A Little Piece of Light for Incarcerated Mothers

womanly chats
Issue No. 4: Black Maternal Health
Words - Aarti Patel
Illustration - Singha Hon


Donna Hylton became a criminal justice reform advocate following her own experience with incarceration. She tells the story of this journey in her 2018 memoir, A Little Piece of Light: A Memoir of Hope, Prison, and Life Unbound.

Womanly Magazine Health Educator Aarti Patel sat down with Donna Hylton to hear more about her personal experience as a mother while she was incarcerated, and how the lessons she learned in prison led her to activism.


  • Local jails in the United States will separate an estimated 2.3 million mothers from their children over the course of this year, including 150,000 women who are pregnant when they are admitted.

  • 60% of women in local jails have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting trial.

  • Black children are seven times more likely than white children to have a parent who is incarcerated.

  • A third of incarcerated women are lesbian or bisexual, compared to less than 10% of men.

  • The United States is home to only 4% of the world’s women, but 30% of all women incarcerated globally.

Aarti Patel: How did you start your advocacy work in the criminal justice system?

Donna Hylton: I was tricked into it by the nun! Sister Mary, who’s like my mother. I was doing all this work in prison with her help. The 27 years I spent in prison and the work that I did there groomed me for the leadership position I have now.

When HIV/AIDS hit the prison, it affected all of us: inmates, staff, volunteers, and visitors. It was the 80s, so the stigma was bad. Women were dying almost everyday. We didn’t know what it was, and the women were being treated with a lack of compassion. So the women in the prison said, “We need to respond to this.” I got involved and helped develop the first hospice care in prison, in about 1989.

I got out on Jan 17th, 2012, and on the 19th, Sister Mary asked me to speak about criminal justice at John Jay College. And who could tell the nun no? So I did the talk, and then I started speaking to people more often and sharing what I went through.

Aarti: When you first became incarcerated, you were a young mother. What was that like?

Donna: It was difficult. I was 14 years old when I ran away with a grown man who said he was gonna help me. By the time I was 15, he was raping me and abusing me really badly. My daughter is a product of that. And as much as she is a product of something bad, she’s a product of so much love. Because I loved her then, I love her now. But it was difficult being a teenage mother, not even knowing how to be a kid. I was a kid, I was so hurt and so messed up, but I was still trying to find moments of light, moments to hold on to. I was learning to be a mother and an adult on my own. I did the best that I could do at the time. When I got sentenced to 25 to life, I had just turned 20. I couldn’t even wrap my head around 25 years to life. And I had a child. I didn’t have a family that supported me. No one was there to prepare me for prison or to prepare me for separation.

Aarti: What are the unique health care barriers that mothers and pregnant women face before or during incarceration

Donna: Health care in itself is such a problem, right? Black women are not taught that we need adequate medical attention. I’m working with women who were incarcerated, and a lot of their issues are health related. I think it comes from us not knowing our worth. And then you add that poverty is being criminalized. The root cause of incarceration is poverty, period. If you’re on public assistance, struggling, you’re thinking about taking care of your children, not about your health. Other countries have universal health care, but when it comes to our country, people in these tough situations have to pay an exorbitant amount of money to just get better! The concerns of people shouldn’t have a dollar sign attached to them.

Aarti: The incarceration rates in the U.S. in general are decreasing, but for women they’re actually increasing. Why is the rate of incarceration for women so high?

Donna Hylton (right) with Yan Snead (left), Manager of Communications and Digital Strategy, at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

Donna: Over the last 30 years, the number of women going to prison has increased 830%, and that has almost all been women of color, specifically Black women. Now they say there’s an opioid crisis. It’s always been a crisis. What they did before was lock up people who had drug addictions that should’ve been treated but weren’t. We have to focus on how to help people with addiction, especially Black women.

Aarti: In your memoir, you talk about one summer when your daughter was able to visit you in prison. How did that make a difference for you?

Donna: I hadn’t seen her for almost 7 years, and she was around 12 at the time. I was so happy. She was different, and looked so much like me. What I didn’t know was how much it hurt her to leave me. Before that summer, I couldn’t see her that much because no one brought her to see me. I fought to see her in the courts, even when I was in solitary confinement.

She would see me at court dates, and my hands and legs were shackled. It was hurtful to have her see me like I was caged. I still think about the effect that has on a child.

I felt shame and a lot of guilt, and I still have some, because I wasn’t there for her. It took me a long time to say, “Donna, you were a kid. You did the best you could’ve done in the moments that were presented to you.” After a while, I stopped beating myself up and started a healing process.

Aarti: What was your pathway to healing?

Donna: Forgiveness. There was something inside of myself that I wanted to change, and I started thinking, “I’m not a bad person.” But I did have to come to terms with the fact that a human being’s life was taken. I would ask myself, “Hhow did I not help?” But once I decided to forgive myself, I started forgiving everything and everyone who had done anything to hurt me. I have no anger or hate left.

Aarti: We are so grateful to have you share your voice with us. Is there anything you want to leave us with?

Donna: Don’t forget about the women in prison, the young mothers, because everyone has forgotten about them. Write them a letter, get involved with our women's and girls’ projects. We’re going to start programs for visiting and letter writing, so get involved with that. Let’s let the world know that women in prison are important and valuable and should not be overlooked or underserved.  

Black women, we have carried this world on our backs and in our wombs and we continue to carry the world on our backs and in our wombs. We’re human beings, we need something to hold onto, to believe in, to look forward to. That is light.