A 39-year-old formerly incarcerated woman is making people believe in second chances after graduating with her PhD — and using it to create a pathway for other returning citizens to find meaningful jobs.
Yolanda Perkins grew up middle-class in Clewiston, Florida, where she says that her parents gave her and her siblings everything that they needed — including the opportunity to attend college. However, in 2004, while her friends were seniors receiving their degrees, Perkins was caught stealing credit cards from a workplace mailroom, leading to sentence in federal prison.
“I was facing 25 to 30 years and at the suggestion of my attorney,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I pled guilty to possession of stolen mail and in exchange, they dropped the credit card fraud charge.”
At the time, Perkins was just 24 years old and ended up being sentenced to three years in federal prison — a terrifying reality that she didn’t want to face. When she was denied her request to be on probation, or enter a military boot camp, she tried to take her own life.
“I didn’t think life was worth living, and I tried to commit suicide,” she says. “I just didn’t see my life as livable anymore.” Thankfully, the attempt was unsuccessful, and Perkins ended up surrendering herself to prison. And although it was a “hard transition” it provided her the opportunity to reset her goals and put her energy toward making them happen.
“The entire time that I was incarcerated, I always kept a journal,” Perkins shares. “And one of the things that I would always write while I was incarcerated was about how I would graduate college because I didn’t finish. I felt incomplete.”
Perkins explains that while there were plenty of critics who suggested she wouldn’t be able to accomplish her goal after prison, there was one fellow inmate who helped her realize how much time she had in prison and how to use it wisely.
Throughout her three years, she was transferred to two other facilities, where she engaged in learning programs and listened to speakers who sparked her interest in public speaking. Still, once she finished her sentence and was moved to a halfway house, things didn’t pan out as Perkins had expected.
“I knew that I was ready to hit the ground running when I got to the halfway house... I just knew that it would be so easy — that’s just what I had said to myself,” she explains. “But none of that happened. Instead, everything totally opposite happened.”
Her felony record made it difficult to land a job, as did her caseworker, who Perkins says told her, “the closest that I would get to working in somebody’s office is if I was cleaning it.” With the help of a friend, she eventually landed a job at Goodwill where she had a boss named Becky whom she came to call her second mom.
With Becky’s encouragement, Perkins went back to school to finish her bachelor’s degree and eventually pursued her first master’s degree, which she completed in 2010. All the while, she connected with and married her husband, Dwight, and became pregnant with their first child in 2012.
Still, it was difficult to move beyond the part of her life that she had come to feel so ashamed of — until she wrote her first book.
“While I was pregnant with my son, I was on bed rest and I wrote a book. And it was that book that I wrote that opened up doors,” she said. “Although I had been out of prison, and I had served my time, I was still on probation and I still felt like there was a hold on me. So I was still kind of embarrassed. But once I wrote the book, it became like an outlet for me. It allowed me to be transparent.”
The book, titled Consequences, was based on Perkins’s own story — which she only revealed upon the book’s release. In that moment, she says, she realized that there were others in her community who were suffering in silence from the obstacles that many formerly incarcerated people face — specifically, not being able to gain employment.
Throughout the next couple of years, Perkins continued to build her family and her career by having another baby, staring a company called Swimmie Caps and ultimately making the decision to pursue her doctorate degree. All the while, she was helping formerly incarcerated men and women find jobs, which eventually informed her dissertation.
“There were multiple points that my dissertation was rejected because I was still trying to go around the issue of not even highlighting anything about incarceration,” Perkins says of her realization that her past was an important part of improving her work. “I need to focus on something that’s important to me, and that means a lot to me. And it was about incarceration. And then from there, I had to identify what about incarceration. So then I chose to focus on the success rates.”
Through her early research, Perkins determined that a lot of works had focused on men — so she aimed to fill that gap. “I just wanted to showcase that women can be successful after prison,” she says. “Life is not over after incarceration.”
Now, she’s an example of just that. After graduating with an additional master’s degree and her PhD from Nova Southeastern University on June 14, she showcased her difficult journey in graduation photos taken by a friend and photographer, Heather Sperrazza.
“I did not anticipate the pictures to look the way they did, but she was able to express that, yes I was incarcerated but I never stopped even after that,” Perkins says.
Perkins’s story gained more attention as a result of her unique graduation photos, as well as an audience fit for her next business venture: an app for formerly incarcerated people that focuses on finding employment more easily.
“I want to stop this cycle,” she says. “I want to be able to provide a one-stop shop for returning citizens. I want it to be able to provide active resources.”
The idea, which she plans to roll out this fall after gaining funding, goes beyond connecting with companies actively hiring formerly incarcerated candidates. It also aims to ensure that candidates who have been isolated in prisons have the means to even put together a resumé, so ultimately, somebody can get a second chance just as Perkins had.
While working to bring that dream to life, however, Perkins says that she’s keeping busy raising her children, Dwight III, 8, and Bella, 6, in addition to running Swimmie Caps and preparing to release a second book. At the end of the day, however, the 39-year-old has to remind herself that acknowledging her past and the struggles that she faced is all a part of moving successfully to her future.
“It’s a part of me, it’s a part of my life,” Perkins says, “and I have to talk about it.”