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Jessica Kent’s life was on the brink of falling apart completely. The 23-year-old was sitting in a jail cell hundreds of miles from home, awaiting a two-year prison sentence on drug-and gun-related charges. On top of that, she was starting to feel violently ill. To Kent, it must have felt like she was hitting rock bottom, but there was more to endure as she was about to receive a bittersweet revelation.

“The girls I was in county jail with were like, ‘She’s really, really sick,’” Kent says. “They thought I was just detoxing from drugs and I thought that too. They put in a sick call and the nurse gave me a pregnancy test that I one thousand percent don’t remember taking. Then the nurse said to me in a very cold, callous way, ‘Oh, that’s what’s wrong, you’re pregnant. You can go back to the unit.’”

Kent was in a state of shock when she learned the news, and that shock quickly led to denial. She’d been on birth control, and furthermore she couldn’t fathom what being pregnant in prison would entail. Eventually the truth began to sink in. “I cried a lot because I knew my daughter was probably going to be taken away from me,” Kent says. “I was in Arkansas but my whole family was in New York and I knew they couldn’t afford to travel, let alone come to fight an entire DHS case. I was trying to come to terms with the fact that she was going to go to foster care and I would have to fight this case when I got out because she’s my blood.”

What Kent would go through over the next nine months transformed her into the woman she is today—an outspoken advocate for prison reform. Navigating pregnancy is difficult in the best circumstances, but it’s exponentially harder while incarcerated. Kent wasn’t allowed the same comforts many pregnant women take for granted, culminating in a birth experience that haunts her to this day.

“I was kind of ignored when I first went into labor,” Kent says. “The staff didn’t want to take me to the hospital because it was in the middle of a shift change and they didn’t care. When I finally got to the hospital, I gave birth in chains and was handcuffed. As soon as I gave birth, my leg was chained to a bed and I was left in chains for two days. My body didn’t heal the right way and I couldn’t really walk very well, it was insane.”

Photos by Amanda Carlson

Photos by Amanda Carlson

Upon having her baby, Kent was overcome with a flood of different emotions. Knowing that her child was likely headed to foster care, she wasn’t initially sure she wanted to see her baby’s face. “Once I saw her face, everything changed and my drug life was over,” she says. “I was just completely obsessed with this creature that I saw for two seconds and was in love. She went into foster care and I went back to prison, which was one of my most traumatic experiences. But when I got out, I fought for custody for a year and I’ve had her for about seven years now.”

When Kent got out of prison, she was put in a halfway house and immediately began working two jobs, attending recovery and working the case to get her daughter. Everything she did was aimed towards building a life she could share with her daughter, but on the precipice of their reunion she had reservations. “It was mentally a really hard transition because the foster family are incredible people and they were so good to my daughter,” Kent says. “I thought, ‘Am I doing something wrong by getting her back? This mother is like June Cleaver and I’m Sharon Osbourne.’ But even though I was doubting myself in that journey I was like, ‘No, this is my daughter and I’m what’s best for her.’”

The journey may not have been easy, but Kent’s life soon turned around. She got everything in order and had her daughter by her side. One of the last steps was quite literally covering up the scars of her past. “My tattoos were my way of taking back my body,” Kent says. “I had a lot of scars from doing drugs and I wasn’t confident about that. My first tattoo out of prison was a cover-up of my ex’s name and after that I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love it and I need another one.’ I started on my arm and it just became a therapy for me. Now I look at my arm and I don’t see ugliness or scars—it’s just so beautiful to me.”

Kent worked at a call center and a vape shop for a while but found little joy. Ultimately, her incarcerated experiences inspired her to lobby for prison reform. After working with a nonprofit called the Freebird Movement, Kent went to college and earned her Bachelor’s in correctional program support services. She started off by going to prisons and helping others break the cycle. Then, she was encouraged to take her story to a broader audience. “I decided to film seven videos and they were called ‘Heroine: My Road to Recovery,’” Kent says. “I thought YouTube was just these beautiful makeup artists and I didn’t fit into that box. But people watched them and they really liked them, so after that I was like, ‘You know what? I like talking about my story.’”

By making use of social media, Kent was able to both share her story with tens of millions of people and create her own full-time job advocating for reform. Most people would have been broken by what she has endured, but in her struggles Kent found purpose. In her current life raising two children in Chicago, Kent barely resembles the woman who mistook the early stages of pregnancy for drug withdrawal. But Jessica Kent doesn’t run away from that past, she works tirelessly to help others avoid or overcome the same ordeals she went through. She’s fearlessly telling the world that prison is part of who she was, who she is and who she’s going to be.