Donna Hylton speaks onstage during the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Theo Wargo (Getty Images)

Dear Kim Kardashian West,

My name is Donna Hylton. I am a mother who served 27 years in prison, including years in solitary confinement. I am an author and leader for social justice and an advocate for women and criminal-justice reform. You clearly had a successful meeting with the president at the White House to discuss the case of Ms. Alice Marie Johnson. I read that your goal for the meeting was to talk to the president about her and “explain to him why she would be such a good person to grant clemency to.” [On Wednesday, June 6], the president did just that—and now Alice Marie Johnson [is] free. This was admirable, and I would like to thank you for your efforts. And I would like to ask that we sit down, privately, to discuss prison reform in the United States.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the Prison Reform Summit at the White House to discuss policy reform, including legislation pending in Congress that could potentially help thousands of women and families. With invitation in hand, I showed up at the White House that morning, only to be turned away at the entrance. My experience in the prison system, and as an advocate who has written legislation and educated lawmakers, could have informed the conversation about policy reform that day. Instead, like so many women impacted by these issues, I was locked out, without even the courtesy of an explanation. Maybe they locked me out because for 27 years, I was nameless—known only as inmate 86G0206. ... 

In 1986, Donna Hylton was a 20-year-old single mother when she was sentenced to 25 years to life for her role as a nonviolent accessory to kidnapping and second-degree murder. But Hylton had been living in hell long before she reached prison; at age 8, she was abandoned by her mother in Jamaica to virtual strangers in New York City. By her adolescence, she recounts, she was enduring repeated sexual and physical assaults from multiple offenders—including her adoptive father and the father of her child—and countless instances of misplaced trust before a poor judgment call would unwittingly land her in the middle of a messy extortion scheme that resulted in a man’s death.

Photo: Hachette Books

But after 27 years in prison, Hylton has lived to tell the tale. In her new memoir, A Little Piece of Light: A Memoir of Hope, Prison, and a Life Unbound (released June 5 by Hachette Books), Hylton guides us through her devastating childhood, resulting self-destructive choices and eventual decades in prison—which make up approximately half of her life to date—at the only maximum security prison for women in New York state, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

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During those years behind bars, Hylton experienced nothing short of a spiritual awakening, earning her master’s degree, discovering her talent for writing, reshaping her life and her self-worth, and forging unexpected yet lifelong bonds with some of the most infamous female criminals in recent history, including Pamela Smart and the “Long Island Lolita,” Amy Fisher.

Most important, after a lifetime of oppression and abuse, Hylton found her voice—no small feat after it had been stifled at every turn. As she told The Glow Up:

There’s this culture of silencing women; it’s like saying, “Well, this is what happens. You get what you deserve.” Or, if you’re a woman of color: “You don’t mean anything, and you’re not worth talking about.” And basically, it’s your lot in life. ...

We frame this narrative that women are so—like, we can be so sneaky or beguiling, and [we] blame everything on the woman. ... But women are the creators in this world; we carry the world—in our wombs and on our backs.

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It wasn’t only Hylton’s world that came crashing down around her when she was aggressively sentenced; her then-4-year-old daughter, Adrienne, was left behind.

While Hylton says she did her best to fight for her daughter from behind bars, in a sickening cycle of events, Adrienne would suffer similar feelings of abandonment and become a victim of sexual abuse, raped when she was barely in her teens. As a result, even in the six years since Hylton has been released from prison, Hylton says that she and her daughter—who love each other deeply—remain a “work in progress.”

Their story is unfortunately not uncommon; as New York City first lady Chirlane McCray recently noted, women tend to be the primary caregivers of their loved ones, and children are often the collateral damage of female incarceration.

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“[A] woman’s imprisonment has a profound effect on their families and communities,” McCray told The Glow Up. “It’s not just the woman that’s impacted, but the entire family.”

It’s one of the many issues Hylton addresses at length in A Little Piece of Light, in addition to the misogyny and toxic masculinity she believes contributes to the cycle of abuse and female incarceration. During her 27 years in prison, she says, she discovered that they were common themes in the stories of the women she encountered:

[T]his way of being, this way of characterizing women and silencing women has been going on for so long that we’ve become comfortable in believing that that’s the way it should be. ... We’ve become so comfortable in this craziness that it’s become normal, and it’s not OK. It’s inhumane and it’s cruel to shut anyone down, to silence anyone and to not allow anyone to have their voice.

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Today Hylton’s mission is to be a voice for the silenced. She is an advocate for criminal-justice reform, a women’s rights activist and a senior justice fellow for the Women & Girls Project at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. She was a featured speaker at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington and has become a leading voice in the movement to end mass incarceration and improve prison safety. Her story may even end up on film; activist and actress Rosario Dawson has signed on to play Hylton in a movie that’s currently in development.

But A Little Piece of Light is Hylton’s own reclamation of her narrative, which she admits she initially struggled with:

I need to be proud; look at what I survived. I’m telling the stories of other women that are still there, not able to tell it, but they have survived in their own way. ... And so I started saying, “You know what? I want this book to be a best-seller.”

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More than anything, Hylton wants us to recognize the humanity of incarcerated women, who often go forgotten in discussions of prison reform. The recent release of Alice Marie Johnson, whose life sentence for a drug offense was commuted after Kim Kardashian West personally advocated on her behalf to the president, prompted Hylton to write Kardashian West an open letter; excerpts of which she has given us permission to print as part of this article. She wrote:

There are hundreds of thousands of women in the United States who have been impacted by a broken justice system, disconnected from their family and friends, marginalized and harmed. They are the mom who won’t be able to attend her child’s graduation. The grandmother who will never know what it’s like to snuggle a newborn baby from the lineage she started. The daughter who never got a chance to say goodbye to her parents before they died. Why? Because they, like Alice Marie Johnson, are serving time in federal or state prisons, mostly for low-level offenses. Women are being harmed and abused, disappeared behind bars, their families destroyed, their voices unheard. Clemency is important, but it’s not enough to win justice for the hundreds of thousands who need it. Nor are there enough celebrities in America to advocate individually for each woman in the prison system. To address the problems that led to Ms. Johnson’s life sentence, we need real policy reform—new laws, new practices, justice.

When I walked out of prison six years ago, I made a promise to spend my freedom working on behalf of women who did not yet have theirs. I know firsthand the issues women face behind bars, and the challenges that await them on the other side of their sentence. Policies are created out of issues, but not always by the individuals who have dealt with those issues. This must change. I’m not trying to take away from anyone’s commitment to policy and reform work, but reform happens when everyone is at the table and when all voices are heard. ...

I invite you to connect with me and people directly impacted by the prison system. We work with criminal-justice organizations, community organizers, and advocates for policy reform and system change. There’s real work to be done. Let’s do it together for all of the women and girls in our prison system who deserve to tell their own story, in their own voice, and proudly lift up their own names. —Donna Hylton