From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
I Wasn’t Allowed In
by Donna Hylton
On May 18, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in a 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 in criminal justice reform — from the left, right, and center — to discuss meaningful and long-overdue action to change our nation’s penal system, and how to move Congress to action.
I arrived. The summit took place. But I can’t tell you what happened there. I wasn’t allowed in.
It was pouring rain as I waited to enter the White House, 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 or explanation, I was escorted away — soaked, cold, and stunned.
My passion for criminal justice reform isn’t rooted in indirect and anecdotal societal inputs. It’s deeply personal. I’ve lived it. Incarcerated at the age of twenty, I would not walk into freedom until nearly thirty years later. While in prison, I began working with other women on reforming the system. When I left, 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 you think about this administration, criminal justice reform is urgently needed, and I am ready to sit down with anyone in the name of productive change.
According to news reports, President Trump joined the meeting at the White House and told the group that if Congress sent him a bill he would sign it. And right now, multiple bills are pending in Congress: the Republican-controlled House has passed the First Step Act, while the Senate is considering the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
Had I been allowed into the meeting, 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 some deeply concerning provisions. For instance, it will allow prison wardens to form and create partnerships with private corporations, without any methods in place to ensure their accountability to the public. It will also likely lead to an over-reliance on the continued incarceration of low-risk people and their families to fill prison beds. Particularly worrisome 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 criminal justice reform will require vigorous and sustained advocacy by communities across the country: communities, like mine, that include women who have survived physical violence, sexual abuse, marginalization, criminalization, and trauma. We have something to say about reform and about what is needed for our communities. Without our participation, even the most well-meaning legislation — the First Step Act included — will have its 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, to ensure we were heard. Instead, I was left standing in the rain. 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 if we continue to shut some people out of the room.
We must be honest about and accountable for the ways in which this country has incarcerated trauma-impacted women. Our first step should be to build forward-thinking reform and discontinue the antiquated ideal that a correctional system should rely solely on punishment, 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.
Take action today:
If you believe our country is a country of second chances, call your Senator and tell them to vote on and pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.
Donna Hylton is an activist, a speaker, and Senior Justice Fellow for the Women and Girls Project at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. She is also the author of A Little Piece of Light: A Memoir of Hope, Prison, and a Life Unbound.