Activist LaTonya Myers in 'Philly D.A.' (Adrianna Paidas - Beck Media)

Formerly incarcerated activist LaTonya Myers and her fight to regain her autonomy while under probation is at the heart of the latest episode of the PBS Independent Lens series Philly D.A. The series’ fourth episode premiered May 4 and centers on probation and parole, or what Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner refers to as “mass supervision, the evil twin of mass incarceration.” In detailing the DA office’s fight for mass probation terminations and the uphill battle of working with largely unsympathetic judges, the episode weaves in Myers’s story as she navigates barriers that probation poses to her personal mobility and advocates for statewide reform—all while petitioning for the early termination of her own probation sentence. 

Each episode of Philly D.A. focuses on a unique challenge facing Krasner and his office, from navigating community concerns about safe injection sites to prosecuting the police.

Krasner ran as a reform-minded prosecutor committed to decarceration and changing the culture of a notoriously pro-police district attorney’s office. The series provides an inside look at the challenges he and his team faced in rolling out major reforms, such as declining to prosecute specific low-level offenses. The reforms are often opposed by a variety of powerful forces, including the city’s police department, the incredibly powerful Fraternal Order of Police, and large swaths of Philadelphia residents. 

The series features both local elected officials who fear Krasner’s reforms are happening too rapidly and activists who hold concerns that the office is not moving fast enough. In highlighting Myers’s struggles to rebuild her life within the confines of her probation and supervision, the episode brings the personal stakes of these reforms into sharp relief. Prism sat down with Myers to discuss how she became an activist, why she uses her story to advance justice, and her current work that seeks to help others secure their own freedom. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and brevity.

Tamar Sarai Davis: At the very beginning of the episode, you’re presenting at a panel and getting a job offer from the Defender Association of Philadelphia on the spot. But prior to that you worked in advocacy and outreach. How were you first introduced to activism? 

LaTonya Myers: Prior to the job offer at the Defenders Association, I was held in pretrial custody for nine months because I couldn’t purchase my freedom. My cash bail was $5,000. I had lost my aunt and I had lost my cousin who advocated for me when we grew up together. That gave me the motivation to start really looking into what they were accusing me of in police reports and challenging the lies that were being told on paper. Police always say they have the power of the pen, that they will “write the blood out of you.” I read this book called The Apology about Socrates. He was in this courtroom and they were accusing him of something, and he said, “I don’t know the king’s language, but I can tell you what’s going on.” So I said [to myself] I had to learn the king’s language and learn what’s going on. I started looking at different case laws and understanding the crimes they were accusing me of and the elements they had to prove to get a guilty verdict. In doing that I started learning advocacy. I didn’t even know it then, but I started to go to the law library to use the computers—which they didn’t teach us how to utilize for our own benefit—and it started becoming clear to me that what they accused me of, they couldn’t prove. They were trying to scare me and hold me in jail long enough for me to take a deal. 

I wound up fighting my case. I took it to trial and I got acquitted. And as I’m learning the laws, I see that we can vote our judges in but we don’t have voting polls in county prisons, even though 70% of people in Philadelphia are held pretrial and have the right to vote. But they’re waiting on pre trial to prove their innocence to [those judges]. It was November 2016 and Krasner was running for office while our then District Attorney Seth Williams was being indicted … [Meanwhile,] women are 9 months pregnant and I’m seeing people trying to commit suicide to escape the agony and limbo we were living in. I was like, “Yo, we can vote our judges out.” I didn’t even know we could vote our DAs in. 

My first day home I was writing letters to myself [about] what I wanted to do and accomplish within my first month home. I had all the numbers to the places from the pamphlets I was reading in jail promising me the hope and the resources I needed. I used that to navigate myself into a reentry program at the Community College of Philadelphia, which was geared directly toward individuals [who] were released. They helped us fill out our financial aid, looped a number of us into classes together, and would have group discussions about different things going on. They recommended me for the People’s Paper Co-op and it changed my life because they saw the impact I had on the block [in jail], and they also saw the intellect that I had. They started telling me, “You can be an activist,” and I was like, “What’s an activist?” They were like, “You know what the ACLU is?” I’m like, “What’s the ACLU?” Not that I was ignorant to what an activist was, I just never thought to connect what Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King or Fred Hampton had done to me continuing that struggle and being able to voice what was really going on. I started working at a recovery house for women and I was a healthcare advocate. I MC’d their Women in Reentry Day and got connected with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. I talked about my experiences not being able to be bailed out because I was held on probation. And when you’re on probation in Philadelphia, if [you’re accused of a crime], even if you have all the evidence to prove you’re innocent, you still have to wait until trial. I started organizing with [the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund] and they started allowing me to speak on different panels, which led up to that panel in [the Philly D.A. episode] that changed my life.

Davis: You described being under supervision as being “always looked at your worst and not your best,” which inherently doesn’t motivate people attempting to reassemble their lives after incarceration. What should be changed to truly set people up for success post-release? 

Myers: I hope that we bring more of a holistic view and are not relying on computers to determine if people are high risk or low risk because that was a big factor when going from probation to parole. Probation and parole in Philadelphia are separated—there’s no progress report. When you’ve been on parole for 10 years and now you go to another five years on probation, it’s not like there’s a needs assessment [showing] where you can work better and the things that you accomplished. There’s no communication. How is that helpful for our community? 

They’re saying that probation is “community supervision,” but we’re not supervised by [anyone] in our community. In the series you can hear the judges and their perspective on this matter; they are the eyes and ears of the courts, [but] they’re not the eyes and ears of the community. I don’t want the next person to walk in the courtroom with less support or less community resources. I hope that we raise the standards to advocate for more people to utilize this petition to terminate early probation, but also galvanize voices for statewide reform on probation and parole, because I feel like I have one leg shackled to my past and the other one trying to step in my future. 

Davis: Throughout the episode we learn all of these different ways that probation creates barriers in your life. What are some aspects of community supervision that most people are not aware of and maybe fail to fully understand? 

Myers: Some people don’t know that … say today or tomorrow, Tamar, you get pulled over or your identity is mistaken and you go to jail. Maybe you’re able to post bail and you fight your case from the street, or you wait six months to prove your innocence, but [either way, afterwards] you don’t get a letter from the city saying, “This person was actually proven innocent and they have a right to be restored.” You’re not given any of that to navigate or even to rebuild your reputation in society. [If] you beat the case and you go to apply for a journalist position and you think, “Okay, I beat that case there’s nothing to be disclosed in the interview,” but they run a background check and say, “You beat the case, but it still comes up.” They can now use that as a way to discriminate against you. Even though you beat the case, you have to pay for it to be taken off your record to not be discriminated against in the future. 

With probation, it hinders an individual’s ability to move forward in life when people are purposely judging them off their past mistakes and not the progress that they’re making. To me, that proves they don’t want us to take those steps to progress, but they want to—and have been—judging us off of the implicit bias and the racist white supremacist nature that our laws were built off from the start.

Probation and parole are a [pipeline] into mass incarceration. I couldn’t see my little brother because of my probation status. So is that bringing families together or pulling them apart? It’s another form of slavery by keeping us disconnected. It’s [preventing] us from building each other up with the love and support that we need [because] they want to replace it with what the system thinks that we need. Being on probation was a hindrance. Even when I saw my parole officer, I thought that they would be proud of me. I’m trying to tell people who I am and what I believe about my community and what all of us can be, and they’re telling me who I am and what I can’t be.

Davis: Toward the end of the episode we see you win your petition for early termination of probation. We also learn that you’ve started an organization supporting people who are currently on probation and parole. Can you share a bit more about your organization, Above All Odds, and its mission? 

Myers: Above All Odds helps individuals have that additional community support. We teach people how to terminate [their sentence] with this petition, to prepare for mitigation to show who they are outside of [what they were] accused of. Our more long-term goal is to not be a part of the system, but to break it, to address those underlying issues, and prevent people from even feeling like they have to be entangled [in the system]—including providing housing security. I’m hoping to provide a safe haven for people to not only have the chance to heal, but also have the chance to thrive, to learn, to change, [and] to learn financial stability so that they won’t have to rent or get subsidized housing or depend again on the government. They can have at least a year or two to save for a downpayment and become homeowners and build the change in our community that’s needed. So that’s the long-term goal of Above All Odds, to really be able to address the root issues, advocate for state reform, and let [the courts] know that we are civically engaged. We’re not going nowhere, we deserve to be heard, and they work for us, literally. The judges who sentence us and won’t allow our mothers to speak when they’re advocating for our freedom, [those judges] work for us and we have to hold them accountable the same way that they seek to hold us accountable.

Davis: There’s one moment in the episode where you mention some of the dreams you had as a kid—both immediate ones like going to prom and then longer-term ones like going to college and then purchasing a home. What are some of your current dreams and where would you like to see yourself in the future?

Myers: I would like to aspire to become a civil rights attorney. As of right now, I would like to continue [going] to different legal schools throughout the nation and educate [law students] exactly on how to interact with clients so that they understand who [their clients] are outside of what [lawyers] get paid to do. I also want to see this self-determination housing project jump off in Philadelphia with Above All Odds. If we can get the seed money then we can build it and lay the foundation for other people to become homeowners. So we really need individuals to visit and help out. 

Also on the ground, [my dream is] to build in my community and in my family. I really want young LGBTQ, queer, and non-conforming individuals to see that we got a place in this movement, to know that they are heard and seen. While I was in custody, I prayed for that little girl like me walking to school, or that young man or whoever may have went through whatever the night before and still knew that they had to get up because the judge is not considering how they felt. 

And I don’t want to just keep this on the ground. I’m challenging these institutions nationwide to really get an understanding of what we have to bring to the table and what we deserve. They can’t speak for us; we can only be given a chance to advocate and speak for ourselves and really be able to bring about the change that we know is impactful and effective. 

TUNE IN FOR THE SERIES: Philly D.A. airs Tuesday nights on PBS’s Independent Lens and is also available to stream on PBS Passport and the PBS Video app.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.