Cecilia Cardenas

My name is Cecilia Cardenas, and before I tell you anything about me, I want to make one thing really clear: The biggest misconception about former prisoners is that we’re still living the lifestyle that got us into trouble and being incarcerated. That we are dangerous. The truth is, we do not want to go back again. We had to do the time and we remember what that was like. Nobody wants to go back.

Cecilia Cardenas With Sen. Booker

I wish more people would focus on that, instead of thinking that people who are back in their communities from prison are just bad news. We are not. We are so much more than that.

My story, for example. I was born in Breckenridge, Texas, and was raised in Davenport, Iowa. Growing up, I had big dreams for the future. I liked writing, fashion, and design, and I went to school for accounting. While in college, I had a boyfriend who sold drugs, and I made the terrible decision to sell drugs, too. I was arrested and convicted of conspiracy to distribute and possession of cocaine/crack. I was 24, and I was sentenced to ten years in federal prison.

Fortunately, I benefited when Congress passed the CARES Act, which allowed people like me who were not convicted of violent crimes and were determined to be low risk to go to home confinement if we had served at least half of our sentences. In May 2020, after serving a little more than seven years, I was sent to home confinement, wearing an ankle monitor.

It was a little rocky at first. In prison you’re just always wary of people and you’re in this tense mode at all times. Also, no matter how much I attempted to convince myself that the monitor did not define me, I felt compelled to have to explain to everyone I came in close contact with why I was wearing it, and it left me feeling ashamed and embarrassed. But I had great family support. I got a job in a factory while I figured things out, and then I enrolled back in school at Saint Ambrose University.

It helped so much that while I was in prison, I tried to be productive. I knew I was not going to commit another crime, but I completed as much programming as I could. Another misconception about people in prison is that they’re just in there waiting to get out and they’re wasting time. You can actually utilize the time you have and study and focus on the things you want to do. And that’s what I did with my time. I read, researched, got books sent in on topics that I wanted to learn more about.

It paid off for me after Congress passed the First Step Act, which authorized some to earn time credits if we participated in programming designed to reduce our risk of reoffending. I was ultimately released from the BOP on January 14, 2022, a month early. I was ecstatic. I was about to start school and I didn’t want to have to wear that ankle monitor. By the grace of God I was able to avoid that. Most importantly I could finally start my own business.

I am currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in finance, and in February started CC & Associates Financial, providing accounting, bookkeeping, and payroll services to business owners.

At my company, I hire felons because just like I know I deserved a second chance, everyone else does, too. And sometimes it just takes that right opportunity and that right person to motivate you in your life.

Recently, I had the very exciting opportunity to advocate for second chances and reform. I was asked to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about “Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.” It was an incredible experience, fundamental to my healing process. It was amazing to know that I was a part of something that aims to bring transparency and accountability to a place where harassment and intimidation are the norm.

I wake up every day grateful. I enjoy every day that we have to live and try to make the best of it. Because at the end of the day, we only get one life.

Cecilia Cardenas is far from alone in making a great life for herself, her family, and her community now that she’s free. Do you think more people should get a second chance, like she did? If so, please go here.

Watch Cecilia set the record straight about how second chances can help communities, not harm them: