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Rebuilding Lives

Syrita Steib (FOX 8 Photo) Syrita Steib (FOX 8 Photo)
NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

A St. James Parish native, once a hardened criminal, now helps other former inmates transition back to society. Syrita Steib was locked up for almost a decade. Her freedom came with a mission to rebuild lives.

"I didn't care about the consequences of my actions," she said.

Federal authorities led her away in handcuffs in February of 200. The then-19-year-old was in the U.S. Navy when she was arrested. She and her roommate were on leave looking for fast cash, when they committed serious crimes in Texas.

"We went to Texas because that's where she was from," said Syrita. "We went to a car dealership and stole cars. She, myself and two gentlemen."

She said in the midst of the actual crime, one of the men thought his face had been captured by a security camera. She told him to burn the place down.

"I told him to pour gas and make a line to a propane tank and blow it up. He did exactly what I told him to do," she said.

Three days later, Syrita was picked up by federal authorities in New Orleans. She pleaded guilty to use of a firearm to commit a felony in federal court and was sentenced to 120 months in prison. Ten years.

"I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact I was 19 and I'd be in prison until I was 29," she said.

It was the worst case scenario of bad behavior that had been building all of Syrita's life.

"I remember my first time getting in trouble at school. I was in fourth or fifth grade for fighting," she said.

She was always bright, but rebellious behavior continued to escalate as she got older.

"Two weeks into my freshman year in high school I got suspended for bringing alcohol to school," she said.

She had a full scholarship to Xavier, but despite her intellect, she sought out the wrong crowd. By the time she graduated from high school, she said she was using a lot of marijuana. After arrests that ranged from shoplifting to speeding, it was time for a change.

"I decided to withdraw from the university the spring semester and I decided to go to the military." she said. 

She enlisted in the U.S. Navy in August of 1999. It was a last chance for an admitted "problem child," despite an upbringing filled with advantages.

"We used to go skiing in Colorado and things of that sort. We were exposed to a lot growing up," she said.

Syrita and her sister grew up in Vacherie. Their dad was a plant operator. She said her mom worked a lot, first as a lawyer, then as a judge. Sylvia Steib Dunn was a workers compensation judge for Plaquemines, St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes for decades. Her daughter was on the wrong side of the law.

"It was humiliating, especially because I was part of the system," her mother said. "I got a chance to see the entire system from a different perspective."

Syrita reported to federal prison in Carswell, TX, in August of 2000.

"You lose all your rights as a human being in prison. It's a savage life," she said.

Because of her temper, it would be the first stop of four prisons in almost 10 years.

"Her second stop was Danbury, CT, where she served time with notorious money launderer Piper Kerman, known for the best-selling memoir that would become the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black."

She served time in Coleman, FLA, then her last stop the federal prison in Tallahassee. She said when she hit 25, a light went off.

"I said you absolutely can't go into society the way you came in, so what you going to do?" she said

She took college courses there to better herself. On Jan. 9, 2009, her mom and a former inmate friend met her and she was released. With the help of old friends, she merged back into society.

Six years later, she's part of a traveling panel called Real Women, Real Voices hosted by the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women

The symposium was at Loyola. As they toured different universities, people all over the country hear the stories of triumphs and hardships after release.

"This is something she's doing with passion," her mother said.

Syrita has a success story to tell. When she left prison she got a job at a construction company. She got married and had a son. With scholarships and financial aid she attended UNO and LSU, where she graduated cum laude in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in medical technology.

"I am a licensed medical technologist and I'm also certified and I also work at Slidell in the lab. I work with some awesome amazing people. It's a good life," she said.

"If they see how she came from nine years in federal prison and made it, they can do the same thing," her mother said.

She received an invitation from the White House to attend a women's summit in mid-June. She founded a group called Operation Restoration to make sure women released from prison get the help they need.

Copyright 2016 WVUE. All rights reserved.

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