Gabrielle Looper (left) and Kari Easter chat at the Guthrie County Jail on Mother’s Day. The women, both mothers, spent the holiday in jail this year.
Gabrielle Looper (left) and Kari Easter chat at the Guthrie County Jail on Mother’s Day. The women, both mothers, spent the holiday in jail this year.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a five-part series that looks back at some notable holidays this past year through unfamiliar perspectives. The series concludes at Christmas.

GUTHRIE CENTER

8 a.m.

This Mother’s Day doesn’t start with breakfast in bed delivered by small hands, but with trays carrying eggs, sausage and toast slipped into locked jail cells.

In adjoining cells at the Guthrie County Jail, not yet ready to face the day, Gabrielle Looper and Kari Easter eat their breakfast with their eyes closed, perhaps with a bit of conversation about what dinner will be that day.

Most days, they’d go back to bed right after breakfast.

Routines are built, even in jail.

But this Mother’s Day, spent behind bars and away from their kids, is anything but routine.

———

Looper, 26, was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, although her family’s Iowa ties go back for decades. She’s lived in Iowa since she was a child. Her great-grandfather Benny Sheeder was the Guthrie County sheriff in the ’50s.

When she and her boyfriend Joe were just getting to know each other, the couple traveled to Denver for a month, where they were essentially homeless — not new for Looper, who has lived in a tent by the river in Panora in the past.

They ate at the Denver Rescue Mission, slept on sidewalks against buildings, watched one guy go after another with a knife, lost most of their belongings and befriended an older woman who gave Looper a hairbrush she still has.

The experience brought them closer together.

Looper had her first baby, a daughter named Lilly Jo, in March, about three weeks before she was arrested for a probation violation. She had been sought for nearly a year after she absconded from court-ordered drug treatment. She had been convicted of possessing fentanyl, a powerful painkiller she injected into her veins.

In that year, whenever police officers came to the trailer house where she lived with Joe, Looper hid inside a false oven they had modified into a hiding spot.

She should have turned herself in — she knows that now, she said.

But she had a baby on the way, and she was scared. It was just her luck, she said with a laugh, that after years of trying to get pregnant, it finally happened when she was on the run.

The oven trick, which worked so many times, failed after someone tipped off the Guthrie County Sheriff’s Office to the fact that she hid in the oven. Deputies had an urgent motivation to find her this time — a state Department of Human Services worker told them that Looper’s newborn had traces of marijuana in her system, and that the trailer smelled of urine and feces, according to court records.

They found her in the oven, and three weeks after she became a mother, Looper became an inmate as well.

Easter soon followed.

———

10 a.m.

They can’t see each other, but the open layout of the side-by-side cells with a hallway running in front of them allows the women to easily talk. And they do, all day.

Motherhood, as much as their shared jail time, has made Looper and Easter close. In the month the two mothers had spent next door to each other, a bond has formed.

“We didn’t know each other, but now I love her,” Easter says.

The women, a decade apart in age, speak candidly about pregnancy and labor, amniotic fluid tests and epidurals and childbirth. After the month they’ve had, there’s not much they won’t talk about.

New mom Looper describes pregnancy as a beautiful process — not as fun at the end, perhaps — but she smiles when recalling spending three days in the hospital in Jefferson and 14 hours of labor to have her baby girl.

“In the end, she just wiggled out,” Looper said. “She was ready to come out. I was ready, too.”

Easter, a mother of four, is more pragmatic.

“Pregnancy is horrible,” she said. “What glow are you talking about?”

———

Easter, 36, grew up in western Iowa.

She’s been in these cells before, having been arrested for possession of methamphetamine and the ingredients to make it, and domestic abuse.

“Most of the trouble I got in was in Guthrie Center,” she said.

When Easter first met her fiance, Kevin, the father of her youngest child, she made fun of his mullet and the fact that he was smaller than her.

“He tried to kiss me, and I ran off,” she recalled.

He asked her out. She said no. He wasn’t her type.

But they kept meeting.

Thinking of him while sitting in her cell, she covered her face.

“Oh my God, he loved me,” she said. “He’s always stood by me.”

Awhile back, Easter studied at Des Moines Area Community College to be an addiction counselor, hoping to use her own experience with drug addiction to help others.

But she relapsed, and dropped out.

Easter has had three girls, all of whom were removed from her care because of her past drug use and arrests. The oldest girl lives with her father, and the younger two have been adopted by someone else.

Easter’s youngest is her only boy, Kameron. He turned 4 the day Easter arrived at the Guthrie County Jail in April, having been arrested for a probation violation involving a drunken-driving charge.

Easter tested positive for methamphetamine on a routine probation drug screening, and she later admitted she had been using for about a year, court records show.

They celebrated Kameron’s birthday before she left for jail.

“I have lost my kids before,” Easter said. “I don’t know how I ended up here again. I know how it feels, and I don’t want it to happen again.”

———

11 a.m.

A folded sheet of notebook paper hanging from a shelf in Easter’s cell has purple-traced handprints, two overlapping each other: fiance Kevin’s, and a smaller, shakier print belonging to 4-year-old Kameron.

For now, Kameron stays with Kevin. The two write letters to Easter. One from Kevin includes a roughly detailed sketch of the garden he is planning at their home. Others are covered with scribbles from Kameron.

“He’s my best friend,” Easter says of her son. “He’s rambunctious. He’s all boy. He’ll be in the yard, tormenting the dog — he’s ornery. He’s a little turd.

“I miss him so much.”

Looper’s baby was a surprise. Easter’s youngest was planned.

“I’d lost my girls and was on drugs bad,” she says. “I thought he’d save me. I thought he’d be a miracle baby.

“And here I am again.”

Relapse is part of recovery, Looper says from the next cell.

She gets it.

———

12:30 p.m.

Lunch arrives.

The woman passing the trays into the cells is a mom as well.

“Happy Mother’s Day.”

“Same to you.”

The meals aren’t bad. Some of the best ones have chicken-fried steak, baked potatoes, taco pie or walking tacos. Looper and Easter have tried them all.

Easter particularly likes the tenderloin — she’d said early on in her stay that she thought she wouldn’t get that in jail, but it showed up one day.

After lunch, the TVs come on.

Looper rarely watched TV before, but they watch a lot here. They program the small television sets in their cells to the same channel so they can follow along with the same shows and make fun of the commercials together.

Looper doesn’t sing songs anymore. She sings jingles.

They joke that they’re cheating on each other when they change the channel.

They like cop shows.

The cells will never be homey, but they have personal touches.

Easter arrived for her stay in the Guthrie County Jail with four grocery sacks full of books, shampoo, body wash, lotion and colored pencils.

“I’ve about moved in,” she jokes.

She writes letters and keeps a gratitude journal.

Mother’s Day cards line both women’s desks, as do photos of their kids.

As much as those touches of home are a comfort, so is the zany humor the women cling to.

“I’m gonna get high off Mountain Dew for the first time in my life,” Looper says.

They joke when they’re out for a breath of fresh air: “Should we be back in our cages?”

A few weeks before, Easter put up a sign on her cell door reading, “Don’t feed the animals.”

“It’s the little things,” Easter says. “We try to enjoy ourselves.

“We try to make the best of it. We both have bad days sometimes, but mostly…” Her voice trails off.

———

1:30 p.m.

Looper picks up the phone. It’s time to call Lilly.

Calls are 50 cents a minute, but she calls as often as she can — and she’s not about to miss talking to her baby on their first Mother’s Day.

Looper’s grandma picks up. They talk about church and what Lilly will wear for her pictures on Tuesday.

Normally Looper can say “hi” to her daughter during these calls, but today, the infant is sleeping.

“Give Lilly kisses for me,” Looper says before she chokes up and returns the phone to its cradle.

“Was she sleeping?” Easter asks.

No answer.

“You OK?”

“Yeah.”

They fall silent.

Weeks before, after the first phone call to Lilly, the first tears and the first “You OK?” came an outpouring of words as Looper shared her “whole life story” with the woman next door.

Those phone calls are sacred.

When Easter calls Kameron, they talk about playing with the dog, working in the garden and his blanket — he calls it his “tankie.”

When Looper talks to Lilly on the phone, she does most of the talking.

“She’s starting to coo,” Looper says. “She’s grown so much since I last held her. I’m missing a lot.”

———

3 p.m.

Looper tries to call Lilly again, and this time, she gets through.

“Hi, baby girl. Mama loves you. Are you talking to Mama? I love you. Talk to me. Tell me all about it. Are you getting fussy, Lilly Jo?

“I’ll be home soon.”

Sometimes they don’t have to settle for phone calls.

Once a week, on visitation days, her favorite days, Looper is able to see her daughter through a glass window. A few days before Mother’s Day, she was able to hold Lilly, a surprise that made her day. She’d stopped asking to hold the baby during visits.

But Easter has only had one visit with her young son in jail. It’s too hard.

She saw Kameron through a glass window for about five minutes once.

“I cried the whole time, and he just watched,” she said. “It was rough. He didn’t know what to think.”

Connected to his mother by a phone receiver as he peered at her through the glass, the 4-year-old said, “I’ll pray for you.”

Thinking about that day, Easter kisses her son’s photo before returning it to its spot on the shelf.

———

4 p.m.

There’s no easy way to spend Mother’s Day in jail.

But the day isn’t empty. The deputies and dispatchers know how difficult it is for the women to spend any day, but this one in particular, away from their kids. In the past, they’d watched as the women were brought to tears when sheriff’s office employees’ kids visited the office.

One deputy stops by with a card for each of them, and nail polish.

Manicures commence. A tattoo reading “peace” that circles between Looper’s pointer finger and thumb flexes as she painstakingly colors her nails white.

Sheriff’s office employees offer snacks and pop, too.

The gestures prompt fresh tears.

———

6:30 p.m.

Time ticks by during an extended jail stay, and it’s never more evident than when the women spend time in an enclosed, fenced area attached to the jail, partially outdoors.

On Mother’s Day, they eat dinner out there.

There, they can watch as leaves grow on the trees that were bare when they walked into the jail.

There, they can see the sky.

And there, they talk about the first thing they want to do when they leave jail.

Both their minds turn to their kids.

“I’m excited to hold (Lilly) and give her a bunch of kisses,” Looper says.

Easter adds, “I just want to chase Kam around and hear him laugh.”

They’re counting the days. On this Mother’s Day, Looper has about a month left in jail. Easter will leave in just a few days.

She’ll write, she promises. They both know that receiving mail is one of the few bright spots in days spent in a cell.

———

7 p.m.

In the same way that they discuss childbirth, Looper and Easter are candid about the drug use that typically has fueled their arrests. Both began using drugs when they were teens. They talk about marijuana, meth, injected painkillers.

“I don’t know what happened to my life,” Easter said. “And here we are, sitting in jail.”

They’ve both been there before.

Both intend to never return.

“I swear they put me and Kari in here so we could learn from each other,” Looper says.

They know it’ll be difficult when they leave.

Looper has been lucky, she said. Her family is taking care of Lilly — and that’s not always easy, especially because of how little time they had together before she went to jail.

“I kind of feel like a baby sitter these days in some ways instead of a mom, but it’ll get better,” Looper says.

As soon as she gets out, Looper intends to go into a drug-treatment program, one of the requirements for once again obtaining custody of her infant daughter, who has been placed in the care of Looper’s mother and grandmother for now. She’ll also have to get a job and a place to live and show she is able to care for the baby.

“I’m going to pretty much do whatever I have to do to get her back in my care,” she says. “I’m going to have to work my butt off to get her back. I’m ready to.”

The child would turn 3 months old the day after her mom got out of jail.

Both women agree that if they have to spend Mother’s Day apart from their children, at least they’re spending it together.

“I’m gonna need extra pages in my gratitude book for today,” Easter says.

———

Looper and Easter both walked out of the Guthrie County Jail soon after that Mother’s Day.

Both were determined. To stay clean. To stay out of jail. To get their kids back.

They were the best he could have asked for in inmates, Guthrie County Sheriff Marty Arganbright said this week. They got along well with sheriff’s office employees, kept their cells clean and had a good sense of humor.

But he was glad to see them leave — and neither has been back in his jail.

“When they get all messed up with bad decisions, what they could have been or were at one time is slowly eroding away,” he said. “Once we get them in here, after a month or so, it starts to come back.”

He knows Looper went to drug treatment, and he’s seen Easter, her fiance and their child around town.

“I think they both know they’re not going to have another chance at this,” he said.

This Sunday afternoon, seven months after she cried while listening to her infant daughter coo on the phone while she spent Mother’s Day in jail, Looper posted online:

“Lilly just stood up all by herself — NO HANDS!”

A few weeks before, the baby had said “Mama” for the first time.