“Take it down ladies” the staff repeated as we cleaned up the mess we made drawing, coloring, playing games, and writing letters to our families. It was the last indoor rec we had before showering and going to bed. I finished cleaning and went back to my room, a one-person cell with nothing but a steel toilet and sink attached to the wall, alongside a cheap mat and pillow. The pillow itself was considered a luxury, but I also had a desk in the cell, where I did most of my writing.
As I waited to be called for showers, I changed into my shower gown and lay in my bed thinking. I’d been incarcerated for five months by then and couldn’t help but think that prison could be home for the rest of my life.
I had been accused of a serious crime at the age of 17, and because the courts wanted to charge me as an adult instead of as a minor, I was looking at anywhere from 25 years to life instead of life until I was 25.
I thought of all the things leading up to my time behind bars and my eyes welled up at the thought of my mom losing her only daughter to the system. I constantly repeated to myself how good I was doing before I got busted. I was working, going to school and even helping out around home.
It’s just that the streets contained this familiarity of people who hated just like I hated, or who inflicted just as I inflicted. Our reasoning was different, but our feelings were the same. So as each day passed I wrote in my journal & reminded myself that I needed to keep my sanity, and that I needed to stay motivated because even if I did get life, I didn’t want to lose myself; I wanted to be firm. I wanted to stand on my two feet and be strong enough to hear the results.
A couple of months into my 18th birthday I lost my fitness and was sent to county jail in Lynwood, California, to continue fighting my case. I was there for nearly a year until around my 19th birthday I was offered my first deal: six years with half of that time in county jail.
The deal meant that I would spend the next three years in a place with no sunlight or outdoors, and where I’d deal with constant raids, disgusting showers and power-hungry officers. But at that point, after so much waiting, I was ready for a prison term because all I wanted was a release date.
I didn’t care if I was in for two, five or 15 years. I just wanted to know that I was going home eventually.
I left my sentence in God’s hands, and God took care of me. When I walked into the courtroom, the judge explained my sentence and what would be on my record. My heart began to break when he doubled my credits (time served) and sentenced me to 50 percent of five years. In an instant, I had less than a year of my sentence left to finish in state prison, and then I was going home. My heart skipped a beat just at the thought.
I sat in the back of the courtroom alone for the first time as tears flowed down my eyes. God was with me that day, and chills spread throughout my body as I realized that everything had changed. I no longer was the person I once knew myself to be.
In May 2015, I was released from state prison at 20 years old. I starved myself all morning that day just so I could exaggerate to my dad about how hungry I was so we could have a gigantic breakfast again for the first time in years. I came out in some fresh 501s, a plain white tee, and my all-white Nikes. I thought I looked good, but my dad strongly disagreed and took me to Forever 21 for some “real” clothes.
From there, I needed to get back to school, and I had momentum on my side. I’d completed a GED program while I was in juvenile hall, so when I got out, I started school at Citrus College like any other 20-year old.
I also got a part-time job at a local family-owned restaurant, and that’s when it really felt like things were coming together. The only problem was that because it all seemed to be happening so fast, there were times where I would do nothing but stay in my room all day. Hiding between four walls was familiar and somewhat comforting, while being around so many people outdoors was foreign.
It wasn’t until I got into touch with Jimmy Wu from the InsideOUT Writers that I felt like I could come out of my shell again. Through IOW, I finally got to meet other people who’d been incarcerated at young ages or who even grew up in the system.
As time went on and I attended IOW’s weekly writing circles, I saw that everyone involved wasn’t just connected by the mistakes of our past but also by the tremendous ambition to do more with our future. I also saw how the staff dedicate themselves to helping formerly incarcerated people by providing resources like job leads, mentorship and group outings.
Even with IOW, however, my first year out was the toughest. The chaos I tried to avoid had a strange way of following me, and before I knew it I found myself in a household that wasn’t the best place for me. Soon it became clear that if I wasn’t careful, I could fall right back into what got me to jail in the first place, so I worked hard, picked up some more hours at the restaurant, and looked for a place of my own. It took awhile, but eventually I found a small studio about 15 minutes from work and school and was within my budget. Ever since I got this place, I’ve felt a lot of self-growth.
Readjusting was nearly as difficult as serving my time inside. Ever since I’ve been back, there have been so many moments where I’ve just been ready to give up. I do have a strong support system, but I don’t have a daily support system or someone who can simply remind me that it’s going to be okay. Every day I’m faced with different decisions and choices, and I have to be an adult and decide: What do I want? What would be a better decision to make?
I have no idea why I thought any 20-year-old is supposed to have it together, but I’m now 21 and my life is a mess — but it is a beautiful mess. I’m going to school, and as I get further into my education I’m starting to ask myself, what is it that I really want to do? What do I want to spend the rest of my life doing?
I know I want a life full of passion, and that I don’t want to be one of those people who hates waking up and going to work. I want to love what I do, but this is where the anxiety kicks in. What if I’m just going through a phase and I just get over my ambition?
Then I remember I also have so many things to be proud of. I’m a camp counselor for at-risk youth at Camp Ubuntu, and I’m also a motivational speaker. Time with young people is definitely something that pushes me. I see myself in the kids, and it sincerely makes me happy to help them overcome their fears and to help them smile and dance and go crazy (in a positive way).
I’m pushed to become better for them, and this definitely motivates me. Being able to make something of a difference in this way definitely pumps my heart and gets the blood flowing through my veins. I’ve reflected so much on the things that have happened since I’ve been out, and it truly takes my breath away. As I continue this journey, it’s all definitely been worth it. It’s been worth all the tears I’ve cried, all the heartbreaks I’ve gone through and all the trauma I’ve endured. Without all of it, I wouldn’t be able to help and understand others the way I can now.
The author has decided to remain anonymous to protect her privacy. When she is not writing in her diary, she can be found enjoying some coffee with her friends and family.