‘I am Tyra Patterson.’
“I can be changed by what happened to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.” –Maya Angelou
Tyra Patterson insisted I include this quote in her interview. If you’ve missed her story – that even high schoolers at Aiken High School had integrated into their civics courses – she spent 23 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit. She went into the penal system illiterate at 19 years old. Her sentence certainly changed her, up to the day she was released last Christmas, but purely for the good.
When we sat down with Tyra, she projected nothing but rays of positivity and beams of happiness. Outside, torrential rain and wind pounded the city, but it didn’t seem to faze her. I didn’t consider it at the time, but it occurs to me now that it’s synonymous with how she spent her sentence: gloomy circumstances, but an optimistic spirit. Twenty-three years later, Tyra has an impressive assembly of knowledge, skills, trades, and advocacy work under her belt which she avidly committed to learning during her time in prison. Now, her superpowers are being used to advocate for the incarcerated.
Who is Tyra Patterson?
I am Tyra Patterson. The reason I came to Cincinnati is because I work for the law firm that helped free me after 23 years of incarceration. I have passion. I am very empathetic. I love children. I’m motivated. I’m a fighter and a survivor.
Tell us more about your background. How did you become incarcerated?
I was convicted of aggravated murder and five counts of aggravated robbery – crimes that I did not commit. Because I was uneducated, I didn’t know my rights. I went to prison not knowing how to read or write, so while I was there, I educated myself. Today, I’m a third-class steam engineer; I’m a paralegal; I’m a certified tutor – just to name a few. I’m also an inmate advocate.
I felt like I needed to have a voice for the women inside the prison.
I started advocacy work with prison social justice work inside prison before I knew what it was about. I didn’t have a voice when I was inside the institution. But when my legal team, the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, came along, they gave me a voice. Because they gave me a voice, I felt like I needed to have a voice for the women inside the prison. So, I became an inmate advocate, which allowed me to have more knowledge, to grow within the institution, and to learn more. When I became free, I was able to do the work that I do now.
Now, I go back inside the institutions and fight for my clients. We do litigation work. We are the total opposite from The Innocence Project. We are more like “the guilty project,” and we humanize those who are in prison. We make sure that our women are not being raped, that our human trafficking victims have representation; we make sure they have meals and their healthcare is being met and their religious rights are being granted.
Everybody should know that we have a problem within our judicial system.
Today, it feels weird to leave the prison after 7 months. Now I go back to the institutions and have clients. Today, I work for a law firm, which is really a blessing. Again, they gave me my second chance. I’m adamant about whatever I do. I’m very passionate about whatever I do. I’ve traveled the country speaking to different schools, whether it be colleges or intermediate schools, to give the message of dropping out of school and the ripple effect that it has.
How did you maintain strength throughout the years?
I know my strength came from people fighting for me. Whenever people started saying, “I am Tyra Patterson” and signing my petition and praying for me, I knew then that they gave me my voice and they were my strength. And of course, I do have a relationship with God, so that kept me going. My family inside the institution kept me going. The people that was once strangers to me became my family, my sisters… That gave me my strength.
What was the first thing you did when you were released, aside from seeing family?
The first thing I wanted to do was take a bath. Because I hadn’t taken a bath in 23 years. We’re only afforded showers with limited time. The first thing I wanted to do was just sit in a bathtub and give thanks to God.
Why have you chosen to take on this active role to help those incarcerated now that you’re free?
Because it is so important that we change the judicial system and the paradigm for our children. I personally wanted that to be granted to me whenever I was a young lady. When I dropped out of school when I was 11 years old, nobody said, “Where’s Tyra? Tyra’s missing from school today.” So I’m going to be that one person that somebody wasn’t to me, to our youth. Our youth are important. They’re our future.
Needless to say, the last 20 years of your life were confined. What does your future entail? What are some landmarks you want to hit that you may have missed beforehand?
I want the same opportunity to be granted to the ladies who are incarcerated. I am not the only Tyra Patterson out there. I want reentry mentors for everybody that’s reentering parts of society. Returning citizens – it’s important to give them second chances. And I know that I have the tools to do that. I know what’s missing in our community, and it’s somebody taking them by the hand saying, “You can do this. I will show you where the grocery store is and I will show you where an apartment building with affordable housing is.” That’s one of my goals. Another goal of mine is continuing to go inside our schools and speaking and giving students the tools that they will need for their future. I have so many goals and I’m going to tackle them one by one.
Some people might say that you’ve missed out on quintessential pillars of growing up, like prom, getting married, things of that nature. What would you say to them? Is that something you feel affected by?
I’m still living a life. I don’t look at the glass half empty. I’ve always looked at it half full. My opportunities still exist. Whenever I was inside prison, I didn’t look at my prison sentence as a death sentence. I fought every day. I learned; it became my education center. I put myself in today, and today, I’m living that life that I wanted to as a little girl. Nothing stops me, not even the incarceration or prison or people.
I am the most grateful person that you will ever meet. I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to sit here with you all today. However, I could do so much more.
That’s so incredible, because at least for me personally, I think I may have just given up. But you kept going and persevering.
Giving up, to me, was not an option. I had reentry mentors and Ohio Justice and Policy Center fighting for me. If they fought for me, I had to fight for myself. Plus, I was a mentor in prison for our youth; I was mentoring DePaul Cristo Rey High School students, and there was no way I was going to give up on them. I wanted to see them graduate, and guess what? I watched them walk down the aisle, one by one, and that was important to me.
What do you think should be the next steps for our local legal system to improve conditions for the incarcerated and people reentering society?
First of all, everybody should know that we have a problem within our judicial system. I think bail reform will help. Affordable housing is a big issue that hinders us here in Cincinnati. If we come together as one and realize the problem and fix it together, I think it will make a big difference. Transportation is another issue. Looking at the judicial system and realizing that we make mistakes – did we over-penalize somebody or did we put the wrong person in prison? That could be a factor, too.
Why are you striving for clemency?
Your name is everything. I want to clear my name because it’s my right to clear my name. The evidence says my name should be cleared. I am not completely free. I still have five years parole. With five years parole, I have to get permission to go out of town. I have to get permission to stay out overnight. I have to get permission to do a lot of things, and that’s not being totally free. I want to be equal in society. I want to feel equal. Although I don’t let that deter me from doing whatever I need to do, it’s still in the back of my mind. It’s still that nagging… I’m still convicted. To me, that’s not justice. Am I grateful for being free? Absolutely. I am the most grateful person that you will ever meet. I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to sit here with you all today. However, I could do so much more.
Who are you beyond all this? What are your hobbies? What do you do for fun?
Believe it or not, I am a total country girl. I love fishing, I love bike riding. I love to swim. I love my dog. I have a Pomsky… and that’s my companion. I haven’t dated yet; I haven’t been on one date, but the Pomsky, she’s my baby. I am free.
Who’s an influential woman in your life?
That is so unfair to ask me! Because every woman in my life is influential. My mother, my reentry mentors, my coworkers, the community, Michelle Obama… so really, it’s unfair. I don’t think I could answer that.
What are some misconceptions about you?
I really don’t know what the misconceptions would be about me, but I know what they are when it comes to returning citizens and what they think: “Would they commit another crime? Do we give them a second chance?” The misconception is that they are bad people. They don’t realize that they are brilliant women, brilliant men, very talented, smart people behind bars. All they want is that second chance. The misconception is all wrong. People make mistakes.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t believe that people can truly change their lives?
I’m a living witness that people can. I did, and I went to prison not knowing how to read or write. I was never afforded the opportunity as my co-counterparts. I lived a different type of life. I’m a living proof that it can work. Now, I have coworkers; now I go inside schools with your children… It works.
What’s one message you want our readers to take away from this?
Thank you for my second chance. Thank you for humanizing me and treating me equal and making me a part of this community. Making me feel welcome. And that I love everyone. I love people.
How can the “average” person make you or another returning citizen feel welcome?
By stretching your arms out and hugging me. By saying, “Hello.” A simple hello will give me the confidence to move forward.
I know my strength came from people fighting for me.
To go further, getting more of our businesses to hire returning citizens. We need more opportunities. We have so many businesses that lack that. It’s important to have these businesses hire returning citizens… not just one or two. Just give us an opportunity. I can guarantee you that they will be your best workers. There’s an important saying I say when I give my speeches: I say, “It’s important to embrace us, to welcome us, to give us jobs, because one day, I’mma be your neighbor.” Today, I am somebody’s neighbor. So why not have me equipped with the resources that are available?
You have such a generous spirit. You seem so positive and joyful. How do you avoid the bitterness, or the frustration? I’m sure you experienced that during your sentence, but how do you avoid that now that you’re out? It seems like you’ve just put that behind you?
I hold no resentment in my heart. Like I said earlier, I love people. I do not have room in my heart to hate. I don’t have time to waste. I was like this inside prison, too. I was always smiling, always encouraging the ladies, saying good morning to them, so this is me. This is who I am.