When I was born, in the Bronx, New York, my mother lost custody of me. My two siblings were already under the care of a foster family, so for the early years of my life I went to live with them.
At 6 years old my mom gained custody of me again, but after being taken away from my foster home, I was hysterical. My foster parents were from Puerto Rico, which meant my first language was Spanish. At first, I didn't know who my mother was and couldn't communicate with her—I thought I had been kidnapped.
My birth mother lived in a different part of the city, and I struggled to adapt to the new environment. My foster family had been a married couple with siblings, who helped care for the kids, but my mom was a single parent trying to raise four children alone.
Growing up in New York city
My mom had a good heart, but she struggled with a lot in her life, including addiction, co-dependency, and mental illness. My siblings and I all had to grow up quickly; we had no choice but to take on the responsibilities of being a parent.
While living with my birth mom I dealt with sexual, verbal, and physical abuse from other adults in my life, which was extremely hard.
One day, when I was 12 years old, my mom woke up and said her back hurt. She went to the hospital, and they told her she had breast cancer. Two weeks later, she passed away. I felt so lost. I had just become close with my mother, really got to know her and accepted who she was. I finally found my love for her and then, so abruptly, she was gone.
Because her passing was so sudden, I believed my mom had faked her own death. I thought she couldn't handle raising us and so ran away. From the age of 12, until I was 25 years old, I spent hours looking for her online certain she was still alive.
After the death of my mother, I spent my teenage years in various foster and group homes. When I was 16 years old, I couldn't take living there anymore, so I ran away. Shortly after leaving, I met an older man who I ended up getting into a relationship with. He was 32 years old and allowed me to live in his home.
Under those conditions, a grown man's house is no place for a child. He took advantage of my youth and naivety—the relationship quickly became abusive and controlling. I wanted to please him because I didn't have anywhere to go.
I had learned co-dependent behaviors from my mother, so I thought I needed him and that I couldn't live without him. I allowed him to do things to me that I shouldn't have allowed. Because of my desperation, I stayed for four years.
Escapism through drug use
Going from foster home to foster home, my mother dying abruptly, being sexually assaulted—all of these things played a part in me not loving myself. I did not know my worth or who I was, what I wanted or where my roots were. I felt I was wandering alone in the world.
So, when the man I was living with introduced me to marijuana, I felt like I needed it all the time. It made me feel happy and confident, I would laugh and wouldn't think about my problems. I became addicted to weed and wanted it all day, every day.
Not long after I started smoking, a friend of mine introduced me to ecstasy pills, which quickly became my drug of choice. For a while, they made the world seem more beautiful.
I believed I needed drugs to make me feel happy, I didn't think I could do it by myself, and I continued using marijuana and ecstasy until I was 21 years old, when I moved out of New York.
I had been looking for my mom online and found one of her cousins. We started talking and eventually she asked me whether I wanted to come and live with her family in Hawaii. I agreed.
Moving to Hawaii and building a life
My environment in Hawaii was very stable; I felt as though I was part of a family and like I could start over in life, so I was really grateful for that experience. While living there I got a job as a waitress and was soon promoted to general manager of the restaurant. I started a new relationship and moved into an apartment with my partner.
We were living a good life, but my people-pleasing behaviors were always present. I hadn't healed from what I had gone through as a teenager. I didn't have the tools that I needed to protect myself from what had happened in my past, so I soon fell into the wrong crowd.
One evening, at a party, my drink was spiked, and I was sexually assaulted. The experience was extremely traumatic, and shortly afterward I began using drugs again. This time, the people around me were using harder drugs and I was introduced to heroin and crack cocaine.
In the beginning, heroin was a painkiller for me, numbing not just my physical but my emotional pain. When I smoked heroin, it felt like I had found the key to getting through life. I didn't feel insecure because I didn't have any other thoughts or feelings.
But my real downfall was crack cocaine. It was extremely addictive and turned me into a person I did not recognize. It affected all my relationships and my job; I didn't want to go home, I wanted to stay out on the streets and do drugs. It just ruined my life. I was willing to lie for it, cheat for it, and steal for it.
Robbing a bank to fund my drug addiction
For around a year I was living on the streets, even though I had a place to stay with my partner. Crack cocaine was a drug I wanted 24/7 and is extremely expensive, so after losing my job I would steal from stores to pay for it and take credit from drug dealers.
Eventually, I accumulated so much debt that it was very hard for me to pay it back. So I would get beaten up, I had men put guns to my head and tell me they were going to kill me unless I got their money. I became so desperate that I decided to sell my body for sex.
I did that for around one month before I became pregnant. After realizing I was pregnant, I stopped selling my body, but I still had money to pay back, so I was living my life in hiding.
I was too scared to go home in case the people I owed money to followed me and hurt my partner, so I decided I would rob a bank. At this point, I was in desperation and fearing for my life. I just felt like a broken, dark person. I didn't have any emotion—it was like I was a zombie.
After being caught robbing the bank, I was arrested and sent to a holding cell. I was terrified. I had never been to prison before and had no idea what the difference between a state and federal crime was. When the FBI came and spoke to me, I was in shock. At that point, I knew I had done something terrible and thought my life was over.
Being pregnant while incarcerated
After being charged, I was sent to a prison for six months while I awaited my sentence. During this period, the women around me became my support network as I do not believe I received adequate care through the prison system.
I was only able to visit the hospital in an emergency situation, so I am incredibly grateful for the women around me, who had given birth before and knew the process of pregnancy.
They helped me understand how my body was changing, gave me food, and took care of me. They understood my struggle and every morning asked if I was okay or needed anything. If it was not for those women around me, I do not think I would be alive today, because they helped me find peace of mind and realize everything was going to be okay.
When my water broke in August 2018, I didn't know what was happening. It wasn't how I had pictured it being. A woman I was incarcerated with told me what was going on and informed an officer I was going into labor. "Oh, my goodness, not on my shift," he said.
I was sent to the hospital, but before I left, the same woman said to me: "Let me tell you something, Evie, if you have that baby naturally, you can only stay with him for one day. But if you have a cesarean section, you can stay with him for three days."
That stuck in my mind and after having my epidural and pushing for around five minutes, I asked my doctor if I could have a C-section. He was shocked that I wanted one but agreed.
When they first took me to the operating theater, they had to numb my body from the neck down. Afterward, the doctors asked the prison officers accompanying me if they could leave the room. They initially refused, but eventually agreed because I could not move my legs. I felt comfort knowing the doctors saw me as a human being. They were caring for me and speaking up when I could not speak up for myself.
Bonding with my baby
When the doctors brought me my baby, I just couldn't believe he was mine. He was so beautiful and peaceful. I thought because of my drug use there may have been complications, but he was almost nine pounds and healthy.
I remember the way he looked at me, trying to figure out who I was, and it was the most beautiful look I had ever seen. I didn't want that moment to ever end. I felt joy, comfort, and love.
I knew from that moment on that I was ready to change my life—to do something different with myself so I could be his mom.
My doctors told the prison officers that they had to leave the room during my recovery. At this stage I still couldn't walk, so they agreed. My son and I spent three days together alone.
During those three days, I talked to him, told him I love him, changed his diaper, fed him, and changed his clothes. I gave him his pacifier for the first time and remember watching him hold his hand up to put it in his mouth. Just watching him be a baby was just amazing; I was in awe of how beautiful he was.
Being separated from my baby
I tried to enjoy the moments I had with him and block out what was happening. I suppressed what was really going on, so when it was time and they actually walked out of the room with my baby, all of my emotions hit me at once.
I lost it. I was hysterical and crying, I felt like the world had just ended and I did not want to go on with life anymore. I hadn't been sentenced yet, so I thought I would never see my child again. I just could not handle it.
When I got back to prison, all of the women rallied around me. They were happy to see me and asked questions about my son. They welcomed me with positive energy and their love. They got me through those initial weeks.
My partner gained custody of my son, but when I was eventually sentenced to five years and three months in prison, in October 2019, I fell into a very dark state. I felt lost and I could not see a way out. Additionally, the prison told me I would be being transferred from Hawaii to California to carry out my sentence, which meant I would be even further from my baby.
In California I became extremely depressed. I felt completely worthless, so I slept all the time and gained a lot of weight. I wanted to sleep my time away until those five years were up. Eventually, I decided to try and take my own life. I didn't want to live anymore.
My attempt was unsuccessful and the day after, while walking around my unit, I met a woman who helped change my perspective on everything. She started talking to me about God; how he had big plans for me, and he loved me. She helped me realize that I could change my life and do something different, it didn't matter what I had done in the past.
So, I started going to drug treatment and emotional regulation classes. I studied for my GED and was the valedictorian of my class. I learned how to express myself through music and poetry and realized that I had a gift. My confidence came out during my writing in a way it never could in day-to-day life. I knew I could use everything I had gone through in my life and do something with it. I wanted to change lives and heal myself.
I saw myself change right before my eyes; my light became brighter, and I started to view everything in a different perspective. I began to find positivity in every situation, even my attack. I thought I could use that to help people, use it to write music, a book, or a movie.
Discovering the A New Way Of Life Program
When the first COVID-19 lockdown began in California, in March 2020, I was in a room alone. I was desperate to run to the library and find a book to read, so I begged the prison officer. He was hesitant but eventually gave me a few minutes.
I grabbed the first book I saw, which happened to be a memoir called Becoming Ms. Burton. It tells the life story of renowned activist Susan Burton, who experienced poverty, abuse, addiction, and incarceration in Los Angeles before turning her life around and becoming an advocate for a more humane justice system. She later founded an organization called A New Way of Life, which helps people who have been incarcerated rebuild their lives.
Reading about her life provided me with comfort, knowing it was a possibility I could get into her program to get the help I needed to recover and get back into society. Ms. Burton was like one of the puzzle pieces I needed to create the picture of my future.
Before reading Ms. Burton's book, I didn't know how I would get my son back or how to get a job with my criminal history, all of those things kept replaying in my head.
I decided to write her a letter, telling her my life story and asking to join the program. When she wrote back to me, saying yes, I was ecstatic. After many hurdles, the parole board allowed me to relocate permanently to California following my sentence so I could enroll in the program.
How my life has changed since the program
I have currently been in the program for around a year and my life has changed in an incredible way. I believe that Ms. Burton and her staff understand. They understand what myself and women like me have been through. They understand what we need and the struggles we have gone through as mothers and incarcerated women.
The program has provided me with a home, a job at their main office and their family unification team are working with me to help gain some visitation rights to my son, so I can be in his life. I am also working with another philanthropic organization, which donates money to smaller non-profit charities, and am going to college to become a drug and addiction counselor.
Overall, my life is really amazing, it's going in a direction I'm happy with. For me, it brings to mind the old saying: "This is my comeback from my setback." I have so many goals, but ultimately, I want to do something similar to what Ms. Burton is doing.
I often come together with other women in the program and speak about our different goals and desires. We discuss how we can better our lives and make our dreams a reality. We want to help people to change the world, to do what Ms. Burton does, but in our own way.
Through sharing my story, my main goal is to show people that no matter what you have done in your life, what mistakes you have made, and what has happened to you, that does not define who you are.
You can always make the choice to change, and your life can change for the better.
Evie Ponder is a prison reform advocate. She currently works as an office assistant for the A New Way of Life Reentry Project which aims to help formerly incarcerated people rebuild their lives.
All views expressed in this article are the author's own.