Activist Donna Hylton fights for criminal justice reform after 27 years in prison

EXCLUSIVE: Hylton, who experienced unimaginable childhood trauma, discusses the path that led her to found the organization, A Little Piece of Light.

Trigger warning: This story involves content about rape and abuse.

Criminal justice and women’s rights advocate Donna Hylton was incarcerated for nearly three decades and now she is turning her pain into purpose. Today, she is on a mission to support women and girls who have been impacted by intersectional trauma that she is all too familiar with.

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, Hylton opened up about her journey and the challenges she overcame along the way. A fuller picture of her story can be found in her memoir, “A Little Piece of Light: A Memoir of Hope, Prison, and a Life Unbound.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – MARCH 01: Donna Hylton attends the celebration of Harry Belafonte’s 95th Birthday with Social Justice Benefit at The Town Hall on March 01, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Hylton was born in Jamaica where she spent her early childhood years. When she was 7, Hylton was human trafficked to the United States in an illegal adoption after she was promised a visit to Disneyland. Instead, she was taken to an unknown home in New York that led to countless traumatic experiences.

“I don’t even know how much time elapsed and I was like ‘When am I going to go to Disneyland? I miss my mommy,’” Hylton told theGrio. “I don’t even remember when I was told to call this couple mom and dad.”

As a child, she never made it to the theme park as she was originally promised.

When she was 9, she shared how she internalized the abuse she started experiencing at the hands of her adoptive father when her adoptive mother wasn’t around. The abuse started when she began complaining about the growing pains in her chest from puberty, Hyton said.

“When children are placed in a situation, they adapt.” Hylton told theGrio. “As children, we start making up stories around it to adapt even more but by the time I was 9 and a half, this man that I was told to call dad, my adopted father, started raping me.”

She went on to share how she always knew when he was coming because she’d see a little piece of light coming through the closet door crack while she was in hiding, inflicting trauma and terror. He would repeatedly rape her in that closet, she said.

By the time she was 12, she got more active at school, both athletically and academically.

“I guess I was running, running from pain. [Track] was a way of escape for me, that was how I escaped, going to school and practicing,” she shared.

She attempted to speak with the school counselor seeking support, but the counselor failed to listen or help her, according to Hylton.

“It was a series of all of the traumas and abuse and the lack of any healthy adult in my life,” she told theGrio. “Some came, but they didn’t help and that’s why I always emphasize: when you know something isn’t right, do something about it, help that child, help that person.”

At 14, she ran away from home to get “protection” from an adult friend who said he could help. That quickly turned into her “worst nightmare,” Hylton told theGrio. Following a series of abusive incidents throughout her teenage years, she was raped again by another man and got pregnant at 15, giving birth to her daughter at 16, she said.

“A child had a child,” Hylton noted.

Her life continued to spiral. At 19, she shared how she walked into the fatal kidnapping of a New York real estate broker and felt “powerless” in preventing the outcome of the brutal killing in 1985.

Following the tragedy, at age 20, Hylton was sentenced to 25 years to life for kidnapping and second-degree murder for her role in the crime. She served 27 years at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, a maximum-security prison known for its brutal conditions. She was paroled in 2012 at the age of 47.

During her time in prison, Hylton started her pursuit of activism and worked hard to earn multiple degrees, including an associate’s and bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Science and a Master’s in English Literature. She shared how she made friends with a young woman named Helen who was sick at the time. That motivated Hylton to advocate for her and even went on to help open a long-term hospice care unit at the prison.

“I’m not perfect, but I try my best,” Hylton said.

Hylton’s experiences throughout life and behind bars also led her to channel her pain into purpose through her 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization A Little Piece of Light, named after her memoir.

Hylton and her team have worked tirelessly to support girls and women, including transwomen who are often overlooked, by getting legislation passed, launching a housing initiative, sharing relevant resources and creating career opportunities.

Most recently, Hylton launched a new program in New York called ‘Lighting the Way: Elemental Leadership and Life Enrichment (ELLE) Initiative,’ which was created to “meet the short-term housing, wellness, education, and employment needs of the women it serves, especially those getting back on their feet after prison.” The initiative recently opened two homes in Brooklyn and Queens. 

“Having a safe space to exhale and center yourself is the first step in the process of healing and repair from the harm inflicted upon women by criminalization, and the trauma incited by sexism, racism, violence, and often poverty,” Hylton shared in an announcement sent to theGrio. “Yet finding housing is one of the biggest challenges for women getting out of prison. We must ask ourselves: how can they heal, reconnect with their families, or find a job if they do not even have a place to call home?”

They plan to provide transitional housing for dozens of women every year through enrichment and gender-responsive programming designed to empower people to be change agents in their lives.

Ninety percent of incarcerated women have experienced violence throughout their lifetimes, according to an estimate from 2016 by the Correctional Association of New York shared by A Little Piece of Light, and many of them experience homelessness upon being released. Today, Hylton hopes to help lower these statistics by advocating for others through her work.

“If I can help one person recognize their own humanity, then they can recognize it in someone else and pass it along,” Hylton told theGrio.

To learn more about the work Hylton is leading through A Little Piece of Light, visit the organization’s website.

TheGrio is now on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!