May 2020 — Guadalupe Velazquez is more than seven months pregnant. She and her fiancé have named the baby Beya Natalia. It’s the first child for both of them, and they have all the usual fears about being new parents. But for them it’s much, much worse. Guadalupe is in prison, and the world – both outside and inside – is fighting the COVID-19 virus. “Being in prison, pregnant and during a pandemic, is terrifying,” she says.
Sadly, Guadalupe knows a lot about living in fear. “My siblings and I came from an alcoholic father. He was very, very abusive. He was violent toward us and toward my mom. I’ve seen him point a gun at my mom and pull the trigger. Luckily the gun jammed.
“We grew up in extreme poverty. When I was 11, my older brother was taken away and charged with murder in the first degree. My mom lost it. She began drink alcoholically, too, and was arrested for driving drunk. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. It was chaotic.”
Guadalupe coped by throwing herself into school. “When I was faced with adversity, I would always excel academically. Ever since I was little, I was always the student of the month, student of the year, that kind of thing. I think it was my way to cope. I would bury myself in school.”
After being voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in high school, she earned a full scholarship to Arizona State University. Her first year, she was holding down a job at a credit union and studying full time. It was then that she met the man who became her boyfriend, Hector Ortiz. Eventually they moved in together. The relationship would turn her whole world upside down, and would be one that she is still paying for to this day.
As Guadalupe became more involved with Hector, things turned sour and abusive. Hector began beating her. “Because of my childhood, I didn’t have the strength to get out. I was a baby. I was embarrassed to find myself in that situation, particularly with how hard I’d worked to be stronger than that kind of life. He pulled guns on me, he isolated me from everyone.”
At some point, Hector and his father began running a drug-trafficking organization that shipped marijuana across the country and laundered the proceeds. As Guadalupe, then 19, was putting her all into a double major in business and sociology with a minor in criminal justice, law enforcement cracked down on Hector and his family. Police found guns, ammunition, and marijuana in the house that Guadalupe shared with Hector. Because she lived there and the police had video of her receiving packages of the drug sale proceeds, Guadalupe was charged in the indictment as part of the conspiracy. She was sentenced to more than 10 years.
As the pandemic spreads and those behind bars are made even more vulnerable, it would seem obvious that pregnant women should be released to home confinement.
From the start of her imprisonment, life was a nightmare. Guadalupe was sexually assaulted and spent months in solitary confinement, yet she didn’t give up trying to get out. She knew she didn’t deserve a decade for her role in Hector’s “family business.” She decided to appeal the verdict, attacking the task with the same determination and drive she’d given to her academic life. “I just kept pushing and pushing to get information, to get answers. At one point, we weren’t even given paper, so I had to rip pages from books to write letters to send to lawyers and my family.”
Eventually, after three years behind bars, Guadalupe won her appeal. According to court documents, “Defendant’s guilty plea was vacated on Sixth Amendment constructive-denial-of-counsel grounds because district court abused its discretion by denying defendant’s requests to substitute counsel without conducting an adequate inquiry; the record reflected serious breakdowns in communication and trust.” She was released immediately.
Reentry wasn’t easy, but her years in prison had done nothing to dim Guadalupe’s perseverance and grit. “I started applying for jobs and nobody would hire me. You just google my name and the case would come up. I had no other choice, so I started working in construction. I was working long hours, and I was actually doing really well in it. So I figured, I’m going to start my own flooring company! And that’s what I did.”
Meanwhile, she met Carlos Hernandez, and they’ve been together ever since. “He’s always believed in me, he’s always been by my side. It’s a healthy relationship.”
And about eight months ago, they found out they would be having a baby. They were thrilled, and began to make plans to get married. The business was going well, and Guadalupe had never been happier.
That’s when the other shoe dropped. Back when she won her appeal, her sentence was vacated and remanded back to the courts for further proceedings. This action allowed the government to refile the original charges against her, and in December 2019 Guadalupe, now 30 years old, was sent back to prison for three more years. Because of her pregnancy, she was sent to a MINT (Mothers and Infants Together) program. After she has the baby, she will be sent to federal prison for the remainder of her sentence, and her baby will live with her family.
And now, she and Carlos are terrified. “I do feel like my baby’s in danger,” Guadalupe says. “I’ve waited so long to have a child, and I have to have my baby here, where we can’t even get the proper hygiene and the virus could be anywhere.” Many of the other residents where the MINT program takes place are there as a halfway house occupants. They are coming and going, and there is no testing. She spends most of her time hiding out in her room. “I haven’t been receiving the proper prenatal care. Being pregnant in prison during a pandemic – it’s like you’re constantly in fear. My family hasn’t been able to see me, they haven’t been able to see the baby growing, my abdomen growing.”
Carlos is devastated. “Why are they putting Guadalupe and my baby’s life in danger? For something that happened years ago, and pot is now legal in so many states?”
Beya Natalia is due in June, then she will live with her mother for a short while. Between now and then, there is a very real risk that both mother and baby could contract the virus.
It’s hard to square any of the threads of Guadalupe’s story with ideas of justice or safety. As the pandemic spreads and those behind bars are made even more vulnerable, it would seem obvious that pregnant women should be released to home confinement. Guadalupe’s story – her childhood, her sentence, the horrifying situation she now is in, and most of all Beya Natalia – demands that lawmakers and leaders take action to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Are you as outraged by Guadalupe’s story as we are? Please go to famm.org/covidresponse and learn how you can help us make reform happen now. Guadalupe and her baby need us.
NAME: Guadalupe Velazquez
SENTENCE: 121 months (10+ years)
OFFENSE: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana; conspiracy to commit money laundering
AGE AT SENTENCING: 19, then 29
PROJECTED RELEASE: May 2023