Tyra Patterson (standing center) with students at DePaul Cristo Rey High School. Other speaking venues include Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Photo provided
By E. Selean Holmes
Fallacies in the criminal justice system are rampant often destroying the lives of innocent people. In recent news, celebrity Kim Kardashian collaborated with President Donald Trump to grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, who was serving life without parole for a first-time drug related offense. But imagine being unfairly jailed for 23 years with a 43-year-to-life sentence for a crime you never committed.
This is the harrowing story of Ohioan Tyra Patterson whose wrongful conviction has been exposed throughout the media. In 1994, Patterson was incarcerated at the age of 19 for the murder of 15 year-old Michelle Lai in a poverty-stricken area of Dayton, Ohio. Finally, the murder victim’s sister came forth and admitted to Patterson’s innocence. Continuously fighting for her right to be released, Patterson petitioned Governor John Kasich for clemency, after spending two decades of her youth in prison.
With only an elementary school education, Patterson persevered by participating in the vocational education programming of the penal system. She trained to be a licensed steam (water analysis) engineer, and even utilized her creative energy as a writer and director of a short film. Working in conjunction with Pens to Pictures; a project that empowers incarcerated women to make their own films through the Director’s Dialogue on Art and Social Change at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio; Patterson’s short film about prison life was shown around the world.
On Christmas Day in 2017, Tyra’s justice came through the zealous client-centered advocacy of attorney David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC) in Cincinnati. Her release was a victory. Yet reentry into society came with barriers and restrictions, as she still has five years of parole and is in need of clemency, which the governor has the power to exercise.
Patterson is well-spoken with a friendly personality and professional demeanor; yet many doors were slammed in her face. She ran into a brick wall when a bank rejected her while trying to open an account. The financial giant was pressured to change a company policy that discriminates against marginalized members of society, and they issued an immediate apology.
Patterson’s second chance for a new life came after being hired to work as a paralegal at OJPC.
Recently promoted to community outreach strategy specialist, Patterson noted that the position allows her to take her power back after being viewed as less than. She has delivered training sessions and motivating speeches to inmates, prosecutors and students at Washington University, Northwestern University, Harvard Law School and local public schools. Two prisons have allowed her to assist with the rights and freedom of inmates, providing them with crucial returning citizens’ resources.
“There are so many who must not be forgotten; I believe in the ripple effect of passing it forward,” she said.
Patterson urges youth to surround themselves with people who will challenge them, and to follow a path to education.
Prison is not a badge of honor,’’ Patterson insists.
Her new life now includes building relationships with people like Senator Peggy Lehner, a member of the Ohio Senate who defines herself as Patterson’s “surrogate mother,” and Representative Jean Schmidt, her jogging partner and reentry mentor. Her friends and colleagues are politicians, community leaders and judges, both Democrat and Republican. A fulfilling social life includes attending fancy fundraisers, political marches and serving the homeless along with City Council member Tamaya Dennard. Together, she and Dennard started the Something Warm movement designed to humanize the homeless by personally serving food and spending time with them under the bridges.
Patterson, now living a productive lifestyle, credits The Ohio Justice & Policy Center for embracing her and bolstering her self-confidence.
Armed with a personal call to relentlessly fight for the rights of others, she continues her work through OJPC, a small organization that makes a huge impact.
OJPC is a non-profit law and advocacy office that focuses on issues of safety and justice, and offers direct, pro-bono legal services to people in prison to protect their basic human rights and dignity. There are more than 100,000 women in US prisons and many are innocent and in need of advocates.
For more information visit www.OhioJPC.org to explore the program offerings.