Tyra Patterson: Life after two decades in prison

  • Kara Driscoll
  • Staff Writer
10:59 a.m. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018 Community News

The one-bedroom apartment Tyra Patterson must return to each night as part of her probation curfew sits above a Jamaican natural foods store on a bustling street in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

Family and friends donated furniture, lamps and paintings. A pair of running shoes sits next to the door, waffles from Taste of Belgium are tossed on top of the refrigerator and a journal is placed on a wooden kitchen table.

Little hints of her incarceration show through her habits, when she rolls her clothes into tight, little balls before putting them away in a drawer or when she reaches for a prison-issued bar of soap to wash her face.

Patterson, who grew up in east Dayton, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison at age 19 for the murder and robbery of 15-year-old Michelle Lai on Sept. 20, 1994.

» CONTINUED COVERAGE: Woman convicted of teen slaying in Dayton released on Christmas Day

Now 42, Patterson was paroled on Christmas Day after Lai’s sister — Holly Lai Holbrook — wrote a letter to Ohio Gov. John Kasich in 2016 vouching for her innocence.

Lai Holbrook, who watched her sister get shot that night, told Kasich: “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.”

Various politicians and celebrities — including the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns — got behind Patterson’s innocence claims. Burns posted a Facebook video in 2016 while holding a sign that says “I am Tyra Patterson.”

Just a little more than a month into her new freedom, Patterson — like the thousands of inmates who get paroled from Ohio prisons each year — is transitioning to life on the outside. In 2015, approximately 9,386 inmates were paroled from the prison system and 21,343 were released, according to the latest data from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Correction.

» STAYING WITH THE STORY: Tyra Patterson to speak at Wright State tonight

For many, that freedom will be short-lived. A 2012 study showed an overall three-year recidivism rate for inmates released from Ohio prison was about 30 percent.

Patterson has had some struggles since getting out — Fifth Third Bank, for example, first denied a request to open a bank account because she had only her state-issued ID — but in most respects her story bears little resemblance to the bulk of Ohio’s imprisoned population.

Patterson had prominent people fighting for her release. Most inmates don’t.

In prison, she earned her GED, paralegal certificate, furthered her education through several programs and even learned a little Spanish and Arabic. Before prison, she had a limited ability to read or write after dropping out of school.

And when she left prison she had a good job waiting for her: as a paralegal for the Ohio Justice & Policy Center in Cincinnati, which works to protect the rights of prisoners and those who leave prison.