As you read this, an estimated 20,000 people are spending the holidays wrongfully incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, and families are spending the holidays without their loved ones. Our client Katie Garding and her family are among them.
We recently spoke with Katie about what it’s like to spend Christmas in prison, and we also spoke with her family about the realities of being apart from Katie at this time of year. Although these interviews revealed hardship and sadness, they also revealed resilience and hope for the future.
Christmas in Prison
If you know Katie, you know she radiates positivity. Therefore, we weren’t surprised to learn that she makes the most of her time at the Montana Women’s Prison during the holidays.
Katie lives in the “dog pod” with other members of the dog training program, Prison Paws. She tries to make Christmas with her pod special by decorating with makeshift ornaments and putting together gift bags with body wash and baked goods purchased through their accounts at the prison.
Katie always finds a way to be generous during the holidays despite her circumstances. For example, last year, she sent us the Christmas card below. We had been representing her for years at this point, but she wanted to introduce herself to the new staff and bring some holiday cheer to the office.
Before Katie was wrongfully convicted, she would spend every holiday with her family—even the small ones. She remembers her son’s favorite being Fourth of July. But Katie always loved Christmas best because it meant visiting with out-of-state relatives, eating her mom’s Christmas dinner, and cuddling up on the couch to watch Christmas movies.
So for Katie, the best and worst part of her Christmases at the prison have been the extended visitation hours. She loves seeing her family, but it’s particularly difficult on holidays when she has to watch them leave.
“You’re just so used to being with your family at those times,” Katie said.
To get through, Katie focuses on the silver linings: her son who she lovingly describes as “nerdy and witty” and a family that fiercely fights for her.
Spending the Holidays Without Katie
Although the Garding family shares Katie’s positive outlook, spending the holidays without her is really tough. Katie’s older sister, Chyrel Garding, put it simply when she said, “Holidays are the worst.”
“The whole family is missing an integral piece of us,” Chyrel said. “And we all know she is innocent, so there’s no healing. My parents especially are broken.”
Katie’s parents, Lori and Rob Garding, are affected year-round by the wrongful incarceration of their daughter, but Christmas has become increasingly difficult to endure.
“We haven’t had much of a Christmas celebration since Katie’s been locked up,” Rob said. “She (Lori) cries every day. Every single day.”
Katie’s son, Carson, recently graduated from high school. An avid video-gamer, Carson spends most of his free time focused on gaming, which has helped him get through holiday breaks without his mom.
“It’s (holiday break) usually pretty fun, but sometimes I feel kind of empty, I guess, is the way to put it,” Carson said.
To combat this feeling of emptiness, Carson, like his mom, tries to focus on the good.
“The way that I’ve handled my mom being gone for so long is sometimes I just don’t think about it,” Carson said. “I definitely want my mom here in my life more than anything at this point. I think a lot of it is just not focusing on what’s missing. It does feel unfair, but I try not to focus on it.”
Although members of the Garding family each have their own way of coping with Katie’s absence from their lives, there is an overwhelming resilience that they all share. This resilience may be challenged at the holidays, but their love for Katie is always evident.
“A Christmas miracle”
Each Christmas, Katie gifts her family artwork—mostly paintings, drawings, and collages. Due to the limitations set by the prison, Katie’s family is only able to send her things like books, magazine subscriptions, and money for her account.
But giving gifts will be more meaningful this year. Due to her impeccable record of good behavior while incarcerated, in the coming months, Katie will be transferred to a pre-release center where she may be released after a minimum of one year.
“Even though she won’t be present this Christmas, it’s really exciting because we all get to act as if she is and actually get her gifts that she can use very soon,” Chyrel said.
Katie is still over a year away from being paroled, but Lori describes her upcoming transfer to pre-release as a “Christmas miracle” and has already begun buying her supplies including bedding, towels, a “real” toothbrush, and shoes.
“Colorful shoes,” Lori said. “Not those white tennis shoes.”
We cannot begin to understand the relief Lori feels knowing Katie is going to get out. But even on parole, Katie will still be under the supervision of the Department of Justice and will still be wrongfully convicted.
“She’s going to get out, and we all know she’s innocent, but she has to go look for a job and say she’s a murderer,” Chyrel said.
This is why we are still in the fight for Katie’s innocence and are currently preparing to bring her case to the highest court in the land. But regardless of the status of her conviction upon her release from prison, we know Katie will overcome any challenge with the same strength and grace she has demonstrated throughout her wrongful incarceration.
Katie’s family cannot wait to spend Christmas with her again. Katie’s other older sister, Kina Lindbloom, has picked out and wrapped a Christmas gift for Katie every year of her wrongful conviction. They’re waiting for her in her room at home. Rob said they will cook ham—Katie’s favorite holiday food. And they’ll probably watch “Home Alone” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”— also some of her favorites. But really, the plans will be left up to Katie.
“We’ll do whatever she wants to do,” Lori said. “I think it’s time for her to build traditions.”