Felon to PhD: Heidi de Leon

To the average student, the thought of pursuing a doctoral degree is arduous and anxiety-inducing, conjuring up fears of probable failure, mountains of work, and, perhaps most pressing in our current reality, tremendous expenses. All of these factors present significant barriers and concern to the typical student, however, Hedi de Leon is not one’s typical student: she is a convicted felon.

De Leon currently en route to a PhD in social work, had served seven years within the California correctional system before even beginning her undergraduate studies at a local community college in Los Angeles. Her current journey from incarceration, though inspiring in its own right, has been plagued by the characteristics ingrained in the realities of those with criminal records: instability and uncertainty. Though de Leon’s life has been able to stabilize – completely in part to her determination, as well as the goodwill of friends and employers, it was not always so.

De Leon grew up in a rural farming community in Michigan, with a comparatively low-income family which she herself described as “sheltered.” Though these circumstances undoubtedly produced hardship, de Leon was thrusted into a significantly harsher reality when, at the age of fourteen, her mother was murdered by her father – an incredibly tragic event which would introduce her to the foster care system. Because of her experience with the system, de Leon was eventually introduced to criminal activity – though she would consider that term to be somewhat of a mischaracterization, as, at the time, she viewed those actions as “survival.”

By the time de Leon was nineteen, she decided to bus to California with a couple hundred dollars and a connection to work. However, this connection was significantly embedded with criminal activity, trapping de Leon in a revolving door where she would spend the next seven years in a women’s correctional facility. During her time, however, de Leon found the experience to be anything other than correctional or rehabilitative. Rather, the facility and its staff were significantly more preoccupied with order, efficiency, and keeping the incarcerated quiet than pursuing any facet of corrections.

After seven years of the correctional system’s revolving door – three of which included solitary – de Leon was paroled for the final time, given two hundred dollars to purchase a bus ticket, find a place to stay, and get her affairs in order. Through some connections, she was able to stay at a sober living house – the inspiration to begin work in counseling. She soon enrolled at her local community college with little pushback from her record. However, as de Leon began to progress through her education, career, and personal life, the systemic weight of the convictions began to take effect.

At this point, several story lines were occurring in de Leon’s life, all of which were being affected in one way or another by these convictions. Her first job was at a call bank, which she acquired after omitting her criminal record. After an extended time with the call bank, it was revealed to de Leon that convicted individuals could not be hired. Upon hearing this, de Leon stated that she herself in fact had a criminal record, unbeknownst to the employer. Fortunately, this prompted her employer to revise its hiring strategies to be inclusive of the formerly incarcerated.

Though this first place of employment was able to overlook a checked box, other institutions, possessing rigid, intentionally unjust policies, were not as pragmatic and forgiving. While attending her masters program at USC, she was intentionally denied her required field placement, as well as two of her classmates who had only misdemeanors on their records. These field placements are required for both continuing and completing the degree, casting incredible uncertainty over these individuals. Further, the convictions limited her access to financial aid (the total cost of a full-time graduate student at USC ranges from $65,000-$84,000 for the 2019-20 academic year) resulting in a significant barrier to completion. De Leon’s financial stress was exacerbated from her time as a single parent – once again, because of her record, she was ineligible for most government assistance.

Though she was able to complete her program, this intentional difficulty placed at the feet of those with a record was troubling to de Leon, inspiring her to become involved with advocacy with an emphasis on “empowerment.”

She began to attract attention after posting to her social media accounts that she had acquired her occupational license – a major victory for de Leon as it is incredibly difficult for individuals with a record to get licensed, thus resulting in another major barrier to many areas of long-term employment. After achieving this license, de Leon began communication with individuals seeking a similar path, equipping them with the necessary advice and directing them to proper council so that over four million people currently paroled may have a clearer path to success and stability.

Heidi de Leon’s story is one of both incredible success and tremendous hardship, allowing her to work and fight both for and with her contemporaries. With a mission to reform the current relationship between the criminal justice system and society, she continues to both practice and recommend regular contact with government and legislative officials. Another avenue of pursuing social justice in a reality apathetic to criminals lies within funding. However, one should not only fund the base programs and institutions bearing the cause, but also utilize the money to hire, train, and support individuals who have been incarcerated, creating both a vehicle of progressing the message of justice, as well as tangible results and opportunity for as many individuals as possible: national and local results.

We encourage our readers to reach out to various groups, many of which are listed on our website, as well as supporting Heidi de Leon and her peers. She can be found on Instagram as @Felon2PhD

This piece was written by Forgive Everyone Contributor, Luke Herman

Forgive Everyone Co. Is dedicated to sharing the stories of formerly and currently incarcerated men and women all around the United States as well as funding non-profit activism and providing tangible employment opportunities. 20% of the proceeds from every sale are donated to our partnered re-entry non-profits. Additionally, all artwork on our apparel is designed and produced by criminal justice reform advocates, formerly incarcerated men and women, or currently incarcerated men and women.

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