I first met Donna Hylton in February at the New York film premiere for Survivors Guide to Prison where she was a panelist for a Q and A after the film screening. Her grace and candor in discussing the problems of the criminal justice system were impressive, and even more so when she almost casually revealed that she’d just written a book called A Little Piece of Light about her 27 years in prison. In conversation afterward, she was so friendly and easy to talk with that I was immediately excited to read her book.
A Little Piece of Light went on sale June 5th and it’s even more riveting that expected, as close to perfectly executed as memoirs come: details of harrowing abuse, neglect, and trauma are tempered by a beautiful redemption, no word or thought is used that doesn’t advance the story.
Donna was born in Jamaica. She was sold by her mother at age 8 to the Hyltons, a couple that was going to New York and promised to take the young girl with them to Disneyland. This was just the beginning of cycle of trust and abuse that would mar her life in America as she dealt with bad parenting and unprocessed trauma and abuse. At age 19, she was linked as an accessory to murder she had nothing to do with, and landed herself 27 years behind bars.
A Little Piece of Light has so many twists and turns that must be read to be appreciated, but through it readers are given the sense that through her almost three decades’ of imprisonment, Donna discovers friends, mentors, and real community that helped shape her into the caring, nurturing person she was always meant to be.
While in prison, Donna earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and became an advocate for incarcerated people, focusing on identifying self-worth and people’s inherent value as a cornerstone of the rehabilitation process. She’s been a free woman now for six years and her book A Little Piece of Light from Hachette Books is available at bookstores everywhere. Rosario Dawson is slated to play her in the movie adaption currently under development.
We spoke on the phone about the false narratives perpetuated about prisons and incarcerated people.
This is a book that deals heavily with prison but I noticed there aren’t many curse words in it.
Donna Hylton: That’s intentional. I generally don’t curse and I think there’s enough negativity in the world without adding to it. But the book is as raw as possible.
Why did you keep the name Hylton despite the family’s mistreatment of you?
DH: It’s extremely difficult to change your name in prison and I wasn’t focused on that. I’ve been focused as much as I can on changing the way things are and being a voice and speaking my truth and being a voice for those that don’t have a voice.
What are your thoughts on prison reform in the age of Trump? Has the trajectory of prison reform changed?
DH: I’m concerned about that. We try to tell the public that prisons have various kinds of programs that teach people how to become better workers and citizens. How do we make prisons a place to be yourself when we don’t have those kinds of resources within our own communities? We don’t have the educational tools that are necessary to prosper and I see more and more articles that are saying how this prison has this educational program, or that prison is supplying contact lenses. It’s a very cloak-and-dagger message. Prisons have become the response for every ill in our system. From drug addiction to mental health to poverty, we have to be clear that prisons shouldn’t be a response to that. We have the resources. We don’t need prisons. People do bad things but we need to find out what the root causes are so we can heal and help people become better human beings. To work on those issues that created their problem. Prison just shouldn’t be the response to everything.
What alternatives would you like to present?
DH: Let’s talk about drug addiction. What drug treatment is there in prison? It doesn’t exist? No one who’s been to prison for drug use can say that they went through any real in-depth treatment for their addiction. Prison doesn’t stop an addiction, it just cuts it short — if it even does that. People are overly medicated in prison and if they don’t have a strong addiction when they go to prison, then they’ll have one by the time they get out. That’s compounded with the mental health issues they’ll have because their problems have been exacerbated. You don’t treat addiction or poverty with prison. Because a person is poor and is trying to eat the response is to lock them up for the rest of their lives. That’s just instinctual human nature; we’re all hungry. When we have to go to the bathroom, we have to relieve ourselves. Locking up a person doesn’t take away the root of the issue.
What do you think about the work that district attorney Larry Krasner is doing in Philadelphia?
DH: He’s starting out on a good foot and I know some of the people that helped his campaign and they are formerly incarcerated and understand what it is that their communities lack. If a person commits a crime, then we should look at the person and what led them to what happened. When they go to the judicial system they are not looked at as a person and all the focus is on the crime and getting a conviction or a plea bargain. The system is designed for plea bargains, and not to keep going to trial. We’re trying to change that with a focus on the individual and asking how can we do better. That doesn’t mean that if people do something horrible they don’t deserve to be removed from society, but do we treat them like animals in inhumane and cruel ways? Absolutely not! 95 percent of the people in prison get out like I did; a lot of people don’t stay in prison and die. And how do we want the person to come out? Do we want them to leave worse than what they were when they went in? Or do we want them to take accountability and responsibility for what they’ve done? When they do that, they’ll want to contribute to society and bring light into the world.
I couldn’t believe the description in your book of your trial about how you went to prison for so long with no connection to the man that was killed.
DH: They could have gone deeper to find out who I was. No one asked me if I was hurt. No one asked me that. Some police officers said that I didn’t do anything and the officers told a grand jury that I was beaten into confessing something that it was obvious I didn’t have anything to do with. I didn’t know Mr. V. (her nickname for the man that was killed) How can I want to kidnap someone for money who I didn’t know? It didn’t make any sense, and that’s why they should have looked deeper to find the root causes.
What do you think about the high profile pardon of Alice Marie Johnson? Were you familiar with her story?
DH: I actually wrote letters for her in favor of getting clemency and so I wasn’t averse to her pardon what I’m averse to is sending a message that you need to have some celebrity backing to be recognized. There are a lot of people that need help at the federal and state level and don’t get any help.
We’ve become so comfortable in dehumanizing people and feeding into the narrative. It’s time to become uncomfortable because we are in a very dark place. Prisons are a money-making machine for those that are invested in it. We have to be clear that there’s something wrong here.
How do you think you were able to remain non-vengeful to those that hurt you?
DH: That’s just not who I am. I never was that person. I don’t like to think about people being hurt and I don’t see myself being able to think that way. I try to be the best me that I can. I was an abused, raped, and traumatized child and I couldn’t develop in any way into a young woman who had a clear understanding of who she is and what she wanted for herself. That’s why I stand in my truth today and I speak out for those who are not able to.
Love is the key.
The Hyltons promising to take you to Disneyland was a big unfulfilled promise early in the book. Did you ever go to Disneyland?
DH: I haven’t been there yet, but I plan on going there this year. I’m still that little girl. I honor her and tell her I love her every day because no one else did.
What are some prison reform initiatives you’re trying to head up?
DH: Well, I am a senior justice fellow at the Katal Center for Health Equity and Justice. My role there is working on prison reform as it directly relates to women and girls. I’m proud of my activism and being an author, and my focus is always to tell the truth about what happens in our prisons. We talk about policies but we have to understand the issues to create policies that can truly address anything. Prison reform has become a blanket statement for everything. Prison reform is different from sentencing reform which is different from clemency and pardons and they are all encapsulated by criminal justice reform. There are very different distinctions and we have to be clear about that and understand the different factors within the criminal justice system. I actually like to say criminal legal system since there’s no justice in there the majority of the time.
What are some of your specific goals for A Little Piece of Light?
DH: My specific focus for A Little Piece of Light is seeing it humanize those of us whom society has dehumanized; to shed light on how this country incarcerates trauma, abuse, mental illness, addiction, and poverty.
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