Donna Hylton does her interview with BK Reader on the run: there’s no time to waste.
It’s Monday, formerly incarcerated women need housing, and she’s in a position to help through her Bed-Stuy-based non-profit A Little Piece of Light.
“My organization is going to house people, and we need to get some apartments,” she says, determined, as she gets into her car.
After spending 27 years in prison herself, Hylton knows how hard it is to find housing when released. It’s just one of the ways any interaction with the criminal justice system can become a life sentence, even if you’ve already served your time.
She remembers the process of convincing a management company she was worthy of renting to.
“It was like I was back on trial, in a courtroom setting, and I had to bare my life my to them. I thought, ‘Is this what everyone has to go through?’ That re-traumatized me.”
Now, housing is just one of the things Hylton is working on as part of her journey from trafficking victim, to accessory to murder, to—after almost three decades in prison—advocate for women and girls dealing with America’s flawed criminal justice system.
Hylton, who is originally from Jamaica, says she was trafficked to the United States as a young woman, where she was abused for several years.
When she was 16 she gave birth to her daughter, and, in 1986, at age 20, she was sentenced to 25 years to life for her role as a nonviolent accessory to kidnapping and second-degree murder.
Hylton spent 27 years behind bars at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, including two-and-a-half in solitary confinement. While in prison, she earned a bachelor?s degree in behavioral sciences, and a master?s degree in English.
Reform is coming
An outspoken criminal justice reform advocate, Hylton was in the room last week as Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Act into law, a reform Hylton had campaigned for for years.
The law aims to reduce the number of people being sent back to prison for minor parole violations that wouldn’t be considered violations of law, like getting home late, Hylton said.
“It’s a watershed moment when it comes to parole,” she said. “It will stop the reincarceration of people who have not been committing a crime, and as ugly as it is, it has mainly been used to reincarcerate and overcriminalize Black and Brown people.”
Hylton’s next focus is on closing Rikers Island, which is currently under fire for its inhumane conditions, and for being the site of 12 inmate deaths this year so far.
“People are still sleeping in their urine, in their feces, not getting medication, not getting to court appointments… you are proving it needs to be shut down. Let’s help make that happen before 2027,” she said.
Hylton had her own experience with Rikers Island as a teen, when she was sent there, forced to take psychotropic medications and placed in solitary confinement without water.
“I remember I flushed the toilet a few times, dipped my hand in the water and put it to my lips. I was bloated, dehydrated, it was just so bad,” she said.
“Thirty-six years later we?re still with a humanitarian crisis, it’s a pressure cooker, and the pressure cooker has exploded.”
Nowadays, from her Bed-Stuy headquarters, Hylton is trying to make sure women and girls don’t go through what she went through.
A Little Piece of Light has a focus on trauma-informed mental health response, helping women and girls recognize their self-worth and offering programs helping to find employment, and of course housing.
“I fortunately allowed myself to be healed, you have to want it,” she said.
As a mother, she’s also focused on reducing the harm children face when mothers are sent to prison.
“I’ve lived it and continue to live with the harm and trauma of me not being around for my daughter for 27 years. There’s still trauma there and stuff I can’t repair, but I’m trying to be very present today.”
Right now, A Little Piece of Light is seeking apartments to house the women in its program, and funding to keep supporting the work its doing. For more information, click here.
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