The path that led Elizabeth Quiroz, 32, to prison was paved with abuse and pain. But through her work with the Santa Rosa Junior College Second Chance club, story has provides others with inspiration to overcome similar adversities.
“Growing up, my mom and grandmother were physically abusive to me from ages five to 14, and my dad wasn’t around,” Quiroz said. “My grandmother hated girls and loved boys, so she loved my brothers and treated me like crap.”
Constantly bruised and hurt by members of her family, Quiroz says her school life was challenging. Her appearance was an ongoing joke to her peers who teased and bullied her for wearing hand-me-down clothes. She had a single best friend and no one else to confide in.
The lack of community and a nurturing home environment made Quiroz severely depressed. She began to self-mutilate while still a young child, which led to more confrontation with her mother. She attempted suicide several times, and as much as her mother tried to help, the family didn’t have the resources to seek counseling.
“I was looking for love in all the wrong places, and I was in a foster home when I was 14,” Quiroz said. “I got involved with a man who was 27 when I was 15. My life went downhill from there.”
Her mother’s side of the family gave her and her partner drugs and allowed the partner to keep her trapped in a dope house for months before he put her into human trafficking.
She was forced into sex work and sought help from her partner, who convinced her to continue the lifestyle to support his own drug use.
“I’d try to leave, and he’d track me down,” Quiroz said, describing a horrifying cycle of experiences.
But without any tools to remove herself from the situation or a support system in her family, she stayed trapped.
“He told me if I loved him, I would do it for him to make money,” Quiroz said.
Her partner hurt and abused her. When a night of sex work ended, she would go to his house, where he would bathe her. “I only felt love when he would bathe me,” Quiroz said.
Unlike Quiroz, SRJC radiology student Alicia Sealund, 27, never had problems with school.
“I was always an honor roll student, straight A’s and B’s,” she said. “Which is why people were confused about what I chose to do for a living.”
The oldest of seven children, Sealund helped parent her younger siblings while still a child herself. She says she didn’t receive much emotional support from her mother, who worked long hours to provide the family with a better financial situation.
When she moved to Las Vegas, she experienced true isolation and a lack of a support system. Suffering constant physical, verbal and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Sealund began abusing drugs as a way to cope. She started selling drugs and realized she had a talent for it. Selling drugs appealed to her practical side and soon dominated her life, offering Sealund a sense of purpose.
“Even if my mom supported me financially, I thought the best path was to keep selling and move out of there,” Sealund said. She points out her mother didn’t know about the abuse she went through.
Ryan Sansome, founder of SRJC’s Students for Recovery club, also echoes Quiroz and Sealund’s experiences of isolation and family struggle. Sansome grew up with mentally ill family members and believes he’s experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from experiences as a very young child. He was abused physically, sexually and emotionally and was first intoxicated at the age of eight.
“About 10 years ago, I experimented with heroin,” said Sansome. “I got addicted to injecting it, and I lost control of my life. It lead me to selling drugs, and I got arrested for it.”
Wake up call and a new start: With what resources?
Re-socialization wasn’t an easy process. Sansome never had a job before.
“On my first semester back [at SRJC], I would have anxiety attacks just sitting there, being around these normal people. I had never been around people who weren’t drug addicts.” Sansome worked with Quiroz to create more events in which both of their clubs benefit from resources.
Sealund moved back to Sonoma County in an attempt to start over. She began working at a Motel 6. But still surrounded by an unhealthy crowd, she quickly began selling again. By the time she was 18, she had been arrested several times.
Her life turned around when she was stopped by a police officer in San Francisco. She had two warrants for her arrest and was considered a runaway from the law. She learned from a judge that she could face up to eight years in prison.
“Having a judge call me a criminal made me scared.” Sealund said. “I looked around to see who he was talking to. It was me. I didn’t see myself in that light. I saw myself doing what I could to get by.”
At 26, Quiroz gave birth. She continued to sell drugs, now with her child in her arms. Her child was placed in foster care when Quiroz was arrested for the last time.
“I did 18 months straight between two different counties,” Quiroz said. “I got transferred out here, where I got my GED, and completed the Starting Point program.”
In 2013, Quiroz became involved with Women Recovery Services (WRS), found sober living enviroments, and enrolled at SRJC in the Bear Scholar Program.
Through the program, Quiroz became a successful student, but it came with strenuous effort.
“I was a wreck,” Quiroz explained. “I rode my bike everywhere. I didn’t have food, so I had to go to food banks. I have ADHD, so I had a lot of anxiety to be in a school environment,” she explained. “I had to work manual labor on the street, working on trees and cleaning the jail area just to get a hundred and something dollars to get by.”
Aside from shelters, she was able to get housing support through programs that offer post-release community supervision.
People who have faced incarceration are often called harsh names by a society that is not structured for rehabilitation. Regardless of the path that led people to commit a felony, the outcome is a lifetime of hardship and reputation repair that often feels endless and overwhelming. When asked what leads people to become involved with criminal activities, the answers received from Quiroz, Sansome and Sealund were similar each time: social disparities, mental illnesses, broken homes and a history of abuse.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, the incarceration rate in the U.S. is higher than ever before. The number of incarcerated individuals has increased 500 percent in the last four years. 2.2 million people are currently facing jail or prison time and 60 percent of them are people of color. In a country historically divided by race, many still face structural challenges in day-to-day life, such as less access to resources and racial discrimination.
Sealund firmly believes that there’s a reason people fall into criminal activities.
“Either they’re people of color, they’re impoverished, don’t have a family that can or want to support them, and have faced abuse to a degree,” Sealund explains. “And that’s regardless of gender, although men will be less willing to come forward.”
Rebirth and Resources:
The Second Chance club was created by SRJC’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) counselor Rhonda Findling. The club works hand in hand with a team of instructors who help with English, math, counseling support, disability resources and other forms of assistance.
As a leader of Second Chance, Quiroz believes stigma and shame keep some community members from joining or participating. Findling suggested Quiroz become president. Quiroz says she is honored to be a leader and hopes she can give back to the community, a mantra she repeats to members at every meeting.
Elizabeth Quiroz currently has a 4.0 GPA, and balances her work at the Women Recovery Services with coursework in human services, social advocacy and behavioral science. She plans to earn three different associate’s degrees and says her ultimate goal is to transfer and earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology.
“I’m fighting for my kids to have a chance of a better life. When I get worn out, I keep my eye on the prize to remind myself why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Quiroz said. “I want to give back to my community and make amends for stuff I’ve done in my past.”
Quiroz says she wants the Second Chance club to be better known and perform more outreach to the SRJC community by tabling and participating in campus events.
Retired parole officer Richard Ortiz supports students in getting the resources necessary to help club members clean up their criminal histories. The process is called expungement, a court-mediated process by which the legal record of an arrest or criminal conviction is erased in the eyes of the law. Ortiz persuaded Quiroz to get an expungement, and worked closely with Sealund during her parole period. Because of his support, Quiroz got a rehabilitation certificate.
“I’ve been working with [students] and talking about getting their records expunged,” Ortiz said. “It’s informal, nice to hear the things they’ve been doing, and they’re sharing their experiences here.”
Coming from a family of undocumented immigrants, Ortiz has seen family members incarcerated or deported. His own upbringing was traumatic, but sports helped him turn his life around. Ortiz says he became a parole officer to to teach formerly incarcerated folks that they have a future.
It’s support like this that makes all the difference for students like Quiroz and Sealund. The SRJC Bear Scholar program helped Quiroz with supplies, and they became her family. Now Quiroz advises her peers to start volunteering, build a support network, and work hard in school.
Sealund also found success by returning to SRJC to earn a certificate in nutrition.
“I don’t tell my story to everyone like Liz [Quiroz] does because I don’t want everyone to know about my past. But now that I have my own club and I realize how much effort is put on creating one, I realized I should share too, so we can end the stigma. I’m sure there are more people who could benefit from knowing about this club.”
Sealund flourished as a student, and is on the honor roll. After graduation, she began working in a facility to support people with developmental challenges, and later advanced to a salaried position. But when her mother passed away, Alicia took custody of her younger sister and had to quit her position. With that, she decided to go back to school for a second degree in radiology, a field that will allow her a good salary and the ability to care for her sister. But she still struggles. As a full-time student, she earns much less than before, and certain job opportunities are still not open to her.
“I got offered a position as a PAL, a teacher assistant, but because of my past that happened ten years ago, I can’t take the opportunity,” Sealund said.
With comprehensive resources and a hands-on support system, students like Quiroz and Sealund and others in the SRJC Second Chance club are proving it’s possible to break the cycle. But Quiroz says more support is always needed. “People are still embarrassed to come [to meetings], and we need more resources and supplies to encourage people to show up, like books and backpacks,” Quiroz said.
Quiroz feels proud of what she’s achieved, but still sometimes feels baffled by her success. “When I went to court to get my certification, the judge congratulated me in my achievements. I was honored to be in a court room and instead of getting sentenced, I was congratulated. How does that happen?”
The SRJC Second Chance club meets 2:30-3:30 pm on Thursdays in the EOPS office in Bertolini, and the group has an active Facebook community.`
This story has been updated. In an earlier version, the Oak Leaf inaccurately reported aspects of Ryan Sansome’s prior arrest history. Sansome has never been accused of nor convicted of any violent crime. The Oak Leaf deeply regrets the error.