The Rev. Bonnie Polley fiddled with tiny screws at her desk on a recent afternoon at the Clark County Detention Center as the 81-year-old tried to attach new temples to an inmate’s eyeglasses.
It’s not something that would typically fall under the job description of a jail’s chaplain, but Polley said she tends to do whatever little tasks need doing. So when the inmate came in with glasses that had a glued-on head strap, she agreed to attempt to remove the strap and salvage the frames.
She used the temples from an old pair of glasses she pulled from a bag in her desk drawer, left over from a project she started years ago that ensured inmates over the age of 40 could get reading glasses. The project since has been moved to the commissary, but Polley kept some glasses just in case.
Polley has been the jail’s chaplain for 38 years, though she’s only been on the payroll for 16.
“I’m never going to retire,” she said, laughing. “I always tell the officers they’ll just have to carry me out of the jail when I die.”
Polley said she asked to be paid an annual salary of $1 after her husband retired so that she could get health insurance, and her friend, a lawyer for the Metropolitan Police Department, was shocked she hadn’t been paid for the first two decades of work.
Since 2004, she’s been a salaried employee. Last year, records show, she received about $103,000 in total pay and benefits.
Moving to Las Vegas
After growing up in southern Louisiana, Polley attended the University of Colorado, where — she jokes — she majored in drinking beer. While there, she met and married her husband, David.
They moved in 1960 to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where David went to law school, Bonnie worked as a dental assistant, and the couple had their first of three sons before moving to Las Vegas.
“We moved on Memorial Day weekend 1964, and I just remember it being so hot I was sure I had gone to hell,” Polley said. “And my mother, who was back in Louisiana, was sure the mob was going to get me.”
Polley said that when they moved to Las Vegas, she decided to be “a good wife and a good mother,” staying home with her son instead of going back to work. But that lasted about three weeks before she got bored and took on a part-time dental assistant job that quickly turned full time.
She kept that job while having her two other children and before moving into a volunteer role placing dental assistants in offices. She remained in that position until 1976 but said she wasn’t happy.
In 1974 she had a spiritual awakening and started getting involved in classes at Christ Church Episcopal, 2000 S. Maryland Parkway.
In January 1980, Polley got a call from a dental office asking for a replacement for Carol Lamb, one of the dental assistants she had previously placed in the office.
“How long will Carol be gone?” Polley asked.
The response: “Oh, haven’t you heard? Carol killed her husband last night.”
Lamb was arrested after she admitted to shooting her husband in the back of the head as he slept on their living room couch in the early hours of Jan. 17, 1980. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1981 but was released in 1984 when her sentence was commuted, according to reporting at the time from the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Polley said Lamb’s arrest came just as one of her classes at church gave her an assignment to go talk to someone she didn’t know about Jesus.
“I had no idea how I was going to find someone I didn’t know, but then I got the call about Carol,” Polley said. “I knew right away that I had to go see her. She was the one I needed to talk to.”
Since Lamb’s dead husband was the nephew of a former Clark County sheriff, Polley didn’t expect to get very far in her attempts to set up a visit. But when she called the jail, she was told she could come down anytime.
She checked in at security and walked nervously to the visitation room. She sat on one side of a pane of glass, waiting for Lamb to come in and pick up the phone on the other side. When Lamb arrived, they spoke for hours, uninterrupted, and Polley said she knew then what she was going to do for the rest of her life.
‘Everyone loves Bonnie’
Lee Estabrook, 57, met Polley in 1995 when he was incarcerated on child sex charges. He said Polley never judged him and became a quick friend after his parents reached out to her to help him.
“My parents and I are members of the Episcopal church, so they reached out to Bonnie because she was the deacon at Christ Church Episcopal, where I had just started going,” Estabrook said. “My mom and dad lived in Louisiana and I was out here, so there’s not much they could do, so she came and see me every couple days while I was in prison for 20 years.”
The two stayed in touch when Estabrook was released from prison. Now, he considers her a second mother. He helps her with things like fixing her son’s car, and she helps him whenever needed, including when he broke parole and she took in his cockapoo Maisie that would have otherwise been sent to the pound.
“I have visitation rights and can see Maisie anytime,” Estabrook laughed. “Bonnie takes such good care of her, and she still remembers me, so it’s a good thing.”
Cheri Day, who’s been Polley’s assistant since 2008, said she met Polley when she volunteered to help run a prison Bible study. She attributed the program’s success to her boss’s strong work ethic.
“She’s always there, and she doesn’t decline calls or refuse visits from former inmates,” Day said. “A kind word and a kind deed can change a person’s life, and Bonnie Polley is living proof of that. Everyone loves Bonnie.”
No plan to stop
Looking up at her office wall, where she hung a hand-painted rendition of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” that an inmate gave her, Polley reflected on her career. Despite her age and the changes that have accompanied the pandemic, Polley said she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
Polley said she flew by the seat of her pants for the entirety of her career, so she never expected it to become what it has, but she’s grateful for the impact she’s been able to make at the jail.
In addition to her work as a chaplain, Polley and her husband, who died in 2016, worked extensively to help people in the Las Vegas justice system. Her husband would defend them in court and draft legal forms so that she could more easily help with specific cases.
After David Polley’s death, Christ Church Episcopal worked with Family Promise of Las Vegas, a local homeless shelter, to expand its program to help homeless families in his honor. Polley said they renovated one of the church’s suites as a Family Promise house to hold large homeless families while they work to get back on their feet. The new facility is called David’s Digs.
Jail ministry has been Polley’s passion for so long that she doesn’t see any reason to stop. She loves getting to know the inmates and thinks it’s important to have people around who treat them like human beings, without judging them for the crimes they’ve committed.
“I’m going to do this for the rest of my life,” Polley said. “What I find most fulfilling in this job is that I, hopefully, provide hope for people who have lost all hope.”