“We are not defined by our mistakes.”
Imagine that you were abused as a child, which of course leaves mental scars for life. This causes you to grow up not trusting those who are supposed to care for you, and in hindsight, a part of you wants to get revenge. Well, this is the story of many women in America, including social justice activist, Donna Hylton.
During her childhood, Donna Hylton suffered years of mental, physical, and sexual abuse from many of the adults who were charged with her care—and the scars remained. As a result, her self-esteem suffered and she made some very wrong choices—as she readily admits. One of these choices led to the tragic kidnapping and murder of a man in the mid-1980s. Donna spent more than 25 years in prison, even as the rape and brutality continued behind bars, and during that time she worked to atone and improve her life.
In 1986, Donna Hylton was sentenced to 25 years-to-life for kidnapping and second-degree murder. Like so many women, her life before her conviction had been a nightmare of abuse that left her feeling alone and convinced of her worthlessness. With her sentencing, it seemed that Donna had reached the end–at age 19, due to her own mistakes and bad choices, her life was over.
But behind the bars of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, alongside this generation’s most infamous female criminals, Donna learned to fight — and then to thrive, earning two college degrees and becoming a leading advocate for criminal justice reform. For the first time in her life, she realized that she was not alone in the abuse and misogyny that she experienced; as she bonded with her new sisters, she discovered that her pain was not an anomaly, but a commonality among women from all walks of life—and especially prevalent among the inmate population.
In A LITTLE PIECE OF LIGHT: A Memoir of Hope, Prison, and a Life Unbound, Donna sheds light on the US prison system and the reforms that are so desperately needed to help inmates become contributing members of society once their terms are complete.
Donna’s story gears us to question the role of prisons in our society; are they geared toward rehabilitation, or merely for punishment? Why can’t the prison system do both? And what happens to the women inside … especially when they finally serve their sentence and emerge from back into the “real world”?
I recently interviewed Ms. Hylton where she explained these questions, her purpose in the community and more about her testimony which pushed her to fight for others.
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