Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series focusing on Tyra Patterson’s journey to freedom and her life beyond bars.
Tyra Patterson walks through Cincinnati’s downtown Coffee Emporium, waving to me with a cheek-stretching smile on her face. It’s our first time meeting, and she gives me a hug before sitting down at the table. In her hand, she holds a cup of Earl Gray tea with soy milk and a shot of vanilla syrup.
Choosing a drink at a coffee shop usually doesn’t require much thought — but for Patterson, it does. After serving 23 years behind bars for a murder she didn’t commit, Patterson’s daily decisions come with an added weight.
On Christmas day 2017, Patterson walked out from prison doors, dropped to her knees and kissed the snow-covered ground. Freedom. Finally. Within the first hour of her release, Patterson went to a nearby gas station with her attorney, David Singleton, and her best friend, Amanda Padgett. The three walked inside and approached the display refrigerators to find something to drink. Bottled waters, energy drinks, juices and chilled coffees lined the shelves.
Patterson stopped. She stood in one place and stared at the options behind the glass. Overwhelmed and confused, she didn’t know which water to buy. She looked back at Singleton and Padgett, hugged them and cried. As Patterson processed the moment, other customers came and went.
“I stayed at the gas station for an hour and half or two. I just stood there, and no one understood why I was crying over some water,” she recalls. Tears fill Patterson’s eyes, but she smiles and laughs anyway.
Food. Drinks. Clothing. For over two decades, Patterson had no say in those choices. But on the outside, she faces the same options as everyone else. Patterson now uses her decisions to reinvent her identity, which was once restrained behind cell walls.
In prison, Patterson says processed food was the only option. Meals and portion sizes vary from facility to facility based on state laws and local policies. But, in general, inmates eat a (very) downgraded version of school cafeteria food. Think beans, Fritos, canned vegetables and eggs from a bag.
Patterson adjusted to the meals, as she did to the attire. State blues — every day. She wore a light blue shirt with a green collar and dark blue pants. Blue was the only color inmates were allowed to wear. Red is gang related. Brown matches the trees and leaves outside. The officers wear gray on normal days and black on the days they raid the facility.
The state blues travel through the system for years. Patterson, like all people in prison, didn’t get her own set. There’s no choice in the size or fit. Some women sewed the pants and shirts to fit their physique, though it often led to consequences. Patterson altered her blues by sewing on buttons and cutting off the bottom of the pant legs so they ruffled.
“You have to dress it up and have ownership over your state clothes because that’s all you have,” Patterson says. “Whenever I left, people would ask, ‘who are you leaving your blues for?’ because they knew my style.”
Patterson now embraces the opportunity to choose her clothes. Today, she wears a red sweater vest with a red plaid shirt underneath, collar emerging at the top. Her hair is pulled back in a sleek ponytail with silver hoop earrings framing her face. Patterson keeps up with popular trends, but thrift stores are her favorite place to shop. She knows what she likes and what she is comfortable wearing.
When Patterson first arrived in Cincinnati, she asked her mentors, Tamaya Dennard and Jean Schmidt, for advice. She wasn’t sure how to dress for certain meetings and events. In those instances, Dennard and Schmidt sent pictures of reference outfits or took Patterson to the store.
Schmidt and her twin sister Jennifer also took Patterson to get fitted for a suit when she began working at The Ohio Justice and Policy Center. They told Patterson that every woman needs a black suit and black pumps, especially when working at a law firm.
“It’s my favorite suit,” Patterson says, tears filling her eyes again. “It was the very first suit I put on in my entire life.”
Patterson creates every day, whether she is assembling an outfit or preparing a meal with fresh fruit and vegetables. She knows she deserves freedom of choice and representation, and she speaks up for others who deserve the same.
When walking downtown, Patterson admired all the building murals. She saw birds, children, astronauts, vegetables, hippos and toys. But she noticed something was missing. There was no social justice mural illustrating returning citizens and what they look like. That had to change, she thought. After pitching the idea to ArtWorks Cincinnati, Patterson is now leading the returning citizen mural project.
“We want to show people that we are human. We are smart. We are strong. We do the same work that everyone else can do,” Patterson says.
Returning citizens are a diverse crowd, like our community and our world. There isn’t a singular image of what someone who has experienced incarceration looks like. There isn’t one way to represent the 636,000 people released from U.S. prisons each year. There isn’t one category for the future potential of all those individuals.
“People are like, ‘I can’t believe Tyra was incarcerated,’ unless she tells them,” Dennard says. “That’s because people, in their heads, think they know what incarceration looks like.”
Patterson is not only broadening the understanding of what incarceration looks like. She is changing perspectives on what freedom looks like. What it feels like. What it tastes like. And what it has the ability to create.