My name is Donna Hylton but for twenty-seven years I was known as Inmate #86G0206.
In 1986 I was sentenced to 25 years-to-life for kidnapping and second-degree murder. I served the time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, the only maximum-security prison for women in New York State, and was released in 2012.
My lifelong journey is one of many emotional and physical prisons; I went from abused child to repeated rape victim to desperate teen mother to solitary confinement where the boundary of my world was a 6’x10” cinder block room. It’s a story of tremendous pain and suffering, but it’s also a love story about freedom, hope, survival, sisterhood, redemption, and forgiveness. It’s about learning to love myself and fight for myself and for others.
Since my first day of freedom, I’ve been talking to politicians, to violent abusers, to teenagers, to prison officials, to victims, and to students to tell my story and the thousands of stories belonging to women not free to speak because they are silenced, behind bars, or dead.
I speak to make sure the voices of my sisters still behind bars are heard and to let the world know that although they made tragic choices and mistakes, they are not those choices and mistakes forever and neither am I. People can learn and grow and change in the unlikeliest of places and we must acknowledge that. As one of my fellow college students at Bedford said after graduation—“I was able to bloom in a very dark place.”
I know and believe in my heart that my prison sentence was a part of a bigger plan; it was a place for me to survive, heal, and find my calling—to help others.
So I do what I do today because my life is the universal story of so many women—and my hope, survival and a happy ending can be theirs, too.