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Changing the narrative of incarceration through TV series and art

Tyra Patterson and Sheila Donaldson Johnson
Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-18 10:41:45-05

CINCINNATI — Tyra Patterson and Sheila Donaldson Johnson have both spent years in prison.

Donaldson Johnson was selling drugs to support a heroin habit. Patterson was wrongly convicted of aggravated murder and aggravated robbery.

“It was traumatizing but it was also like I had to embrace my reality," Donaldson Johnson said. "I had to do the time and learn the ropes in prison!"

Patterson’s reality, however, was harder to embrace. She was wrongly convicted in 1994 and served 23 years — most of her life — in prison.

But their story turned out differently than you might have expected. They both work at the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, hoping to help people like them realize change is possible.

Tyra Patterson and Sheila Donaldson Johnson OJPC
Tyra Patterson and Sheila Donaldson Johnson OJPC

Their life stories during -- and after -- incarceration mirror that of Isaac Wright Jr., who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1991. His story is being told on the ABC show "For Life", premiering Feb. 11 at 10 p.m.

For Life Trailer: ABC TV Show Inspired by Isaac Wright Jr.
For Life Trailer: ABC TV Show Inspired by Isaac Wright Jr.

“It’s powerful to see that people can change,” Donaldson Johnson said. “For people who say you can’t change, we are living proof that you can change.”

Donaldson Johnson is now a senior paralegal after having gone to prison in 1984 and 1986 for aggravated drug trafficking and sales. Patterson was released two years ago and is now a Community Outreach Specialist.

“I am from Dayton, but I’ll always say prison was my home for most of my life,” Patterson said. “So that’s where I’m from. I was raised in that institution. What happened to me was unfortunate, but I made the best out of the worst situation of my life.”

Both women took their incarcerations as lessons. Patterson didn’t know how to read or write going into prison, and Donaldson Johnson had never graduated from high school.

“I knew that I had to reinvent myself and do some things differently,” Donaldson Johnson said.

So she went back to school and got her bachelor's degree, even graduating with honors.

Patterson took the same tack.

“When I went to prison I learned how to read, put myself through school and gained my engineer’s license,” Patterson said.

When they heard about the show, Patterson and Donaldson Johnson definitely felt like they could relate.

“Like, Tyra and I are real life," Donaldson Johnson said. "We are real life in the law firm, working after being incarcerated."

But Patterson wanted to make sure women's experiences -- and voices -- were being heard, too.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing, but I don’t want women’s voices to be left out of the conversation,” Patterson said. “I love that we have men who are coming out, there’s always stories about them, but I want them to empower women as well."

That’s why she’s using her voice, and working with ArtWorks, to create a social justice mural Downtown. She says the mural will be painted by a woman who is currently incarcerated and serving 15 years to life in prison.

“We chose [to paint] five women who have made mistakes, and some were wrongly incarcerated,” Patterson said. “I just wanted to highlight the empowerment of women who are doing wonderful things. I didn’t want people to wait until people come home to give them jobs. I wanted to change the conversation around that so we hired someone who is still currently incarcerated — with equal pay!”

Donaldson Johnson will be one of the faces on the painting so that she can work to change the conversation of incarceration through TV shows -- and through art.

“If people don’t understand law, or what a returning citizen is, then they will look at this mural, because they understand art,” Patterson said. “It’s powerful.”

Statement from ArtWorks:
"For an upcoming mural project, ArtWorks will produce a mural which will celebrate and uplift women who are returning citizens. This mural will represent hope and seek to break down stigmas, and its design will celebrate the accomplishments of local women who are returning citizens themselves. The final mural design will reflect the work and hand of Jayme Santini, an artist who will be returning home from incarceration in spring 2020, and its design is being directed by Russell Craig, an accomplished returning citizen and artist from Philadelphia, and Tyra Patterson, community outreach strategy specialist with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center."