Life in the Time of the Coronavirus

I Served 22 Years in Prison and Was Just Released Into a Pandemic

Vanessa Santiago departed as the virus began to spread through the prison. The outside world had changed in ways she was unprepared for.

Justine van der Leun
Published in
7 min readApr 21, 2020


Life in the Time of the Coronavirus is a GEN series where we are interviewing people across the country who have had their lives upended or are experiencing the stress of the unknown.

Vanessa Santiago, 40, was released from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility on March 30 after serving 22 years in prison. She is currently living in a short-term studio rental in Syracuse, New York, as she waits to move to Florida to rejoin her family, but parole obligations and travel limitations due to Covid-19 have forced her to put off these plans.

On March 30, 2020, I got out of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York state’s maximum-security prison for women. I went in at the age of 18 and walked out two days after I turned 40, into the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis.

Before my arrest, I lived a fast-paced life. I started having sex for money at 14. From then on, I stripped, schemed, and partied every day. At 16, I was put out on the streets by a 28-year-old man. I got young girls working for me, like a little madame. I searched for power, didn’t care for acceptance, wanted people to fear me. I was addicted to sex and violence. I had no morals.

Don’t misunderstand me: I wasn’t born cold-hearted, and I’m not that way now. As a kid, I squeezed everyone in a bear hug. But I remember being four years old and sitting alone at 3 a.m., waiting for my mom. From the age of seven until 13, I was sexually abused by multiple family members. I shut down. I was sent to a school counselor who also molested me. He molested other girls too. He got a few years’ probation. He didn’t even do time.