Imprisoned Invitations: Prison Reform in America

by Donna Hylton

Last week, I traveled to the White House to participate in the Prison Reform Summit hosted by Jared Kushner and the White House Office of American Innovation. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together prominent voices and leaders of criminal justice reform – from the left, right, and center – in one place to discuss meaningful and long overdue change and action around our nation’s prison system. One of the items to be discussed was reform legislation pending in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives and how to move Congress to action.

I arrived. The summit took place. But I can’t tell you what happened in the room.

I wasn’t allowed in.

It was pouring rain as I waited to enter the White House with my invitation from Mr. Kushner in hand. However, when I approached the entrance, security personnel told me I was on the “Do Not Admit” list. Unceremoniously denied entry, I was escorted away. I was soaked, cold – and stunned.

Criminal justice reform isn’t just a social justice cause I’m passionate about that’s rooted in indirect and anecdotal societal inputs. For me, it’s deeply personal. I lived it. Incarcerated at the age of 20, the next time I would walk into freedom would be nearly 30 years later. While in prison, I began working with other women on reforming the system. When I left prison, I made a commitment to continue the fight for change, particularly for women and girls who have been harmed by our nation’s gruesome system of mass incarceration. Whatever one thinks about this administration, criminal justice reform is urgently needed, and I am ready to sit down with anyone in the cause of productive change.

According to news reports, President Trump joined the meeting at the White House and told the group that if Congress sends him a bill, he will sign it. And right now, there are multiple bills pending in Congress. Just this week, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the First Step Act. And in the Senate, there is another bill pending called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

Had I been allowed into the meeting, I would have shared my experience. I would have highlighted that while the First Step Act has many useful components, such as prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women in prison, it also includes provisions which are deeply concerning. For instance, it will allow prison wardens to form and create partnerships with private corporations without having an accountability method in place to the public. It will also likely lead to an over reliance on incarcerating and continued incarceration of low risk people and their families to fill prison beds. Particularly concerning is that the First Step Act leaves out thousands of people who would be denied any form of relief, especially Black and Brown people and immigrants.

The First Step Act can be improved by addressing these concerns, and strengthened further, particularly for the women in the system, by including much needed sentencing reform.

Moving Congress to action on justice reform legislation will require vigorous, sustained advocacy by communities across the country -- communities like mine, which include women who, like me, who have survived physical violence, sexual abuse, marginalization, criminalization, and trauma. We have something to say about reform and what is needed for our communities. Without our participation, even the most well-meaning legislation – including the First Step Act – will have their positive components overshadowed by poison pills we cannot accept.

There was a time when I didn’t have a voice. I thought I was alone, but I came to realize that I was only one of thousands of silenced and marginalized women. Women who were shut down. Women who had been abused. Women who had been traumatized. Women who had been ignored and dismissed.

I viewed my invitation to the White House as a responsibility to carry the voices and experiences of so many marginalized women into that meeting and ensure we were heard. Instead, I was left standing in the rain, denied entry. For too long, too many people – especially women – have been barred from participating in the decision-making processes that impact our lives. We won’t achieve real, sensible reform while locking some people out of the room.

We must be honest and accountable for the ways in which this country has been incarcerating trauma-impacted women. Our collective first step should build forward thinking reform and discontinue the antiquated ideal that a correctional system should solely rely on punishment and not reconciliation.

Through my work with thousands of directly-impacted women across the country, both inside and outside of prison, I know that we can’t be silenced or deterred. When those in power lock us out of the meetings, we’ll double down on our organizing and build a movement to win the real change our country needs.

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