“I thought I was going to die with a needle in my arm. And that didn’t happen. If I came from where I came from and changed, anybody can. It doesn’t matter how bad the situation seems. People can change. Everybody has potential.” – Vanessa Rojas
Today, it’s hard to fathom that Vanessa Rojas once thought she would die from her drug addiction. Her days are jam-packed with pursuing higher education, her three kids, taking care of her mom, and work. Most of all, though, her life is filled with hope and confidence.
Vanessa has taken childhood trauma, 30 years of drug addiction, and prison time — and turned it all around. How? A second chance. That chance came in the form of compassionate release from an 80-month prison sentence.
Her troubles began decades ago, when a traumatic childhood event led Vanessa onto what she calls “a path of darkness” and addiction at age 14. “I was just lost,” she says now. “I got involved in criminal activity and was in and out of jail and treatment facilities and behavioral health institutions until I ended up in federal prison.” In 2017, she was convicted of conspiracy to distribute heroin.
But behind bars, Vanessa became determined to lead a different life. “In the past, whenever there was a barrier in front of me, that would be my excuse to give up.” Inside, she faced up to the fact that one of her three children had serious health problems and that her aging mother’s declining health would soon make her incapable of caring for that child. That led Vanessa to a serious re-evaluation of her life.
She got sober and began to think about ways that she could become a productive member of her community. The COVID pandemic and her own vulnerability to the disease led her to petition for compassionate release. She asked for a sentence reduction under the “extraordinary and compelling” criteria of the law.
“They just believe in me and they believe in second chances. We need more people who believe in second chances.”
The Court found that although her physical and medical conditions and the threat of COVID were not sufficient to warrant relief, Vanessa’s family situation was. The round-the-clock care that her daughter needed had fallen to Vanessa’s mother, Esther, while she was in prison, and at 78, Esther was increasingly unable to provide the necessary care.
Of note is that the government argued that these circumstances were neither extraordinary nor compelling because they didn’t fit the categories of family circumstances defined by the Sentencing Commission. But as court documents state, “the Court is not required to fit Rojas’s family circumstances squarely into the categories outlined by the Sentencing Commission … Rather, the Court has discretion to consider extraordinary and compelling reasons beyond those specific categories.” In 2021, Vanessa went free.
“The first thing I did was I hugged my daughter, hugged my mom,” says Vanessa. “I hugged my family and I thanked God that I was free.” And ever since, she has been working diligently to strengthen her family.
Today, Vanessa is enrolled in college, serves as a peer mentor, and is helping women who are still incarcerated on the healing journey she describes as “walking in integrity.”
She is especially grateful for the opportunity to attend college and for the mentors she has met there. “They just believe in me and they believe in second chances. We need more people who believe in second chances.”
Help FAMM work for second chances for more people like Vanessa. Together, we can make families stronger and communities safer.
Listen to Vanessa talk about what life is like after getting a second chance: