Shannon Stewart is a typical Southern California beach girl. At 28, she is blond and tanned. She speaks in “Valley Girl” tones. She smiles a lot, and when she does, her brown eyes sparkle. She is perky and outspoken. She is flirtatious. She wears a black crop-top blouse over a bikini top and shorts. As she flings open the lobby door at Las Colinas Jail, she shouts, “Let’s get the hell outta here!” She jumps into the arms of a young man and kisses him. She then dispatches him to buy her some cigarettes.
At 5’2” and 130 pounds, Stewart is a powder keg of exuberance — and the last person you would expect to see in jail. “Am I the cutest inmate you’ve interviewed?” she asks. Before I can answer, she informs me that she has been in jail before. “This time it was a warrant. I got picked up at my home for a domestic-violence warrant because I had not finished some anger-management classes I was supposed to take. The sheriffs came to my door and left cards when I wasn’t home. I didn’t want to miss the classes, but I was starting a new job, and I literally couldn’t get the time off to go to the class. I didn’t want to tell my new job about a domestic-violence conviction. I was in for five days this time.”
After returning from court today, Stewart was surprised to be called out for release the same day. “I could have served a year in jail for not going to my classes. The minimum was 60 days — you’re gonna trip on this! I talked to the judge without my attorney representing me — these public defenders are dump trucks. They really don’t care about you. They’re really ‘public pretenders.’ My public pretender wanted me to do 60 days. I went before the judge myself and got her to reduce it down to 30. I was on the phone arranging to get my rent paid for me when they said, ‘Stewart! Roll up!’ I’ve been here five days after being sentenced to 30. They’re letting everybody out of here early.”
She explains the original domestic-violence conviction. “My boyfriend had moved out on me. We just got an apartment together and signed a one-year lease. After four months I came home one Saturday and I found the apartment half empty. I went over to his friend’s house, where I knew he would be, and knocked on the door. I was crying, upset. He came out and we were discussing things, and I had my hands up under his shirt. Meanwhile, his roommate called the police. When the police arrived, he took off to get away from me and move towards his front door, and one hand was still under his shirt. I ended up ripping a seam about four or five inches with my nail. Because of my drug convictions five years ago, I had a criminal record, so they arrested me.
“I pleaded ‘not guilty’ and I was going to go to a jury trial. I was late for my first jury trial, so I actually had to plead guilty or they were going to put me back in jail. The public defender — and he’s been a public defender for four years — he told the judge that this is the most minor domestic-violence case he’d ever seen in his entire career.
“It wasn’t him,” she says, referring to the young man returning with a pack of Marlboros. “This is actually my baby’s dad. He’s not my current boyfriend, we’re just good friends. I’ve never married. I have three children, two boys and a girl — all different fathers. The girl is 14 and the boys are 10 and 6. My daughter is coming here from Washington tomorrow. She’s having a summer visit in Tacoma with her father, who lives there. She normally lives with my mother. My 6-year-old lives a mile away from here with his dad, and my 10-year-old is living in Tacoma with his paternal grandparents.”
Disarmingly frank, Stewart discusses her childhood difficulties. “I was 13 when I got pregnant with my daughter. I had her when I was 14, so my mom has raised her. I had a rough childhood. My father shot himself in front of me and my brother, and he shot my mother too. We were in a car, driving down a freeway. My father died and my mother hung on. She was Mormon and he was in the military when they got married. It took being married to him for a number of years before she realized that he was an alcoholic, abusive, and manic-depressive. I’m a lot like him. I was born bipolar. I’m a little hyperactive and I suffer from depression. I’ve been suicidal in the past. I overdosed on my medicine, so they don’t even give it to me anymore. My mother had problems with me. I was sexually promiscuous at 12, I started smoking pot, drinking, hanging out with — trying to get attention because I had no father figure in my life. I got in with the wrong people, and my mother kicked me out of the house.
“I lived on the streets. I prostituted at 14. I ran away from every foster home they ever put me in. I might have made bad decisions, but I felt that I could raise myself better than these foster/receiving homes where there’s eight girls in one room. You take a shower three times a week, and you can’t get ready for school because there’s so many people. I felt that I could just stay with my friends and do it my way. I started stripping at 18 and getting into drugs. Before I only smoked pot and drank, but the day I turned 18, I started stripping and getting into cocaine. My mother never accepted me back home, and I’ve never been able to live with her. We still don’t get along to this day.”
It becomes apparent that Stewart lives a complicated life. Jail is just one more complication she doesn’t need. “If you do what you’re supposed to, you’re treated fairly. There’s a lot of times when I question the way the deputies act and how things are done, but I have to say that when you first come in — no matter what your charge is — they treat you as guilty until proven innocent. It’s unfair and inhumane, the way they treat you when you first arrive. They treat you like you’re a criminal the minute you walk in the door, no matter what you have done. You’re stripped of your rights, you’re stripped of your morals, you’re stripped of everything. Your pride, your integrity, everything you have about you is stripped at the front door once you walk in.
“Once you’ve gone through the first six hours of jail, the rest can either get better or worse. It just depends on how you act the first six hours you are here.” This last stay was not as bad as in the past, she says. “I know the routine. I keep my mouth shut, and I do what the deputies tell me. I am not looking for any trouble, and this is not a place where you want to have any trouble.
“I’ve been here a few times, and each time has been different. Things are getting better. Five years ago, when I was in on drug charges, things were very, very bad in here, very inhumane. People were treated very badly, inmates weren’t listened to, they wouldn’t let you be clean. They still don’t give you products that you should be getting. I understand that they pay jails $50 a day for each inmate from the taxpayers, yet we have a hard enough time getting toothbrushes when they’re stolen.
“There are fights in here. The really mean girls are kept in a different section, but if the girls fight, they are immediately taken apart, and everybody goes on lockdown. Things have gotten better. But as far as deputies being somewhere when they’re supposed to be, doing what they’re paid to do, I don’t see that happening a whole lot. For instance, earlier tonight — we got back from court today and there’s a room right here — there was an elderly woman in there who had weak bowels. Diarrhea. She dirtied herself, and we sat in there for 45 minutes trying to get a deputy to come over and help her. She was probably 80 years old. We were trying to eat in the same room. I know that there are 15 girls that are going to write their congressman and the mayor — we vowed to write a letter to the effect that we tried to get someone in here while we were all eating dinner.
“I gotta say this, out of the 100 percent of the deputies here, 20 percent of them do their job. That’s it. The other percentage come to work and hate their job. If I came to work with the attitude they have, I’d get fired.”
Stewart has managed to make friends in this unfriendly place. Three different girls approach her for cigarettes and continue to hang around while she talks. She is happy to share her tobacco and moves on her bench to make room for a newly released inmate with bloodshot eyes and a sad face. The girl is even smaller than Stewart and looks as if she couldn’t be older than 16.
In spite of the violence, it seems the greatest rigors of jail time are mental. “I miss my family most. I miss the fact that I have a life besides being in here — my freedom. You do a lot of thinking. It changes you to become a better person if you want to become a better person. At night I’ll lay awake thinking about my mistakes and how I can better myself. I’m just speaking personally, because I’m so different from a lot of these people in here. I’ll think, What can I do not to get myself in this situation again? Finish my classes and do what it takes not to get back in here again.”
Stewart makes no excuses for her past. “I’ve served time on drug convictions, but I no longer do drugs. I used to be a dancer, and to stay skinny we all did crystal. There’s been no more drug convictions in five years, and I should have gone to my classes for domestic violence or I wouldn’t be in there this time.”
Unlike most newly released prisoners, Stewart has a law-and-order ethic that colors her view of jail. She credits her jail time five years ago for getting her off drugs for good. “I’m sure other people miss their drugs. I hear constantly how everybody just wants to get out and do their dope — just go back to the same old bullshit that got them in here before. They’re reducing everyone’s sentences here, which I think is kind of bad. Honestly, there were two girls in here that I was in court with today. They were caught at the border with 100 pounds of marijuana. You serve one day for every pound. These girls will be out in a month! There are women in here who are total drug addicts. They release people with no teeth, people who look anorexic. A lot of these people are in here for drugs who are not serving their [full] time. When I was doing time for drugs years ago, I got stuck to the wall with my sentence. I got no slack, no leniency, and no reduced time. I was in here for five months one time. That and losing my child — that’s what got me off drugs. I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ That line was not worth losing my one-year-old child to him.” She laughs and points to the young man. “He’s the one who called the police on me! He’s totally the opposite of me. I try to date guys that are totally the opposite of me. They don’t smoke, they don’t do drugs, they don’t drink or do anything I’ve ever done in my life. It kind of leads me down the right course.” The young man smiles.
Currently, Stewart works two jobs. “I’ve lived in San Diego since November 1991. I live in Pacific Beach. I grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and was born in Salt Lake City. I’m a high-school graduate, and I took an ROP course for a year and a half. I work for Labor Ready at a restaurant called the Menu. I also do hard labor, construction. I dig ditches, do whatever I can. I was actually getting hired by a company that paid ten dollars an hour for laying sprinkler systems. I’m looking for something else, but until another waitressing job comes along that can pay me enough and keep me full-time, I’ll do that. I have a very expensive apartment, and I didn’t have enough hours at my job to support my goals. I pay child support and I have a lot of bills. I don’t raise my children, so the custodial parent gets child support.”
Stewart’s immediate plans are clear. “I want to get out, I want to see my family, I want to feed my cat, and I want to go back to work. Things changed for me. I’m not ever coming back here again. And you have to complete what you’re told to do by that court order. You have to. That’s number one. Before your rent, before anything. Whatever you’re ordered to do, you need to do it.” — Robert Kumpel
Originally published in the Reader on September 21, 2000