So a friend just returned from a six-month stint in a federal women's prison for her participation in an annual political protest at a military base. What do you bake to bring to her welcome home party?
Bars, of course. Preferably something chocolate.
Friday night at the Brainerd Public Library, about 60 people gathered to welcome Mary Benson, a Brainerd mother of four, home from federal prison. And yes, most of her friends brought plates of homemade bars. Cookies, too.
All the attention was almost too much for Benson, a stay-at-home mom, who has experienced a difficult transition from prison to her comfortable life as a wife, mother and community member in Brainerd.
"I'm such a shy person. This is so hard for me," Benson said quietly, before she was asked to speak to the large group about prison life.
Benson, 57, and her niece, Rachel Hayward, Negaunee, Mich., were released from the Federal Correctional Institute in Pekin, Ill., Jan. 14 after serving their sentences for trespassing onto Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., in November 2000 while attending the annual demonstration to protest the School of the Americas.
While in prison Benson earned 12 cents an hour cleaning the lobby and administrative offices at the nearby men's prison. Her days were spent working, crocheting, writing letters and sharing daily tea breaks with her niece, who lived in a separate dorm at the minimum security facility. She received about five to 15 letters a day from family members, friends and others from around the country who believed in her cause.
Once or twice a week, Benson wrote to friend Merry Lynn Roelofs, who e-mailed her letter to about 90 people in the community who wanted to know how she was doing. In turn, Roelofs wrote back to Benson as often as possible.
"We'd talk about church and kids, anything to take her mind off being there," said Roelofs.
Sara Dunlap created a scrapbook for Benson of her prison experience, including many of her letters she wrote home, which almost has become a journal in itself documenting her life behind bars.
No one is happier for her return than her husband, Chuck. Their 17-year-old son John, said Chuck, was worried they'd wither away from a lack of food, but they survived. The two secretly canceled their cable television and bought a digital satellite system while Benson was in prison, well aware she wouldn't allow it if she wasn't behind bars. And for some reason, Benson arrived home to find only three bath towels in the entire house. One of her first errands out of prison was to go to the store and buy more towels.
"I still don't know where those towels went," said Mary with a laugh.
"No matter what she cooks, it tastes good," said Chuck. "Obviously we didn't clean quite as well as she wanted, but I can clean better than I used to.
"I could have baked these, perhaps," he said with a laugh, pointing to a plate of homemade bars.
Chuck said prison has changed his wife. She was nervous to use her credit cards and checks at area stores, afraid that for some reason they would be rejected. Shopping is an overwhelming experience for her. There are too many choices, a freedom she had to give up in prison.
Chuck printed off a digital photograph of their north Brainerd home, her garden -- anything -- and used the image and computer paper as stationary and write to her. Every three weeks he drove to Illinois with one of their four children to visit her.
Chuck and John attended the annual demonstration against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in November, mainly because they knew Mary would be proud. It was the first time they had attended the demonstration. Many marchers carried signs with Mary's name on them, along with the names of the other 25 protesters who were serving sentences.
Julie Tappe, a St. Cloud State University student, attended Benson's welcome home party Friday. Tappe said Benson's activism and time in prison has made her more determined to stand up for her own beliefs. She plans to attend the SOA demonstration next November in Georgia. "It encouraged me, actually," said Tappe. "It is outrageous that the government would arrest someone for protesting terrorism, which is what it is."
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