For Keiana Aldrich, freedom felt like sand between her toes.
Late Thursday night, after being released from the California Institution for Women after nearly a decade behind bars, the former sex trafficking victim dug her feet in the coastline at Huntington Beach, exhilaration hitting her like the waves coming on shore.
"It still feels unbelievable," Aldrich, 25, said Friday morning, a breakfast burrito in her stomach. "So unreal."
She was freed from prison because of the work of advocates and family, and a Sacramento district attorney who decided not to stand in the way of her resentencing. But Aldrich's journey from being a sexually exploited child to a formerly incarcerated woman has been tumultuous and uncertain, highlighting how victims of abuse end up in California prisons, despite reforms.
As Aldrich begins a new chapter in her life, one she hopes will allow her to "grow into somebody who is strong and smart," she is intent on sharing her story in the hopes of raising a conversation about how criminal courts treat exploited women and children. It is a path long known to advocates and those in the criminal justice system, but one gaining broader awareness amid the push for criminal justice reform in California.
"We need to be fighting for and standing up for the other Keianas that came into the carceral system traumatized and are probably facing more trauma behind bars and wondering why they were punished for standing up for their lives," said state Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), head of a select committee on incarcerated women. "Her story is one that so many other women face."
Aldrich was 5 years old and living with her teenage mother in Northern California when she was first sexually abused by her father, a minister nearly twice her mother's age. She testified against him, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison.
But, faced with poverty and a difficult relationship with her mother, by the time Aldrich was 14, she was regularly living on the streets in Sacramento, being sexually exploited. At 16, she was arrested on prostitution charges and agreed to testify against her female pimp, with the hopes authorities would provide her with counseling and safe housing. Despite the pimp's conviction, no help materialized, she said. Instead, she found herself once again on the streets and alone.
Aldrich was taken in by a gang-affiliated family that also sold her for sex. When Aldrich was 17, a member of that household, another female pimp, answered an online ad from two men looking to purchase Aldrich for sex and to make pornography. But when the pimp, also a minor, and Aldrich arrived at the hotel, the pimp pulled a gun and forced one of the men into the trunk of a car with Keiana's help. Court documents allege the girls forced the man to buy goods and give them money, actions caught on surveillance video from a store.
Though neither of the men was charged for soliciting sex from a minor, Aldrich was charged as an adult with kidnapping and robbery, and faced decades in jail. She took a plea bargain for 10 years.
But life behind bars offered little relief from exploitation, she said.
Aldrich said she was sexually coerced or molested by three correctional staff members and one guard. She filed complaints against all of those involved, despite what she describes as retaliation for speaking out.
The guard was subsequently terminated from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after an investigation, and the case was referred to the San Bernardino County district attorney, CDCR said in a statement in September. CDCR officials also said the three civilian staffers whom Aldrich reported for alleged abuse have all left state employment.
The department said at the time that it has a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual misconduct and “investigates each allegation thoroughly.”
The alleged abuse left her feeling “disgusting,” she said earlier this year. While in prison, she attempted suicide multiple times, once ingesting pencils. Another time, she tried to hang herself. As the coronavirus kicked in this summer, leaving her stuck in her cell with little mental health treatment, she slashed her wrists with razor blades before swallowing them.
For days after that attempt, her family and legal advocates did not know what had happened, or how serious her condition was. Maggy Krell, a Sacramento lawyer who has been working to free Aldrich, pushed hard for action on a request to Gov. Gavin Newsom's to grant Aldrich clemency, but with no luck.
Increasingly worried that Aldrich would not survive the pandemic in a prison where services had been cut back to prevent transmission of the virus and with less than a year left in Aldrich's sentence, Krell took her plea to the Sacramento County district attorney's office, asking it to reconsider Aldrich's sentence. Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert agreed to not oppose such a request if Krell took it before a judge, Krell said, despite the fact that the male victim in the case opposed her release.
"In Ms. Aldrich’s case, a request was made to our office for re-sentencing given her upbringing, the circumstances of the crime as well as her rehabilitation efforts while incarcerated," Schubert said in a statement. "After reviewing all of those facts, we felt it was appropriate to agree to re-sentencing."
Thursday morning, Krell and Aldrich were granted a Zoom court hearing, but remained uncertain what a judge would say. Krell said she argued that sex trafficking laws in California have evolved since Aldrich was convicted, and Aldrich may have not received such a harsh sentence under today's standards.
She also pointed out that "her mental health was suffering" because "prison is supposed to be a mix of punishment and rehabilitation, and further time would not rehabilitate her given the circumstances of the pandemic."
Judge Michael Bowman agreed with those points, and by 9:30, Krell had been granted a release order reducing Aldrich's sentence to time served.
Krell drove from Sacramento to Riverside Thursday to pick Aldrich up. Friday, they returned to Northern California, where Aldrich will begin a transition program to help her adjust to life on the outside.
But, she said, she doesn't want to forget her past. Instead she hopes to become an advocate for other young women in similar circumstances.
"It's so overwhelming when you first going to prison, and once you start doing your time there a lot of bad things happen," she said. "I wouldn't want anyone to experience bad things like I have."
It's a sentiment shared by Krell, who has had conversations with legislators about how to fix a system that sometimes punishes women who have been victimized.
"This is bigger than one case," Krell said. "Keiana has already told me about some of the people she's left behind. We need to continue to work vigilantly to prevent sex trafficking but also create a better off ramp for girls like Keiana who slide down this insidious pipeline from sex abuse to prison."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.