Five Cincinnati Women Using Their Second Chances to Help Others

A downtown mural depicting Sheila Donaldson Johnson, DeAnna Hoskins, Tyra Patterson, Tracy Brumfield, and Belinda Coulter-Harris shows their worth.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

The story of this downtown mural begins with Tyra Patterson. She is the glue holding it all together. So let’s start with her.

It’s September 1994, and Patterson is 19. She and a friend leave Patterson’s mother’s apartment in Dayton after midnight in search of the friend’s missing car keys. On their way back, sometime after 2 a.m., they find themselves in the middle of an encounter between two carfuls of young people near the apartment. One group is robbing the other.

Patterson picks up a dropped necklace from the pavement near one of the cars. Once home, she hears gunshots. She calls 911 to alert police.

Soon, she will learn that 15-year-old Michelle Lai died after being shot in one of the cars. Patterson will be grilled by police, who coerce her into falsely confessing that she took the necklace from the neck of a girl in the car, instead of off the ground. By the end of the following year—on December 28, 1995—she will begin serving a sentence of 43 years to life for aggravated robbery and aggravated murder.

Twenty-two years later, Lai’s sister, Holly, will write to then-Gov. John Kasich to assert Patterson’s innocence and to plead for her release. Twenty-three years after the crime—on Christmas Day 2017—the state of Ohio will grant Patterson parole.

While in prison, Tyra Patterson learns to read and write and tell her story. She finds a lawyer who believes in her. She attracts the support of politicians and celebrities with the hashtag #IAmTyraPatterson. She is the subject of national news coverage and films.

When she’s finally free, she will take a job at the Cincinnati-based Ohio Justice and Policy Center. And while walking in city neighborhoods she’ll see murals on buildings and think that she should create one that tells her story and that of other women who did time and, once released, began to serve Ohioans seeking justice.

Tyra Patterson, photographed on March 17, 2021.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

All of which leads to Patterson, now 46, standing on a downtown sidewalk in October 2020 in front of a three-story image of herself and four fellow “returning citizens” painted on the side of 235 W. Court St. Belinda Coulter-Harris, Tracy Brumfield, Sheila Donaldson Johnson, and DeAnna Hoskins join her to dedicate the 200th mural created by ArtWorks, the 25-year-old nonprofit that employs area teens to make art.

Patterson made this mural happen. She pitched the concept to ArtWorks. She developed the design. She recruited a muralist from Philadelphia and an artist friend, then still incarcerated, to collate photos of the five subjects into the mural image. She worked with two teaching artists, who directed eight youth apprentices to paint Time Saved vs. Time Served on the side of the Court Street building last summer.

“People who make mistakes should be humanized,” Patterson will say on dedication day, pointing out the bold headline at the top of the mural: We don’t write people off.

“It’s important that we give people second chances, even third chances,” she’ll say when I speak with her via Zoom from her Cincinnati apartment several weeks later.

And the woman who hired her to make those bold assertions, ArtWorks CEO and Artistic Director Colleen Houston, will say that Patterson was the right person with the right message for 2020, when all seven of its new murals offered a “New Voices” theme. “Art,” says Houston, “creates compassion and empathy. Art has the power to change hearts and change minds.”

Collectively, the five women featured on Time Saved vs. Time Served spent 48 years behind bars. Four were convicted for crimes related to drug use and own their guilt. Patterson served the longest, for a crime she did not commit. All have proven themselves worthy of second chances, and all now work to help create second chances for others.

Belinda Coulter-Harris’s recurring dream began at age 5. She is falling off the top of a building. Before she hits the ground, a nun catches her. “When I think about it, it says that God has always had me,” she says. “He’s always caught me. Even when I was a little girl, I was put in situations that no child should ever be in. I’m still here, for some reason.”

But her path to a brighter future, like the other women Patterson selected for the ArtWorks mural, wasn’t straight. Raised in Cincinnati by a family that struggled with poverty and drugs, Coulter-Harris grew up early. “At 5 years old, I was standing on a chair cooking for me and my little brother,” she recalls.

By 14, she’d had her first child. By 19, her second. At age 22, she and a woman named Elizabeth Green robbed a man across the street from Coulter-Harris’s apartment. Green then stabbed the man to death, earning the death penalty—later commuted to a life sentence—from the state of Ohio. For her part in the crime, Coulter-Harris served 20 years of a 12-to-50-year sentence on involuntary manslaughter and aggravated robbery charges.

Released in 2008, she turned up at Cincinnati Works, the nonprofit focused on lifting “members” out of poverty through employment. They advised her to return to school in order to supplement the GED she earned while incarcerated. In quick order, she completed an associate degree, then a bachelor’s, then a master’s.

Four years ago, Cincinnati Works hired her as an intake coordinator, and she became Miss Belinda—often the first point of contact for new members seeking employment. Along the way, Coulter-Harris, now 55, rebuilt relationships with her adult children and cared for her paraplegic mother, who passed away five years ago. In 2019, she married Larry Harris, whom she’d known for 40 years.

Life after prison hasn’t always been easy. Early on, she once nearly skipped a bus ride to work because it was foggy outside. She’s spooked by fog, she explains, because prisons lock down inmates in those conditions. Another time, a boss had to gently remind her she didn’t need to ask permission to use the bathroom, another habit from prison life.

And like many returning citizens, she’s felt stained by her past mistakes. Tyra Patterson has helped the stain fade.

Patterson arrived at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville when Coulter-Harris was seven years into her sentence there. “Me and a lot of other old-timers that were in prison were there for Tyra,” says Coulter-Harris. “She looked up to me as her ‘auntie’ type of person.”

Sharing her face—and story—for the ArtWorks mural “feels like we still have that ability to be there for other people,” she says. “Even after we’re no longer in this world, maybe somebody can go look at the mural and say, You know, this is one of the places that it started. We hope to get rid of this whole inclination to sum a person up by one mistake.”

When Tracy Brumfield met with the teenagers painting Time Saved vs. Time Served last summer, she didn’t like her face—the one already painted on the building. She had been photographed for the mural fresh from ovarian cancer treatment, “and, oh my God, I looked horrible,” she says.

So she talked to the artist assigned to paint her portrait and asked for some revisions. “He kind of fixed my face, based on how I look now,” she says. “It came out much better.”

Vanity was not the motivation. At 54—with cancer, heroin addiction, and prison time now behind her—Brumfield wanted a more hopeful visage. “That’s not how I wanted to be remembered, as sick,” she says. Instead, if her plans pan out, she’ll be known as the woman who took a small Cincinnati newspaper to jails and prisons across the country.

She’s already four years into RISE (Reenter Into Society Empowered), a publication whose readers are soon-to-be or just-released incarcerated people. Available at no cost from jail commissaries, the four-page issues provide information about housing, jobs, addiction treatment, and other services, along with stories of inspiration—useful to people returning to their communities.

Brumfield launched RISE in 2017, after winning what she calls a “one-in-a-trillion shot” $100,000 grant as a People’s Liberty Haile Fellow. She and her team have produced 26 editions of the paper, launched a companion website called RiseUpNews, and added Montgomery County jails to those in Hamilton County as distribution sites. She’s now exploring expansion into other Ohio county jails, prisons, and youth correctional sites as well as, she hopes, other states.

Brumfield says she could have used something like RISE when she was fresh from prison. “I was homeless on the streets of Cincinnati and addicted to heroin,” she says. “I have a bachelor’s degree, and I found it difficult to navigate our social service system.”

She hopes being among the faces on the ArtWorks mural will bring attention to RISE, the injustice of criminalizing those with addiction, and the overall needs of returning citizens.

Now sober for six years, Brumfield’s addiction began in college with an opiate prescription for migraine headaches. She built a career in magazine publishing until a 2012 conviction for drug possession sent her to prison for six months. With the help of the People’s Liberty grant—and her wife and their 13-year-old son—she’s been re­building ever since.

Support is critical to recovery, she notes. She’s certainly needed her own support network through the past year, as she expanded RISE, battled cancer, and endured the COVID lockdown and the death of her 86-year-old father.

The RISE tagline reads Hope. Help. Humanity. “By putting those things together,” Brumfield says, “we can change humanity and humanity’s view on people who have been incarcerated.”

Sheila Donaldson Johnson first met Tyra Patterson via video. The Ohio Justice and Policy Center, where Johnson is a senior paralegal, had just taken Patterson’s case. Johnson’s boss, OJPC Executive Director David Singleton, asked Johnson to review video of the Dayton Police Department’s questioning of a then-19-year-old Patterson. “When I saw Tyra, woo, my heart just went out to her,” Johnson says, pausing to wave off tears. “She was a child, uneducated. She didn’t really know what was going on.”

Over time, with OJPC support, Patterson would establish that she was coerced into implicating herself in that videotaped interrogation. She would prove, too, that the jury that convicted her saw only the portion of video with her false confession, not the entire 88 minutes. Johnson watched the full confession. “I had to shut the office door, and I just cried,” she says.

These days, Johnson considers herself something of a big sister to Patterson, who calls Johnson a pioneer among women who made the most of their second chances. “You kind of reconstructed and reinvented yourself on the quiet side,” Patterson told her when she asked to add her to the mural.

Johnson, 63, says she almost missed her second chance. Drug trafficking charges landed her in Ohio prisons in 1984–85 and again from 1986 to 1989. She spent additional time in jails in Ohio and elsewhere.

She struggled to get clean until 1993. “I found myself going back to the same thing that I once knew because of all the no answers I heard: No, you can’t live here, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. So I almost gave in to the system telling me no.”

By 1993, Johnson says, “something told me, You’re going to die if you don’t stop.” She got help. She stopped. And she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and landed her first paralegal job, before arriving at OJPC 19 years ago. And now she’s honored to be pictured on the side of a building owned by former Hamilton County Deputy Sheriff Sean Donovan. “Our paths have crossed again,” she jokes.

When the 16-year-old grand-niece she and husband William “Billy” Johnson are raising saw the finished mural, she told Johnson, “Aunt Sheila, that’s on point.” Johnson thinks the artists could have added a few more of her small freckles.

But despite her “cool as a cucumber” reputation at OJPC—just one returning citizen helping other returning citizens—she can’t help feeling the significance of being among the five women depicted. “They usually wait for people to die to put them on a mural,” says Johnson. “This is something special.”

Deanna Hoskins has moved ever higher in more than 20 years in criminal justice work. A Cincinnati native, she was a correctional casework manager in the Indiana prison system, then came back to run Hamilton County’s first Office of Reentry. Later came a stint in Washington, D.C., with reentry work for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since 2018, Hoskins has led Just Leadership USA, a New York City nonprofit aiming to cut the nation’s correctional population in half by 2030. As president and CEO, she oversees a $1-million-plus budget, a staff of nearly 20, two boards, and a funder roster that includes corporate names like Kellogg, Ford, and Rockefeller.

During her 20s, though, Hoskins was on the streets of Cincinnati, deep into crack cocaine. At the dedication of Time Saved vs. Time Served, she told the crowd that Court Street plays a starring role in her life story. “My active addiction happened at the corner of Court and Linn [streets], at the bottom,” she said, “and my life transitions were where Court Street dead-ends into the county courthouse.”

Her drug use landed her in court, where a 1990 probation violation yielded a 45-day stay at the River City Correctional Center. That exposure to the system—and separation from her three children—inspired her path to recovery and her start in criminal justice work. Then she finished college (and obtained three degrees), won a pardon for her earlier crime, and began the work that lured her to New York.

Along the way, she followed the #IAmTyraPatterson story. When they finally met, they hugged like they were long-lost friends. “It was almost kindred spirits, because we could truly connect on the pain and the trauma.”

Hoskins likes that the mural highlights women since, she says, “we normally do the work behind a man who gets the acknowledgement.” She likes that all five are women who found success after convictions and what the mural says about Cincinnati.

Hoskins, 52, began running Just Leadership from here last year, with COVID drawing her back to family in this area. After years in other cities, she thinks “nobody knows how to tuck the ills of a community away more than Cincinnati.”

Perhaps ArtWorks’s 200th mural signals a change. “Conservative Cincinnati put these faces on the side of a building,” she says. “To acknowledge this issue, that is progress.”

Tyra Patterson left school in the sixth grade. Her family—mom Jeannie and three brothers—struggled with poverty and occasional homelessness. Her father, an alcoholic who abused her mother, died when she was 13. She had just one job, as a Wendy’s cashier, before that 1994 night in a Dayton alley changed her life. She’d quit because she didn’t know how to make change.

Out of prison now for four Christmases, Patterson is an enthusiastic, well-informed cheerleader for returning citizens. She writes op-eds and speaks at high schools and colleges. She’s the Ohio Justice and Policy Center’s first-ever community outreach strategy specialist.

When we talk in December, she hops on Zoom in a winter white holiday sweater, hair and make-up done at 10 a.m., with a curated bookshelf and sleek silver-and-white props behind her. It’s her closet, she reveals with a giggle.

Patterson is clearly not who she was at 19, when her false confession, combined with poor legal representation, led to her conviction. “I was young, very young. And not only that, I was ignorant.”

She set out to change that behind bars, securing her GED, completing paralegal training, and earning a steam engineer’s license. And she took up art. “Art was our way of life,” she says. “It stabilized us. It was therapeutic for us.”

She also found allies who became critical to her eventual release. One was Chinonye Chukwu, a filmmaker best known for the 2019 drama Clemency. Then a professor at Wright State University in Dayton, she led a filmmaking project at Dayton Correctional Institution, with Patterson among her students. Patterson says Chukwu deserves credit for creating #IAmTyraPatterson.

Another key ally was David Singleton. At the suggestion of an OJPC board member, he took a look at Patterson’s case and signed on to represent her in 2012. It would be his organization’s first wrongful conviction case.

Pivotal, too, were key players in the 1994 crime. Michelle Lai’s killer said Patterson was innocent. The killer’s boyfriend said she was innocent. Years later, Lai’s sister spoke out, too, telling Ohio’s governor she no longer believed Patterson was responsible for her little sister’s death. “Dear Governor Kasich: I am writing to ask you to release Tyra and set her free,” Holly Lai Holbrook said in a April 2016 letter. “I no longer believe that Tyra participated in the robbery that led to Michelle’s murder. I believe it is wrong for Tyra to stay locked up.”

On October 24, 2017, the Ohio Parole Board voted in favor of parole for Patterson. She walked out of prison the following Christmas Day, kissed the snowy ground, and joined her family for dinner.

Through and since her ordeal, Patterson has told her story multiple times. The Dayton Daily News covered it closely. The Guardian featured her case in a three-part series. A Google search of her name turns up 600,000 hits. More attention will likely come if Netflix releases a planned film about her case and if she wins the pardon and exoneration she’s seeking with help from the Innocence Project. “I don’t turn down an interview,” she says now. “I thought it was very important that people know.”

But Patterson also says she never wanted to be known just for serving time. “I didn’t want to be the girl who spent 23 years incarcerated. I wanted to be more than my story.”

A mural that sits on Court Street, facing the home of Hamilton County’s justice system, ensures that. As Patterson says, “These are actual people who are doing amazing things that we’ve given a second chance to.” Their names are Belinda, Tracy, Sheila, DeAnna, and Tyra.

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