Woman who spent 3 years in federal prison earns doctorate
At 24, Yolanda Perkins was facing up to 30 years behind bars.
Yolanda Perkins appears to have it all. The mom of two is happily married and recently earned her Ph.D. from Nova Southeastern University.
"At 24, being faced with the realization that I was going to prison was devastating for me and my family," a tearful Perkins told "Good Morning America." "I felt so alone. I felt like I was the only one in the world who made a bad mistake. I didn't feel like my life was worth living. I thought my life was over."
In 2004, Perkins was caught stealing credit cards from a workplace mail room. At the time, she was a senior at University of Central Florida (UCF), preparing for graduation.
She was arrested and faced up to 30 years in prison for credit card fraud -- an offense that was eventually dropped to a lower charge.
Perkins instead plead guilty to possession of stolen mail and was sentenced to three years in federal prison. She was expelled from UCF and her requests to be on probation, or enter a military boot camp, were denied.
Perkins' new reality put her in a dark place, and she attempted suicide.
"With everyone finding out and being dismissed from the university, I was not prepared for it," Perkins said. "I was embarrassed. I was saying, 'Why me?' But I chose to do what I did and those were the consequences."
Perkins surrendered herself and was brought to the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Florida. She was later transferred to Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas, where she remained for roughly one year.
On her 25th birthday, she was handcuffed and transferred via Con Air to the Federal Correctional Institution in Coleman, Florida, where she finished out the rest of her sentence.
"When I went to prison I cried. I refused to take a shower because I didn't want anyone to look at me. I was scared -- from what I saw in movies. I was still under the impression that my mom was going to get me out. This dream was not a dream. It was real."
"Another inmate said to me...'You're crying like they gave you a life sentence. How much time did they give you?' I said, 'Three years.' She gave me this look. She said, 'How many hours in the day? When you're sentenced to 24 years to life, then you cry,'" Perkins recalled.
"They recognized that I was somebody who was never coming back," she said of the other inmates.
Perkins did her time while lifting herself up along the way.
She took up journaling, and recited affirmations and goals to herself in the mirror.
She constantly applied to jobs from the classified ads, and never slept under the covers, she said.
"If my mind is weak and I conform to this lifestyle, then I will become institutionalized," Perkins remembers telling herself.
She was released on July 25, 2006. She went to live in a halfway house and was required to find a job -- something she thought would be a breeze, considering her educational background.
But with a felony on her record, Perkins was unable to land a job. She informed her case manager who told Perkins, "The closest that you will get to working in somebody's office is if you are cleaning it."
Perkins said she would never forget that comment, as she pushed herself to become the person she is today.
Since she's fluent in Spanish, Perkins eventually landed a job at Goodwill as a translator in the human resources department. Perkins credits her boss Becky for giving her a second chance, which led her to completing her Bachelor's degree at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Meyers, in 2007.
In 2008, Perkins married her husband, Dwight. The couple have two children, Dwight III, 8 and Bella, 6.
In 2010, Perkins completed a Master's degree in Health Service Administration, and started a company called Swimmie Caps.
Three weeks ago, Perkins walked across the stage during commencement at Nova Southeastern University and accepted her doctorate as her family looked on.
"My doctorate is in education with a concentration in organizational leadership," Perkins said. "My support comes from my kids, my husband -- they're the ones that tell me dig deep for that energy. My husband says, 'Yolanda, you'll get it' And my kids, they'll say, 'You got this mommy.' They're my hype."
In 2012, Perkins published a book based on her story titled, "Consequences." Her latest book, "Now," is scheduled for release July 15.
In addition to working on her book, running Swimmie Caps and raising her children, Perkins has dreams of launching an app to help formerly incarcerated individuals find jobs.
"What people need are a second chance and employment in order to be productive members of society," Perkins said.
"I want people to understand I've always owned up to my mistakes," she added. "I'm very sorry for what I've done, but I'm embracing my 'now.' I've worked my butt off. I like to remind everybody: it looks very pretty on the outside, but there's still things that need to be done."
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