There was no predicting the label “drug queenpin” for Topeka K. Sam. Her parents had set her up for success early in life, but her trajectory with prison could not have been foreseen. Today she is the founder and Executive Director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries (LOHM), a nonprofit organization intended to help incarcerated women re-enter society through education, entrepreneurship, and spiritual and emotional empowerment, which she created after her own release from prison. Sam’s parents built their family home from the ground up; they opened a Carvel franchise in Brooklyn, and then proceeded to open a restaurant in Harlem–the first one with outdoor seating, frozen yogurt and fresh fruit shakes.
Why Was Topeka Sam Incarcerated?
From there, Sam attended Morgan State University, an HBCU in Baltimore, Maryland, in an attempt to get out of the predominantly white neighborhood in which she grew up and surround herself with people who looked like her. While at Morgan State, Sam witnessed the ease at which guys were selling drugs off campus and was convinced she could do the same. In 2013, she was charged with drug conspiracy in Virginia, labeled a “drug queenpin” by the judge and served nearly three years in prison.
During her time in prison, Sam experienced the disproportionate effects of incarceration for women of color. She saw women forced to give birth in handcuffs followed by being denied the right to see their own children. She saw feminine hygiene products rationed, and women having to make their own pads out of scraps of bedding or clothing. Sam says she bore witness to the War on Drugs at work.
From then on, her passions and purpose could not be clearer: ensuring that after incarceration, “EVERY woman and girl has access to safe and affordable housing.” She wanted to change the ways in which marginalized women reenter the world after their time in prison.
According to prisonpolicy.org, the number of women entering prison has increased by 834% since 1978, and a study by Northwestern University showed that 98% of incarcerated women have suffered trauma during their lifetimes. “I fight for women specifically because we are not heard,” Sam explained in an interview with The Grio. “I fight because people look at us and think that there’s a certain look or a certain face that goes to a woman in prison.”
Creating Ladies of Hope Ministries, Hope House, and Helping Incarcerated Women
After her release in 2015, Sam created LOHM. Through the organization, Sam reminds any woman who has been incarcerated, “that that experience is but one moment in our lives.”
LOHM also tackles poverty among children and women through their initiatives EPIC and Angel Food Delivery, as well as fighting for reproductive rights, bodily autonomy and agency for women and non-binary folks through the Doula Initiative.
Two years later, Sam materialized her goals further by creating Hope House: a safe housing option with individualized opportunities, mentorship and guidance for formerly incarcerated women located in the Bronx. In collaboration with health providers, business insiders and other community-based organizations, Sam wants to give each and every woman in the house the opportunity to create a happy and whole life post-incarceration.
Her next steps include expanding Hope House to other parts of the country. So far, Hope House has been established in New Orleans, and next, they’ve got their eyes set on Miami. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she is building a twenty-unit affordable housing property from the ground up. Here, they will support over 50 women by giving them safe and affordable housing, opportunities for workforce development, entrepreneurship support and more. Beyond the Florida city, Sam and Hope House are going international, with plans for expansion in Trinidad and Tobago, among numerous other major U.S. cities.
Nonprofit Work: #cut50, Alice Marie Johnson, and Beyond
Beyond her own nonprofit work, Sam is a board member and avid contributor to numerous other nonprofits. She is the Director for #cut50’s #Dignity Campaign. Columbia University named Topeka Sam as 2015’s Beyond the Bars Fellow and 2016’s Justice in Education Scholar, and she has received fellowships from the Open Society Foundations.
As one of the founders of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, she has worked with Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) on the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. She has also become the first formerly incarcerated woman on the board of The Marshall Project—a news nonprofit telling the hushed stories of incarceration. This integration into the political world made her a key component in Alice Marie Johnson’s case for pardon. Johnson was serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense before being granted a landmark clemency by the Trump administration in 2018.
And Sam’s favorite part of her work? Seeing her sisters “grow and blossom into the brilliant and beautiful women that GOD has always intended them to be. [Seeing] them reunite with their children and family, create businesses and non-profit organizations, use their voices to change policy and live out loud without fear is the most rewarding experience for me.”
*A version of this article first appeared in Honeysuckle's FREEDOM print edition. Buy your copy now!