On May 7, 2002, two weeks after Keeda Haynes graduated from Tennessee State University, she was convicted of aiding and abetting a drug trafficker ― her boyfriend. He had involved Haynes by asking her to receive packages arriving by Fedex at his electronics store. Haynes says she had no idea these packages did not contain electronics, but marijuana. 

She spent the next 3 years and 10 months in federal prison, and emerged with a fierce determination to defend the accused and reform the criminal justice system. She now works as a legal advisor at Free Hearts, a non-profit organization led by formerly incarcerated women which provides support to families impacted by incarceration. 

This summer, Haynes ran for election to the U.S. House to represent Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. Although she lost to the incumbent, Rep. Jim Cooper, in the Democratic primary on August 6, she remains committed to working on concrete policies geared towards criminal, social, and economic justice. 

Amanda Knox 

I gotta say, it’s not every day that I have the fortune of meeting another formerly incarcerated woman. Is that a regular occurrence for you? 

Keeda Haynes 

Interestingly enough, being a public defender and being in prison, I recognized that there were people that ended up pleading guilty because they have been threatened by the government or because they have to get back home to their kids, to their jobs. So I think that there are more people that are innocent than people actually realize, but because of the way that the criminal justice system is set up, people plead guilty to things just so that they can get back to their life or have less time.

Amanda Knox 

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your upbringing.

Keeda Haynes 

I am originally from Franklin, Tennessee, which is probably about 20 minutes south of Nashville. I have one older sister and three younger brothers. Being from the South, my whole family was close. My cousins are just my cousins. They’re not my first cousins or second cousins. They’re just my cousins and we all grew up together. Church was a big part of what we did. We all were into sports and I was in the band, just a regular kid. I always tell people, especially the government was just like, “You should have known,” but we grew up at a time when there were the Dare programs and the Just Say No programs. We were afraid of drugs, and in this small town where I’m from, you never heard of anyone shipping drugs through the mail. It was completely unheard of. 

Amanda Knox

I know that this happened when you were in school. What were your goals and aspirations at that time? 

Keeda Haynes 

I was in college at Tennessee State University and I was majoring in psychology and criminal justice. My plans were to work with the FBI in the behavioral science unit, studying serial killers. I wanted to be Jodie Foster. [I] realized that I would probably have to get my PhD and didn’t want to be in school that long, so I decided to major in criminal justice and minor in psychology and study patterns of crime. I had to take a class called Legal Methods, and that is the turning point where I decided that I was going to go to law school. Briefing cases became almost like second nature to me. I loved it. When I was finishing up my last years in school I had to do a senior practicum. I wrote about the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and at that time, we still had the 100 to one crack cocaine ratio that was disproportionately impacting black and brown and low income communities. So I actually had a little bit more knowledge about all of this, because of what I was doing in school, but it was so eye-opening. When I did this paper, I read the numbers, but when you get to prison and you actually see the people that represent the numbers, there’s no way to describe it. It’s easy to look at numbers and almost be dismissive of it. But when you see the faces and the stories behind the numbers, you are absolutely moved by it. Just to see how this fictitious war on drugs decimated black and brown and low income communities, it was one of the driving forces for me to be a public defender, and even to run for office. Repealing federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws is one of the first things that I wanted to do if elected to Congress.

Amanda Knox  

Transitioning back to freedom after prison ― what did that look like for you? Did you know what you were going to do and what your next steps were going to be? 

Keeda Haynes 

I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer going into prison. It was in prison where I decided that I was going to be a public defender. I was fortunate enough to where my family could actually afford to hire an attorney, and he was one of the best criminal defense attorneys here. The level of representation that he provided me, I wanted to be able to provide that same level of representation to people that could afford $5, because in prison, [I] just heard all of the stories from the different women about their public defenders and how they didn’t really do anything for them. Going into public defense for me was about changing the narrative of who we are as public defenders. So when I came home, I started working with my attorney as his legal secretary and I started going to law school at night. I feel like I was able to glean from him how a really good attorney should be. And so I graduated in 2012, but I still had to go before the board for my character and fitness examination. The whole time that I was in law school, I never knew whether they were going to give me my license or not, but I went ahead anyways. I had done a lot of work in the community with my church and some other community organizations, trying to help people that find themselves in the same situation that I was in. The reentry process, it’s really hard. There’s so many barriers to reentry. I was fortunate that I had family and friends and loved ones supporting me, but one of the things that I do talk about when I talk about reentry is that we have to become, here in Nashville, a second chance city, and until we do that, we can’t have the conversations about whether people can be successful upon returning back into the community, until they absolutely have the opportunity to be successful when it comes to housing, to jobs, even when it comes to life insurance, there’s so many different barriers to reentry. We’re starting this whole campaign right now about voter restoration because that’s a huge barrier, as well. People that have been incarcerated are forced to live as second class citizens and that shouldn’t be the case. 

Amanda Knox 

It’s interesting that you bring up going through law school not knowing if you are going to be allowed to be a lawyer. There was a similar case here in Washington State actually. A woman named Tarra Simmons. 

Keeda Haynes

I know Tarra. 

Amanda Knox

Okay, great. Yeah, she had to go through a whole process to clear the character and fitness examination. 

Keeda Haynes 

I think Tarra actually had to go to the Supreme Court. I didn’t have to go that far. The board gave me my license, and I was sworn in six years after I had been home. But I know Tarra, and when she was first starting on her journey, one of my other friends said, “Oh my gosh, you got to talk to her.” So Tarra and I, we’ve talked on social media for years. And we finally actually met last year at one of the National Council conferences.

Amanda Knox

Is it a small world of formerly incarcerated people who are legal professionals and political people? 

Keeda Haynes 

I think so. And that is one of the things that I would like to work on. People here tell me, “You’re a unicorn.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” They’re like, “It’s rare that you find somebody that’s been formerly incarcerated that is a lawyer that’s actually practicing.” That’s problematic. We need to open the doors so that we can have more people that have been formerly incarcerated get their license. We really need to remove this stigma. So many friends tell me, “It’s so great that you can freely speak about your story. I wish I could, but I can’t, because of my job.” We need to remove that stigma. I really believe that those of us closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but if it’s such a stigma that formally incarcerated don’t feel comfortable speaking about it… That was one of the things about running for office. My past doesn’t define me. Whether you were wrongfully convicted or you did it and you served your time and you want to move on, our past doesn’t define us. We are so much more then anything that we have ever done or ever been accused of doing. And so it was just changing the narrative around who we are as people that have been incarcerated.

Amanda Knox

What was your platform?

Keeda Haynes

So my platform consisted of criminal justice reform. I was supporting Medicare for All. We had economic justice, gender justice, immigration justice, affordable housing and student loan debt, education rights. My campaign was really about putting people first. As a public defender, [I] really started to realize that, by the time my clients got to me, there was so many other things that were going wrong in their lives and no one was doing anything about it. So many of us felt locked out and left behind by a government that is supposed to be for us and by us, and it’s anything but that. I had personally written Jim Cooper a letter back in 2016 telling him who I was and all of the different things that I was seeing wrong in the criminal justice system and offered to work with him around criminal justice reform. He met with me for about 15 minutes and then I never heard anything else from him. That’s just who he was in Congress, holding a place as a Democrat, and we have too many issues going on in our community and in our country to have someone that is not advocating for the issues. That’s why I decided that I wanted to advocate for all of the community around all of the issues in the same manner that I did when I was a public defender advocating for my clients in the courtroom.

Amanda Knox 

Well, you gave him a run for his money. You came in with 39.7% of the vote, which is extraordinary considering that you don’t have a political history before this. What thoughts do you have for Mr. Cooper at this time? 

Keeda Haynes

I had called him on Friday morning to congratulate him and offered again to work with him around criminal justice issues and various other issues in the community. I said, “What this shows is that 43% of people here in your district feel as if no one is listening to them and that they are being locked up and left behind. That’s not acceptable. So if you want to bridge that gap, I’m here to help.” And he said, “Thank you. I’m gonna take some time off this weekend, and we’ll see what the future holds.” 

Amanda Knox 

What are your next steps? Do you think you’ll run again?

Keeda Haynes

That’s the million dollar question. My call phone has [been] blowing up since Friday, people already saying, even before the results, “Campaigning for 2022 starts on Friday.” The support has just been unbelievable. And I really, really appreciate it all. I’m having conversations with various different local organizations about what a run in 2022 would look like. We’ve got some issues with redistricting here, and whether this is still going to be a democratic seat. In the meantime, the work still continues. We’re gearing up for the second phase of our voter restoration campaign leading into the November election. We’re doing a campaign on decriminalizing poverty. We’re getting our legislative agenda ready to see which state legislators we can get to carry our bills. Whether I am in Washington or here in Nashville, the work continues. 

Amanda Knox

We’ve had big news in the Democratic Party. What do you think about Joe Biden’s VP pick?

Keeda Haynes

Kamala, I think she will do a good job. Being a criminal defense lawyer and knowing her background, [I] had reservations about her, but seeing some of her criminal justice reform bills she’s sponsored in the Senate, I think that she recognizes what a lot of us are talking about when it comes to mass incarceration. It’s just really good to finally see an African American woman have this opportunity to be the vice president. We are here in the 100 year anniversary that the 19th amendment was ratified, that gave women the right to vote, so to see a woman of color in the position to make history, I think that’s great for all of us. I am voting for the Biden/Harris ticket in November, no question about it.