Reimagining Communities Fellow & National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women State Representative
Denise Coleman is a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. She was educated in the Orleans Parish Public Schools where she graduated from George Washington Carver Sr. High School. While enrolled, Denise exercised her talents in gymnastics becoming captain of the Majorettes and Twirlers Teams. Denise’s education continued on when she attended Delegado College. Thereafter, she continued her love of dance by attending Bernice Durden Franklin Dance School. After fifteen years, Denise received her instructors license in 1968 which she then used to teach young girls in her community dance lessons in her parents' garage. After much diligence and hard work, Denise was able to move her dancers into a studio where she began to increase her student body. The array of classes included: ballet, tap, gymnastics and acrobatics. themselves.
Denise met the love of her life while enrolled in high school. Denise and Darrel Coleman were later married and their union produced two beautiful daughters. Tragically, Darrel drowned in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, further loss was felt by Denise and her family due to the untimely death of her eldest daughter to kidney disease.
Denise became politically active at a very young age in the NAACP and as an active member of Equal Opportunity of Civil Rights.
After traumas experienced early in life and questionable decisions and their inevitable consequences, a period in her life she calls “A Tour of Destruction”, Denise was convicted and sentenced to concurrent double sentences. She was sent to the Federal Correctional Women’s Facility where she was held in the maximum security section. Under sentencing guidelines she was required to serve thirty years plus an additional year in federal custody before she was eligible for mandatory parole. After serving thirty-one years in federal prisons across the United States, she was paroled out of federal custody and transferred to the state of Mississippi to be released on parole. The state of Mississippi, however, did not adhere to her sentencing and release order, and instead, held her for an additional six more years in the Mississippi Department of Corrections. She was finally released in 2018 after serving a total of thirty-seven years.
Faced with the despair of never having the opportunity to regain her freedom from prison, Denise began facing her fears and challenges knowing this was the only way to overcome them. Denise believes that strength and growth are fostered through continual effort and struggle. Denise was appointed to a mentoring program to be a group mentoring facilitator to assist other young ladies who were approaching their release to identify with their self-worth and purpose. Denise was particularly effective when it came to educating, motivating and inspiring value and responsibility. Denise became a powerhouse in every institution she stepped foot in having a voice that wasn’t ashamed to voice political views and addressing the conditions she once resided in.
During her incarceration, Denise became the “Dear Abby” to the JROTC students at Brainerd High School in Tennessee. Several letters of inspiration were written to the students that were beginning to venture out in a negative environment and associating with gangs at the school. The letters proved most effective as a means of deterrent to the students. These letters inspired the students by offering facts of life and the power of the written word being placed on paper which inspired the students to become more inquisitive and adopt a different outlook on life and their futures. Denise became a confidante they respected and valued.
As a grateful servant, today Denise is the voice for the voiceless women she left behind. Denise is an active member and fellow for the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, the People's Advocacy Institute in Jackson, Mississippi, and Operation Restoration in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a current Reimagining Communities Fellow where she is leading a Clemency Campaign to release women serving life sentences in Mississippi. She also assists in the development of the Credible Messenger initiative in Jackson, Mississippi. She has spoken on several prison reform panels.
In the words of the great Harriet Tubman, “If you see the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” Regardless of all she has been experienced, Denise has persevered and endured becoming a beacon of resilience to those around her.