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Shannon Stewart is a typical Southern California beach girl. At 28, she is blond and tanned. She speaks in “Valley Girl” tones. She smiles a lot, and when she does, her brown eyes sparkle. She is perky and outspoken. She is flirtatious. She wears a black crop-top blouse over a bikini top and shorts. As she flings open the lobby door at Las Colinas Jail, she shouts, “Let’s get the hell outta here!” She jumps into the arms of a young man and kisses him. She then dispatches him to buy her some cigarettes.

At 5’2” and 130 pounds, Stewart is a powder keg of exuberance — and the last person you would expect to see in jail. “Am I the cutest inmate you’ve interviewed?” she asks. Before I can answer, she informs me that she has been in jail before. “This time it was a warrant. I got picked up at my home for a domestic-violence warrant because I had not finished some anger-management classes I was supposed to take. The sheriffs came to my door and left cards when I wasn’t home. I didn’t want to miss the classes, but I was starting a new job, and I literally couldn’t get the time off to go to the class. I didn’t want to tell my new job about a domestic-violence conviction. I was in for five days this time.”

After returning from court today, Stewart was surprised to be called out for release the same day. “I could have served a year in jail for not going to my classes. The minimum was 60 days — you’re gonna trip on this! I talked to the judge without my attorney representing me — these public defenders are dump trucks. They really don’t care about you. They’re really ‘public pretenders.’ My public pretender wanted me to do 60 days. I went before the judge myself and got her to reduce it down to 30. I was on the phone arranging to get my rent paid for me when they said, ‘Stewart! Roll up!’ I’ve been here five days after being sentenced to 30. They’re letting everybody out of here early.”

She explains the original domestic-violence conviction. “My boyfriend had moved out on me. We just got an apartment together and signed a one-year lease. After four months I came home one Saturday and I found the apartment half empty. I went over to his friend’s house, where I knew he would be, and knocked on the door. I was crying, upset. He came out and we were discussing things, and I had my hands up under his shirt. Meanwhile, his roommate called the police. When the police arrived, he took off to get away from me and move towards his front door, and one hand was still under his shirt. I ended up ripping a seam about four or five inches with my nail. Because of my drug convictions five years ago, I had a criminal record, so they arrested me.

“I pleaded ‘not guilty’ and I was going to go to a jury trial. I was late for my first jury trial, so I actually had to plead guilty or they were going to put me back in jail. The public defender — and he’s been a public defender for four years — he told the judge that this is the most minor domestic-violence case he’d ever seen in his entire career.

“It wasn’t him,” she says, referring to the young man returning with a pack of Marlboros. “This is actually my baby’s dad. He’s not my current boyfriend, we’re just good friends. I’ve never married. I have three children, two boys and a girl — all different fathers. The girl is 14 and the boys are 10 and 6. My daughter is coming here from Washington tomorrow. She’s having a summer visit in Tacoma with her father, who lives there. She normally lives with my mother. My 6-year-old lives a mile away from here with his dad, and my 10-year-old is living in Tacoma with his paternal grandparents.”

Disarmingly frank, Stewart discusses her childhood difficulties. “I was 13 when I got pregnant with my daughter. I had her when I was 14, so my mom has raised her. I had a rough childhood. My father shot himself in front of me and my brother, and he shot my mother too. We were in a car, driving down a freeway. My father died and my mother hung on. She was Mormon and he was in the military when they got married. It took being married to him for a number of years before she realized that he was an alcoholic, abusive, and manic-depressive. I’m a lot like him. I was born bipolar. I’m a little hyperactive and I suffer from depression. I’ve been suicidal in the past. I overdosed on my medicine, so they don’t even give it to me anymore. My mother had problems with me. I was sexually promiscuous at 12, I started smoking pot, drinking, hanging out with — trying to get attention because I had no father figure in my life. I got in with the wrong people, and my mother kicked me out of the house.

“I lived on the streets. I prostituted at 14. I ran away from every foster home they ever put me in. I might have made bad decisions, but I felt that I could raise myself better than these foster/receiving homes where there’s eight girls in one room. You take a shower three times a week, and you can’t get ready for school because there’s so many people. I felt that I could just stay with my friends and do it my way. I started stripping at 18 and getting into drugs. Before I only smoked pot and drank, but the day I turned 18, I started stripping and getting into cocaine. My mother never accepted me back home, and I’ve never been able to live with her. We still don’t get along to this day.”

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