Jessica Kent finds redemption and purpose in life after prison

Jessica Kent is a prison reform, mental health and substance use recovery advocate whose experience made her want to protect other women and inmates from enduring similar traumas.  

I want to be a voice for women in prison and felons in general. And those that struggle with mental health and addiction,” Kent told In The Know.

At 23 years old, Kent was incarcerated on drug and gun-related charges in Arkansas. Shortly after her arrest, Kent discovered she was pregnant. Though she was still struggling with substance use disorder, she was given very little support in prison.

“I was denied access to clean water,” she explained. “I was denied access to prenatal vitamins, and I had very little help when it came to the psychology and the mental health surrounding my addiction.”  

When Kent gave birth in prison at 24 years old, the process was painful, both physically and mentally. 

“Shortly after [my daughter] was born, I was chained to the bed,” she said. “That is a security measure that prisons have to enforce no matter what is happening.” 

Because she was chained to her hospital bed, Kent says she couldn’t walk around and heal properly. 

“The physical mistreatment of me and other inmates was also very challenging because just having a baby in prison is traumatic enough. But to be denied access to mental health treatment, to be told you cannot get out of this bed and to be chained to a bed while you’re holding a newborn baby caused [post-traumatic stress disorder] PTSD for me,” she said.

Kent said she reached her “breaking point” two days after her daughter was born. The child was taken from her arms, placed in foster care and there was still no mental health support was provided for Kent.

Kent found herself literally unable to speak. But a few weeks later, the mother found the will to keep going. 

“Something inside of me changed. I woke up one morning and I decided, ‘You’re not going to be able to help yourself, get your daughter or do anything that you want to do unless you get out of this bed.’ This is the first step, get up and fight,” she said. 

Kent started to read self-help books. She began organizing other mothers and women in prison. She heard their stories and realized she wasn’t alone. The fight wasn’t just about getting her daughter back, it was about helping other women who had suffered. 

“I realized once I regained custody, there’s so many people that I need to help,” she explained. “I now have my bachelor’s degree in correctional program support services.”

When she was released in 2013, Kent was able to recover from her substance use disorder, regain custody of her daughter and start a new life. While the activist said she believes her incarceration was warranted, she hopes to make the system more humane and supportive of the mental health issues.

Kent uses her YouTube channel to advocate for the issues she believes in. 

“I feel as though prisoners are ghosts, you know, unless we see them, we don’t think that they’re real, they’re out of sight out of mind,” Kent said. “But that is a very real community of very strong women that are going through the most traumatic things you could ever imagine in prison.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, call The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357 for resources, or find a treatment option near you through The National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers directory. Visit the American Addiction Centers website to learn more about the possible signs of substance use disorder.

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