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From Surviving to Living
From Surviving to Living

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In March 2011 I entered prison and was placed in an orientation class. After 2 weeks I was given a job and prison life began. Life outside of prison continued for my family as well, and as I sought to redefine my role as a mom of 5 children I would also experience the loss of my grandmother.

I share my struggles with depression and how strict prison rules and challenging prison personalities affected me my first year. Are you overwhelmed? Are you experiencing a lot of changes in your life? Do you need strength to get through? I discuss steps we can take today to see us through to tomorrow.


I had believed I was a good person, but I sought to improve. Can you relate? I struggled with serious depression, making stability and holding a job challenging. I felt the weight of other people’s expectations. In prison I tried adjusting to a new normal, but I would learn entering prison wasn’t rock bottom. Life can get even worse. What does life look like before transformation? How can change happen for you? This is ORIENTATION (CHANGE, SHOCK & AWE, SUICIDE WATCH).

I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t realize I needed to change. What do I mean? I believed myself to be a good person or at least a person who understood what good is, even if I couldn’t do it consistently. If I could tell you what is right, doesn’t that make me …right?

Do you think of yourself as a good person? If you know what’s right, then are you right, even if you don’t do the right thing?

I had always been interested, though, in improving myself and my life. I didn’t need to change my beliefs; I wanted the skills to perform well!

One of my biggest struggles began in my teen years. I began to suffer from serious depression. I felt disinterested in things that gave other people joy. I was easily irritated.In a 2016 Psychology Today article by Gregg Henriques Ph.D. called The Behavioral Shutdown Theory of Depression, Dr. Henriques does an excellent job of explaining this enigma. He describes depression as a defensive strategy. If one sees little return on their behavioral or emotional investment eventually, they’ll lack the desire to expend that effort. In short – why do things that don’t work?

Medication helped, but it wasn’t a cure. I agonized about my failure to do things I saw people do every day. I was just barely surviving, even with meds. Eventually I was prescribed extremely high doses of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. I believed my depression symptoms said ugly things about me and made me unlikable (or they would if people knew about them. I worked hard to rid myself of these symptoms and hide them. Fake it until you make it was a motto I lived by.

Does this sound familiar? You are not alone, and there is hope!

On my second day in prison, I was placed in an orientation class lasting 2 weeks. We were called R&O’s. One purpose of this class is to teach the rules and consequences of breaking the rules, consequences like LOPs (Loss of Privileges), DLOPs (Discipline Loss of Privileges), seg time (Solitary confinement), and UI (Unintended Idle). I had just become a guest of Acronym city. Nearby was Nickname village, Slang hamlet, Lingo settlement, and Jargon township.

Every inmate wears an OID badge. OID numbers are assigned the first time one is ever incarcerated. It never ever changes, even if one leaves prison and comes back for another crime. OID numbers tell a story- they tell you who’s new, who’s not, and who’s back.

On my second day of orientation a new R&O arrived named Ashley. Curiously her OID was slightly lower than mine, telling me she had been here a little longer than me, a week or so. Ashley looked to be about 20 years old, with long, light brown hair and sticks for arms and legs. Her skin was an olive-tan color nearly matching her hair. Most notably, she resembled my youngest son Tim to such a degree it bruised yet comforted my heart. She looked like his mother more than I did. I wondered why she was just now arriving at orientation.

Class started after breakfast and ended at 3 p.m. Our evenings and weekends were free. In our free time I longed to vanish to my room or call my children. As I made a get away from the dayroom, women behind me slapped themselves into chairs and wondered what to do with the rest of their day. I often heard Ashley call plaintively, “Does anyone want to play a game?”

The usual answer was no. Ashley’s outstretched, pleading arms would droop, then hugging herself Ashley’s imploring expression would change to a sorrowful, lonely one. This, too, reminded me of my youngest son Tim – he often begged his older brothers to play with him.I couldn’t take it; it was too pitiful. I wanted to hide in my room overwhelmed, but this was too much.

After our third day of class I remained in the dayroom to socialize. Ashley once again hopefully asked if anyone would like to play a game. She looked at each of us expectantly, waiting. Over the days her optimism had quietly faded from excitement to disappointment. I really didn’t feel like playing a game. She looked at each of us in turn, reading the answer in our averted eyes and silence. Her face began to fall. I took a deep breath, “I’ll play with you. What do you want to play?”

Surprise widened her eyes before they crinkled. She smiled, pulled her arms wide and leaned forward towards the table. “That’s great! I don’t care what we play. If it passes the time.” This was the beginning of our friendship.

As the days passed, she explained the mystery of her lower OID number and late arrival at orientation. When arriving at prison she had refused to speak at all. To anyone. For days. She was placed on suicide watch until she would talk. I later learned this is common. The trauma of arriving at prison can manifest in many ways.

In class my mind wandered. In the evenings I called my kids. I still felt present in their lives, as if this was a temporary arrangement. I would eagerly call to assure myself they were not just safe but behaving. “Moooom!” Lukas would bellyache on the phone, “Timmy is poking at Vivianne!” Screaming and arguing could be heard in the background.

“Put your brother on the phone,” I’d instruct. A clatter of the phone would follow, accompanied by stomping feet and the echo of Luke’s muffled voice somewhere nearby relaying the message, “Mom wants to talk to you….TIM!” Another clatter as the phone exchanged hands and I heard Timmy say, “Hi Mom,” with a hangdog note. Vivi continued to scream somewhere in the house.

“Tim? Have you been poking your sister?” I queried. I told them both to go to their rooms for a well-deserved break from each other. Then Tommy, my 10-year-old, picked up the phone. His little boy voice shook with loneliness and frustration as he described problems I couldn’t solve so easily, problems at school, problems with friends. I felt near tears, my heart heavy. Trying to soothe him I choked out, “I’m still here, Tommy! It’s not like I died!” In stunned silence we both listened to the words echo. it felt like I had just died. Tommy sobbed.

Later I spoke with Vivi. I had a plan for our talk. So did she. They were not the same. She had visited me when I was in county jail, but then I’d been released on bail. She thought those three months were my punishment. Why was I back in ‘jail’? That’s what she wanted to talk about. I, on the other hand, wished to apologize for oh, about a hundred different things.

Once on the phone I wasted no time apologizing. I started with being in prison. In her little girl-turned stern lecturer voice she scolded, “Yes mommy, but you keep doing it!” I barked a startled laugh. Then I explained better the situation. Soothed, Vivi was happy to talk about her day and learn more about mine. I told her I was going outside with friends to play after I finished with our phone call.

Once again, her tone of voice changed. Even at such an early age she must have found this an implausible prison activity. She challenged me, “No you’re not.” I insisted I was. She responded in her best grown-up, threatening voice, “If you’re going to continue to lie to me, I’m going to end this call!” Once again, I burst into shocked, delighted laughter.

Alone in my room later I would revisit my past with longing. Raising five children can be chaotic and busy, challenging. From the quiet solitude of prison, however, ordinary moments from my past took on a poignancy never felt before. What I wouldn’t give now for five minutes of my past life at the dinner table on an ordinary day! I yearned to tell one more bedtime story. I longed to push someone on a swing a few more times. I ached with loss. I cried for what would never be. I hated myself. I was angry and hurting.

After orientation graduation we were assigned a job and moved out of Broker. On a Thursday morning, I heard my name called over the PA system, “Aho, Staff Desk…..Aho, Staff Desk.” Over the last 2 weeks I had become familiar with that summons. Over the next 8 years I would hear it thousands and thousands of times.

Climbing out of my bunk I stepped out of my room. Before closing the door, I tapped my pants pocket and the front of my shirt. Having confirmed my keys were in my pocket and my badge was on my shirt, I shut the door and headed to the guard desk. This ritual, too, is one I would repeat thousands, millions of times, over the next 8 years. To forget either led to punishment.

At the staff/guard desk a female guard addressed me, “Ms. A-ho”, pronouncing my name wrong. The male guard sitting next to her must have known. He erupted into smiles when she said it. Then he turned to me and said, “Ms. Aho!” “I believe she just called you an A-ho!” Turning, he paused to watch the other guard’s reaction.

She was flushing deep red. Reeling back she struggled to compose herself. The other guard snickered. I waited, uncertain. Finally able to speak, she declared, “I’ve now forgotten why I called you here. Go to your room until I can recall.” The other guard roared with laughter.

Soon I was summoned again. I was being moved to Tubman. I wedged my meager belongings into two gray bins. I carefully signed out of Broker. Every building at Shakopee has a sign in book. Like the badge and keys ritual, signing in and out of these books at every building is mandatory and punishable if not done.

Depositing my bins on a wheeled cart, I rolled it down the walkway and across the property to Tubman.Yanking my cart up to the staff desk at Tubman, a white-haired guard rose to meet me. His name badge read, “Officer Lik.” In a voice loud and gruff he grilled, “Ever been to seg?”prison segregation is a special housing unit separated from the general population. Inmates most often go to seg for discipline.

Startled, I peered up in surprise. “N-No!” I stammered.“Want to go?” He hammered back.

Shocked again, I flung back another, “N-No!” uncertain. Satisfied, Mr. Lik turned to my paperwork and slid me new keys. In the months and years ahead, I would come to appreciate Officer Lik, but just then I saw him as the enemy.

I was surprised when I opened the door to my new room and found Sarah, an R&O from my class.

I noticed Sarah’s OID tag was a bright, cheerful shade of red. “Hey!” I remarked, suddenly jealous. Her flare of color was a bright spot in our gray world. “How did you get that?” I demanded. She smiled ruefully, understanding my need for girlish sparkle.

“I forgot to sign in,” she told me. “Sgt. Laabs gave me an LOP.” She explained her red tag signified her change in status. I determined then to never, ever, ever get in trouble for the slightest thing. Happily gabbing like old friends we fell to talking half the night.

Monday after lunch, I headed to work. I hated it! My job was packaging Mylar balloons. It reminded me of my family keeping my grief raw and constant. The balloons were for holidays and birthdays, or sported movie characters. I’d fold the balloons and cry. I was overwhelmed and missed days. Just one week after moving in with Sarah she was moved elsewhere. We said our goodbyes, and I received a new roommate.

One day later, I said goodbye to her, and I was placed in a bigger room at the entrance to a wing. A few days later I was delighted when Ashley became our newest roommate.I wanted to find creative ways to spend time with my children and avoid conflict with other women over so much phone use.

One solution was story reading before my children went to school. Going to the library I considered each of my children’s interests. Sliding a book off the shelf I read the back. It was a mystery novel. I imagined my son Luke might enjoy this book and decided it was a keeper. I looked forward to calling my children in the morning!

At 6:30 a.m. the next day we began. The hallway was dark. I tried to speak softly on the phone. After 15 minutes with each child, I would call back and read another book to my next child. One day a woman confessed she was sad to be moving. She awoke every morning to the sound of my reading and was engrossed in our books. She would miss it!

Life settled into a rhythm. I adjusted best I could I felt like, maybe I can do this. A month passed, two.But I was about to have my new normal shattered.Shakopee offered programs to its incarcerated women. These programs ranged from educational opportunities to early release. I was about to have an unwelcome surprise.

As a sex-offender I did not qualify for any of these programs. Also, I would not have contact visits with my own children at first.I was completely unprepared for this. For some reason, my caseworker was surprised that I was surprised. I cried and cried in her office. I was even angry and in denial, like this just couldn’t be true. That also surprised my caseworker.

My caseworker explained that there was an appeal process I could and steps I could take to help me successfully win those appeals. One of the steps would be to take parenting balloon job interfered with taking the classes. I would need to find a new job. I was eager to do this!

Soon a clerking position was advertised in Shakopee’s “Memo of the Day.” I applied, was interviewed and hired. I immediately signed up for the class.Shakopee’s visiting room is kid friendly. Mothers play with their children, read them books, and color with them. The walls are decorated with their works of art. Windows with mesh are along one wall. Each window faces a small room. These windows and rooms were for non-contact visits. Tall chairs were for visitors.

My children found it fun to sit so much higher than everyone else. Vivi took the window as a personal finger-painting challenge, not leaving an inch of it unsmudged. As she talked, she swirled her hands over the glass, her eyebrows pursed in concentration, looking for clean spots she may have missed.

In June I was assigned to another room, another roommate. I was about to meet Janna. Sgt. Laabs, the officer in charge of Tubman, believed Janna to be a discipline problem and I was about to become guilty by association.

Janna was in her early thirties, with medium brown hair and a nervous laugh that rarely met her eyes. Her body was usually filled with anxious energy. Pacing, her steps eating up the tile, she’d stomp away her thoughts until released from her room to perform this ritual in the dayroom or courtyard. Sgt. Laabs adored quiet solitude; he hated agitation. Janna was a pebble in his shoe.

I saw Janna as an energetic new friend, friendly and inclusive. I sat with her and her friends in the dayroom. Oblivious that Sgt. Laabs had a fervent love for cathedral quiet. I laughed like I was on the show Hee-Haw. Sgt. Laabs solved this problem by LOPing us to death. Now, I was rarely without the red LOP tag.

Grief would find a new way to hit home when Mid-August I called my oldest son Noel. He gave me terrible news. My grandmother had passed away. What a shock. this news didn’t feel real at all. It’s difficult to accept traumatic news when there’s no traditional closure. I would forget that I couldn’t call her and only remember when I reached the phone.

By September I’d received so many LOPs I was headed for a more serious form of discipline. I was sent to see the head of discipline. “How do you wish to explain all of these LOPs?” she demanded.

“I don’t deserve half of them,” I responded truthfully. “Sgt Laabs hates my roommate.”

The discipline lady remained impassive. “Why not go to your room early? Why are you remaining in the day room until the last minute?”

I burst into tears. I accused, “You’re mean! This place is mean! I’ve been grounded for months my grandma just died, and you aren’t helpful at all!!” I blew my nose loudly and sank into my chair.

Have you ever been treated unfairly? How did you respond? How did it feel?

Looking panicked, she leaned back in her chair and braced her hands on her desk. “Would you like me to call the chaplain?” she offered.“No,” I whispered, crying. Soon I collected myself and left.It would get worse. In October my husband took our 4 younger children and moved out of Minnesota, 3000 miles away to Washington state.

I was placed on suicide watch.

Can you relate to a need for personal change? Are you struggling to succeed?

Have you experienced depression or other mental health challenges?

Are you overwhelmed, burnt out, run down and looking for real help?

God says in the Bible

13 [Not in your own strength] for it is God Who is all the while [j]effectually at work in you [energizing and creating in you the power and desire], both to will and to work for His good pleasure and satisfaction and [k]delight. Phil 2:13

But those who wait for the Lord [who expect, look for, and hope in Him] shall change and renew their strength and power; they shall lift their wings and mount up [close to God] as eagles [mount up to the sun]; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint or become tired. Isaiah 41:1

How do we get this strength? Jesus says:

Keep on asking and it will be given you; keep on seeking and you will find; keep on knocking [reverently] and [the door] will be opened to you.

Matthew 7:8

For everyone who keeps on asking receives; and he who keeps on seeking finds; and to him who keeps on knocking, [the door] will be opened.

Isaiah 60:1 “Arise from the depression and prostration in which circumstances have kept you—rise to a new life! (AMPC version)

God, I pray for the person listening right now. I pray you meet their every need in this moment. Amen

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