From Prison to College

Education opportunities in and out of incarceration can transorm lives

By Albert Gregory

Elizabeth Quiroz and Lisa Diaz, two motivational speakers from Santa Rosa, California, who are both survivors of human trafficking and experienced incarceration — starting at an early age.

The incarceration system is a complicated institution. When a person enters prison, their life is often changed forever. Hope for a promising future may feel like a fleeting memory. 

Whether incarcerated as a youth or an adult, education has been a life raft for many inmates drowning in the feelings of hopelessness and depression. Education can be the only way to step away from their environment, and it can play a huge role in preventing a reoffense. 

For youth experiencing incarceration, education has not always been up to the equivalent standard their counterparts are receiving on the outside. However, an increased emphasis in education and community outreach have coincided with a decrease in incarceration numbers in California.

Here is a peek into the education in incarceration system through the experiences of people who were formerly incarcerated.

Photo by Pocho Sanchez

Elizabeth, 36, experienced sexual and physical abuse starting at the age of 4, growing up in Sacramento and San Francisco. As she describes it, she comes from a family of alcoholics, addicts, child molesters and gang members. Elizabeth escaped her mother’s abusive home and later ran away from foster care at the age of 14. Eventually, she landed at her father’s house, where she met her first trafficker. She was first incarcerated at the age of 16.
Following her first incarceration, the trafficking continued, and she was sold to multiple men over the years. She eventually began selling drugs while dealing with her own struggles with addiction, and was incarcerated repeatedly over the years.
Elizabeth first received education in incarceration as an adult when she was locked up in San Mateo and started working towards her GED, which she later received in Sonoma County. She got into Starting Point, a 12-step program, and later Women’s Recovery Services, a drug treatment center for mothers. She returned to school and got involved with a support program for the formerly incarcerated students at Santa Rosa Junior College, known as the Second Chance Club; she later became the president of the program. 
Elizabeth received her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from Sonoma State University in May 2021. She will be attending Arizona State University in the Fall to obtain a Master’s Degree in Social Justice and Human Rights. 
Elizabeth, who has been clean for nine years, now works as a motivational speaker and is a counselor at Athena House, a recovery home for women and their children.
“That’s what helps me to get out of bed is to use my past to help others and use my trauma as a triumph. To speak a message that’s going to help others and bring them to a victory as well,” Elizabeth said.

Photo by Pocho Sanchez

Born and raised in the South Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California — Lisa, 46, grew up in a dysfunctional household. Her uncle was a gang member and exposed her to a lot of chaos from an early age. Whether it was violence in the home or the police raiding them, Lisa never felt safe.
She first recalls being molested at the age of 5 by her grandmother’s boyfriend. When she was 8 years old, after moving back in with her mother, her stepfather started sexually abusing her. That abuse continued until she was 17. Early on into the abuse, her stepfather instilled in her the mindset to bargain with her body by bribing her to commit sexual acts.
By 17, she was a drug addict and an alcoholic. After escaping a physically abusive relationship, she ended up with her first trafficker. At first, he made her feel safe, but a couple of months later he forced her to start selling herself on Santa Rosa Avenue. Over the years, she was trafficked all over the Bay Area and, through the Internet, was even sold to men as far away as New Jersey and New York.
Throughout the years, she was incarcerated many times. However, the first time Lisa experienced any education while incarcerated was as an adult when she went through a 12-step program called Starting Point in Sonoma County. It was there she was introduced to the Second Chance Club, a program that provides resources and support to formerly incarcerated students at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Lisa is currently attending SRJC, working towards two Associate’s Degrees in Human Services and Advocacy. She plans to graduate in 2022 and attend Sonoma State University, where she will pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology. Her ultimate goal is achieve a Master’s Degree in Social Work. 
Lisa now works as a motivational speaker and is a counselor at Athena House, a recovery home for women and their children.
Lisa and Elizabeth are currently working to open a safe house in Sonoma county to house survivors of human trafficking.

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