalm 62:10-11

I reached out to grab the paperwork out of the bin and dumped it all in the trash. It made a terrific noise as the papers settled to the bottom. Strangely, it was if a physical weight had been lifted! I felt light and free!

The two bin limit policy is not strictly enforced outside of a room pack for seg and is largely ignored by guards and inmates. The previous winter, however, I’d felt convicted about this rule. Over the years I’d amassed a lot of property, including books, legal paperwork and hobby craft items. I decided to voluntarily live within the two-bin limit.

When I made this decision, I didn’t realize how emotionally freeing my choice would be! I remember the day I got 2 bins and brought them to my room. I would do my own “room pack” and whatever didn’t fit would have to go. I opened the closet and on a top shelf stood a tall stack of paperwork. It included all documentation by social services and detailed much of the abuse my husband had inflicted on not only Tim but my other children as well.

I considered this paperwork to be valuable, extremely helpful to my cause. I desperately wanted my daughter, wanted to find her. I feared my felony might allow my husband more control and began saving documents I thought would work in my favor. These police and social services reports began to look like my saving grace in getting me what I wanted – my daughter! As the stack grew, I saw it as ever more powerful. The day I decided to live within the two-bin limit the stack was as tall as the bin and filled up quite a bit of space.

Sitting on the floor I stared at the stack of paper in the bin. I recalled reading this verse in Psalm:

10 Trust not in and rely confidently not on extortion and oppression, and do not vainly hope in robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.

11 God has spoken once, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God. Psalm 62:10-11

I was coming to learn that if God wants something to happen, He makes it happen. Nothing stops God no matter how difficult it may look to us. On the reverse, even if something appears a sure thing, if God doesn’t want it to happen, it will not. My confidence should be in God and His desires, not focused on my own goals and manipulative efforts to achieve them.

I reached out to grab the paperwork out of the bin and dumped it all in the trash. It made a terrific noise as the papers settled to the bottom. Strangely, it was if a physical weight had been lifted! I felt light and free!

I set to work getting rid of all the other things I didn’t need, now with a clearer perspective. Ever since that day I’d made sure to live within the two bin limit, and in fact my belongings now easily fit in just a bin and a half, ensuring that no matter who packs my room nor how carelessly they do it, everything will fit.

Now sitting in seg I thanked God for convicting me in this way and giving me the ability to obey Him. I felt certain that soon my situation would be resolved. I would be returned to my room and job and all my property would be restored. That peace allowed me to weather the severe stresses of the past several hours. Night fell and a new day in seg began.

Several days past while I read, wrote, and napped. Women nearby hollered out conversations to each other and read their mail out loud for entertainment. On the third day rec time was announced. I would be allowed to go outside with a few of my neighbors. Returning inside I noticed a small box in the hallway with my regular clothing inside.

“What is that?” I asked Simone, whom I’d just been outside with.

Everyone turned to follow my pointing finger. “You’re being released!” Simone answered. “You can put your clothes on and leave,” she added.

I could hardly believe it. No one had come to speak with me beforehand. It all seemed surreal. A few days stay, an hour outside, and suddenly it’s over. I dashed to my room and brought the box in. Changing my clothes, I then headed down to the guard desk in seg. I passed Noelle in the hall, who was headed to clean my room.

My next stop was the Property window, where I’d retrieve my gray bins packed by guards. “Here are your bins,” the lady told me, and before I could respond she bent down to lift something off a shelf. It was my television. Suddenly my heart was in my throat as I stared at it. I knew what was coming next. She would plug it in to confirm it hadn’t been broken by guards while I was in seg. I feared what would happen as soon as she did so…

She bent down to lift something off a shelf. It was my television. Suddenly my heart was in my throat as I stared at it.

Standing upright she reached for the power button. My mind screamed, “NO!!” but I said nothing.

The guard who’d escorted me to seg days earlier raised her eyebrows, her mouth opening in surprise. ‘So you really didn’t do anything!’ she muttered as I walked past with my bins.

Electronics at the prison are modified before sale to fit prison regulations, modifications that include removal of any speakers and packaging in a special clear case. A clock radio will arrive in a clear case without a speaker (one must use headphones). Want to use the alarm? Too bad, there’s no speaker for the alarm. The same is true of TVs.

I bought my television years prior, during a time when canteen was switching from bubble TVs to flat screened models. I had received one of the first flat screen televisions at the prison, and for that reason, mine was different from all the others – they had forgotten to remove the speakers, although they had disconnected them.

A year later, another clever inmate explained to me how she had, using bobby pins as a tool, managed to reconnect the loose speaker wires inside her tv. Inspired, I had slid bobby pins through small holes in the case and carefully worked like a kid in the game Operation to reconnect my own speakers. When headphones were plugged in, they overran the speaker system. In this way I could use my television without headphones when I was alone, and no one would know about it when I wasn’t.

Now I stood at Property, my television, sans headphones, resting on the counter. The guard searched for an outlet as my mind raced. I berated myself for this stupid sin! Soon I would have no tv at all! “There!” the guard announced, successfully plugging in the tv. Standing upright she reached for the power button. My mind screamed, “NO!” but I said nothing.

Pushing the little button, we waited, and nothing happened. The tv remained off. Frowning, she pushed the button again, while I sighed with relief! All the buttons on the tv were metal, and a few years earlier I had shorted out these controls with an accidental static shock. The only way to use my television now was with the remote.

Urgency pouring into me I quickly sputtered, “The buttons are all shorted out. It’s old. It only works with the remote,” I glanced at the tubs, where it was likely inside, and continued, “the remote is probably buried in there. It’s fine. I’m sure it works. I’ll just go now.”

Before she could refuse, I lifted the tv off the counter and set it on a tub. Obliging, she unplugged it with a frown and shrugged. I rushed off down the hall, determined to unplug the speakers as soon as I returned to my room. Praying for forgiveness, I thanked God that He had made me aware of this sin and given me an opportunity to make it right.

Back in Tubman, the guard who’d escorted me to seg days earlier raised her eyebrows, her mouth opening in surprise. ‘So you really didn’t do anything!’ she muttered as I walked past with my bins.

I would never see seg again, but a surprise new challenge awaited—soon I would be living with Sylvia.


  • Trusting in God’s Plan

    • Holly felt God’s urging to become Sylvia’s roommate despite her initial resistance. Reflect on a time when you felt called to do something you didn’t want to do. How did you respond, and what was the outcome?
    • Proverbs 3:5-6 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” How can this verse apply to Holly’s situation with Sylvia? How can it apply to a challenging situation in your own life?
  • Faith in Adversity

    • When Holly was falsely accused and sent to segregation, she maintained her faith and trust in God. How do you maintain your faith during difficult and unjust situations?
    • Reflecting on Holly’s experience, how do you think you would react if faced with a similar situation of unjust accusation and isolation? How does faith influence your response to adversity?
  • Overcoming Fear and Selfishness

    • Holly initially hesitated to become Sylvia’s roommate due to fear and selfishness. Have you ever found yourself hesitating to help someone because of similar feelings? How did you overcome those emotions?
    • Reflect on a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone to help someone in need, despite feeling afraid or inconvenienced. What lessons did you learn from that experience?
  • Finding Peace Through Surrender

    • Holly experienced a sense of peace and freedom after surrendering her possessions beyond the two-bin limit. Have you ever felt burdened by material possessions or personal goals? How did letting go of those burdens affect your sense of peace and freedom?
    • Psalm 62:10-11 encourages us to trust in God rather than relying on worldly possessions or schemes. How can we apply this wisdom to our own lives, especially in times of uncertainty or adversity?
  • Maintaining Integrity in Difficult Situations

    • Despite being wrongly accused and facing mistreatment, Holly maintained her integrity and trust in God. How do you think you would react in a similar situation? What principles or beliefs would guide your actions?
    • Reflect on a time when you faced unjust treatment or false accusations. How did you navigate the situation while maintaining your integrity and faith? What helped you stay resilient?
  • The Power of Prayer and Trust

    • Holly turned to prayer for guidance and strength in challenging circumstances. How has prayer helped you navigate difficult situations in your own life?
    • Discuss the role of trust in Holly’s story. How did her trust in God’s guidance and provision impact her decisions and actions? How can we cultivate a deeper sense of trust in our own lives?

Introduction: Get to know From Surviving to Living!

A brief note or two for first time visitors. First, welcome! I'm so glad to see you! Are you in need of rescue? Here is my rescue story. I share it because I know it can be your story too! It is my prayer that every post lead you one step closer in your walk with...

Chapter 1: BEFORE

Prison didn’t change my life.  Earthly things don't change us into heavenly creatures. Salvation is a gift from God. It just so happens I was in prison when that happened for me. Before my arrest at age 35 in 2010 I never thought about prison, jail, or the criminal...

Chapter 2: JAIL

I was arrested in March 2010. Again I heard the familiar questions, “What were you thinking? Why did you do that?” I had long believed myself to be the source of conflict in our family. Our family's shared religious beliefs, strong convictions, and high expectations...


A year passed after I was first arrested in 2010 before I was sentenced and sent to prison. During this year I served 3 months in county jail, was released on bail, and had many court hearings. I passed the year in a mental fog, in such a haze I was even unaware I was...


I have said I was unaware previously that I needed to change. What does that mean? I believed myself to be a good person or at least a person who understood what good is, even if I lacked the ability to consistently and reliably perform it. I felt I had a good moral...


Suicide watch in Shakopee takes place in the facility's segregation unit. While inmates are most often taken to seg for disciplinary reasons, suicide watch and health concerns are other reasons why segregation is also used for administrative detention. It was October,...

Chapter 6: WoW

In October 2011, as I waited to be released from seg, I received a kite (internal institutional mail) from the director of Shakopee's Women of Wellness program (WoW). She invited me to participate in the six week "in-patient" mental health program. Already terminated...

Chapter 7: General Assembly (Burning Rubber)

It is November 2011. I finished the WoW program and became eligible for the workforce. Nervously I checked my mail daily, waiting for a job assignment. I'd been fired from my last job so I could not choose the next one. It would be assigned to me based on the needs of...


I began my job in General Assembly the end of November 2011. Also called Rubber, it was housed in a large warehouse building shared by several educational and industry job opportunities. There were 2 main jobs - ring inspections and cutting rubber. Rings were actually...


It was January 2012 and I worked in General Assembly inspecting gaskets at base pay, 50 cents an hour. PIE work, given out on seniority, paid $4-$6 per hour. I set my sights on top pay and planned. I didn't have long to wait. One afternoon prison guards entered,...
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