A Life "I Would Have Never Imagined"

For far too many women, including Heidi De Leon, the trauma-to-prison pipeline is real —and devastating. But Heidi shares her story to prove that your past doesn't have to define your future.

My life has been up and down for as long as I can remember. When I was 14, my dad killed my mom and I carried the guilt of this for years, thinking it was my fault because I was not a good kid and not what my father expected of me. During my youth I was sexually abused and physically beaten by the family who we lived next to. After losing my mom, I went to juvenile hall and a large group home. While in the hall and group home, I learned about gangs and quickly learned that in order to survive, I would need to be connected with a group. At some point I got beat in and was accepted. After a year or two, my uncle was finally approved to be my caretaker, but shortly after I moved in with him, he died and my life fell apart again. I gave up on everything. I bounced from foster home to foster home until I landed at a home that cared. I was able to finish high school and went to a local college. However I felt like an outcast at this college and quickly drowned my feelings with drinking and smoking. I later crashed my car into a pole, which I somehow survived.

Shortly after, I caught a bus to LA and landed at the Alameda station downtown. I had no idea what to do and quickly was sucked into the street life. I hung with the squatter kids in Hollywood. Doing drugs and hopping from drop-in center to drop-in center was my daily routine.

I ended up going to prison and spent a large amount of my time in SHU. I was in and out for five years. In 2005 I became pregnant after being raped by a man pretending to be a San Bernardino cop. Out of anger I called the SBPD to report the incident but very foolishly also threatened to kill the officer. A few days later, officers came and arrested me for threatening the officer. No one even knew if this officer existed, I was never asked to identify him, and for all I know someone was impersonating him. But now here I was, four months pregnant and sitting helpless in jail.

I know I could have fought the case, and I regret not doing so now. I was given a parole violation and served four months. While I was at California Institution for Women, this was the first time I was able to be on the main yard and not in SHU! I heard horror stories of ladies having babies in their cells, babies being snatched from them, and women coming back without their uterus. At one point, the doctor said I could get a free tubal ligation and not be burdened with having kids for a long time. All I could think was that this baby is not a burden; even being raped, I still felt like I needed to be a mom.

Upon release I was told I had a warrant and that San Bernardino was holding the charges against me. When I went in front of the judge, I remember him telling my lawyer, “Get her to plead. This will be a sham trial; offer her a waiver.” The lawyer came back and offered me a Cruz waiver so I could go home (even though I had no home), have the baby and then turn myself in. I took the waiver out of desperation and fear. I was sure I’d die having a baby in prison!

I was able to find a room while I waited to have my baby. I used what little money I had to buy some clothes; all I had was the prison muumuu I was released in.

On May 22, 2006, I gave birth on my terms and not in prison as I feared.  Every day I debated running and hiding, or finding a family to take my baby. I knew within six weeks, I would have to turn myself in to finish my deal. If I ran, it meant eight years in prison.

The day I turned myself in, a bit of me died. Handing over my baby was a nightmare. At some point in prison, I signed some papers and never knew I was signing my rights away. This is often the case for many mothers in prison. Aside from the jailhouse lawyers (AKA ladies) who knew the ropes, we were on our own to figure out our rights.

Fast forward to now: I am a mother of 3 kids and am a manager at a residential drug treatment facility in south LA.  I have been working in addiction for almost 10 years.  My path to freedom was through education: I gained an AA in drug and alcohol counseling from Los Angeles City College and then transferred to California State University Dominguez Hills to obtain a BA in Africana Studies.  I was honored to be a McNair Scholar, which opened me up to going to graduate school, a prospect I would have never imagined. Amazing mentors at all the colleges I attended helped guide me and make navigating the education system less intimidating. Soon after, I was accepted into the Master of Social Work program at University of Southern California. Through great support of my family and kids it was possible and an honor to achieve.  Despite the never-ending collateral consequences I will face as a woman who has been incarcerated, my voice and story, I hope, is empowering and helpful to others.  I will continue to be a scholar, activist and warrior to help end the perpetual barriers that the formerly incarcerated face as well as working to dismantle the school to prison pipeline.


Heidi De Leon is a mother who holds a Master of Social Work from University of Southern California. She lives in Downey, California.