TikTok star using social media to advocate for social change

Orange Park grad tries to break the stigma that follows a felony conviction

By Wesley LeBlanc wesley@opcfla.com
Posted 9/15/21

CLAY COUNTY – Tayler Harber was a model student at Orange Park High.

Less than a year later after graduating in 2016, though, she committed a felony that would change the rest of her life. …

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TikTok star using social media to advocate for social change

Orange Park grad tries to break the stigma that follows a felony conviction

Posted

CLAY COUNTY – Tayler Harber was a model student at Orange Park High.

Less than a year later after graduating in 2016, though, she committed a felony that would change the rest of her life. Unwilling to let an armed robbery charge take over her life – no matter how hard her past tried to affect her future – Harber turned her story into a platform for advocacy, support and change. Just months after creating it, her TikTok has more than one million followers, and it’s there that she makes frequent posts about what she endured behind bars, the kind of change Florida prisons need for women and how one careless decision doesn’t have to be the end-all-be-all society can make it out to be.

“I can’t complain about my childhood; it was decent,” Harber said. “I did sports my entire life and I was a tri-state athlete. Sports are what kept me going and they’re what motivated me to do good in schools. I made As and Bs and I graduated in 2016.”

A model student and school athlete her entire life, things began to change her senior year. But when she was a senior, she couldn’t play anymore. Because sports kept her motivated in the classroom, her scholastic performance began to wane, but she graduated in 2016 despite all of that. She was in her own apartment two months later, working full-time, and “on top of the world,” as any 18-year-old fresh out of high school feels.

Less than a couple of months into her Wells Road apartment, she met people who would later become her co-defendants in an armed robbery that would stick with her for the rest of her life.

“One of the co-defendants was the main person who took over my life, alongside drugs and alcohol,” Harber said. “I let them [co-defendants Jake Harley Davison and Alexia Rae Eure] move in with me so now this is my everyday life now as far as bad habits and bad people go.”

Harber soon lost her job, her car became basically unusable and she was about to lose her apartment. Everything was falling apart around her and in her lowest moment, she and the co-defendants decided to commit an armed robbery. Harber never touched the gun involved in the robbery, but she and the co-defendants beat and robbed a drug dealer at gunpoint in her apartment. Harber turned herself in two hours later and she was charged with a felony.

“I never touched the firearm but I was present...and it was in my apartment,” Harber said. “All of us got the same charge. I had just turned 19 in January and by May, I had committed a felony. Within a year of graduating high school where I was a tri-state athlete with As and Bs, my entire life had changed in the blink of an eye. I knew nothing about the criminal justice system and now I was guilty of a crime.”

At first, Harber was told she’d likely get 12 years. What she had done truly sunk in at that point. Her bond was set at $250,003, which means she’d have to forfeit $25,000 to get out while she waited for her trial.

Harber remained in jail and her mugshot was public, printed in Clay Today, too. Her teachers, fellow students, neighbors and more would know exactly what Harber had done. She received the Clay Today newspaper every week in jail and it’s how she stayed connected to Clay County, the place she called home her entire life.

Harber did not accept the 12-year charge for obvious reasons. Instead, she asked to be charged as part of Florida’s Youthful Offender Program.

“In the State of Florida, it states that you are not allowed to be sentenced to over six years if you’re aged 18 through 21 at the time of sentencing and if it’s your first offense,” Harber said. “I accepted my charge as a Youthful Offender charge ... but part of that agreement was that my felony would remain on my record for the rest of my life. I received two years of prison time and four years on probation.”

Harber said she knew that felony would affect her, but just how much wouldn’t be realized until she was released. She believes she got her charge down to two years of prison time and four years of probation due to her plea.

“I spent weeks working on my plea, I was actually the last one to be sentenced,” Harber said. “I had teachers from Orange Park High School writing recommendation letters for me and I think that and my actual plea helped. I wrote a letter and read it to the judge in court. When you plea out, you’re guilty, and I told the judge that I was guilty and that I deserved to be punished. I emphasized that I was around the wrong crowd but that despite that, I was still my own person and I still had the power to do something different that day and didn’t. I told him, “I just hope you hear me out and don’t punish me for as long as I can be punished.’”

The judge sentenced her to two years in prison and four years of probation. She got out of prison almost a year early, though, and all thanks to Lowell Correctional Institute’s boot camp program. There are hundreds of boot camps in prisons for men around the United States, but very few for women. LCI was one of the few boot camps for women. Rules don’t allow anyone with a felony charge to join the boot camp and initially, she was denied entrance into the program.

She worked with her attorney to ask a judge to reconsider ... and it worked. She was one of three women accepted into the boot camp out of thousands of applicants. Harber was thrilled – she desperately wanted to get into the camp because participants are not put into the prison general population. Nine percent of boot camp graduates re-offend. Thirty-three percent of the general population prisoners re-offend. Harber wanted this prison sentence to be her last, and boot camp would help make that happen.

The camp was run by one sergeant who actually worked full-time in the military and a few other officers who worked at the actual prison. Harber said her sergeant was a godsend and a true blessing. The other officers in charge of Harber and the two other camps women were not. Boot camp was from 4:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. It consisted of physical training, discipline training, and more. It’s supposed to be exactly what you think of when you hear “boot camp,” along with a lot of charity work with Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits.

The night shift – 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. – officers did their best to ruin the premise and experience of boot camp. They woke Harber and the other two women up in the middle of the night and forced them to do unspeakable things that would later get them fired. She said they were basically forced to drink entire canteens of water, lunge up hills and roll down them until they threw that water up. Then they’d have to do it again. They worked late into the night and were sent to bed around 3 a.m., and they were up at 4 a.m. for their daily routine.

Harber and the other women knew that what was happening wasn’t OK, but they didn’t know what to do about it. There weren’t cameras outside where the officers acted inappropriately, so they didn’t have proof. They felt prison is designed to make prisoners feel less than human.

“Maybe we deserved this?” Harber said. “But deep down, we knew we didn’t. We were prisoners but we were still humans. This was not OK but we didn’t know what to do.”

The women stuck with it for two months but a torturous game of charades was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Three corrupt guards made them act like walruses, or horses struck by lightning, and more. At one point, they were told to act like dogs and forced to tie one belt around another woman’s neck. Then, one woman would use the belt as a leash to walk the woman acting like a dog. Harber remembers the woman acting like a dog rubbing up against her leg, barking like a dog and doing other things.

“It was completely dehumanizing, degrading,” Harber said. “We knew it wasn’t OK and the next time we saw our sergeant, we explained what had happened. He couldn’t even watch two minutes of it [on camera]. The lieutenant watched it all and immediately sent us to confinement for our safety while the prison conducted a two-week investigation.”

The three guards were transferred to other prisons and for two weeks, Harber was in the dark, unaware of how the investigation was going and unaware if anything would happen. The women testified and everything came to light. The three guards were fired and the boot camp was forever changed – all for the better.

The women completed the boot camp program, despite the torturous process they endured at the hands of three corrupt guards. She asked to speak publicly at the boot camp graduation and she said she was thankful for the program. And it convinced her to stay out of trouble. She used the time to explain her gratitude for her sergeant, who wasn’t corrupt like the three guards fired. He was hard but kind, disciplined but understanding, and most of all, fair.

“He actually treated us like humans,” Harber said. “I would not have made it through boot camp without him. Boot camp taught me a lot of life skills and brought me back to my roots as far as who I was and what I’m capable of, both mentally and physically.”

The armed robbery happened on May 11, 2017. Harber sat in the Clay County jail for seven months before she was transferred to LCI. Boot camp began around February 2018, and four months later, she was released, destined to serve the remainder of her prison time on house arrest. After that, she faced four years of probation. She’s still on probation today, but she’s thriving in many ways despite it.

But getting to this point wasn’t easy.

“I wanted to prove to others that I’m a good person and that I’m not just a prisoner,” Harber said. “But this is a small town and that felony followed me everywhere. I was petrified by the idea of job interviews. Who would accept me? I didn’t know the extent of how much this felony would follow me, but in many ways, I learned quickly. It’s for life and that sucks a lot.”

Harber said a background search of her shows “armed robbery” and that often leads to an immediate “no” when it comes to job and house hunting and other aspects of life that can easily be taken for granted. She was lucky, though, because thanks to some family members that recognized Harber for who she truly was and not just as a felon, she had a job almost immediately after prison.

One day during her lunch break back in January of this year, she randomly posted a video to TikTok, one of the most popular social media services in the world. She didn’t think anything of it. The reason she was going to make a quick video about her time in prison was: “just because.” She posted the video and finished her day. The next day, that TikTok video had 50,000 views and 10,000 likes. She joked she felt famous at that moment. Little did she know, five months later, she’d amass a following on TikTok of more than one million followers.

“I just wanted to share my story and how it happened and then I was posting videos every day and by July, I hit one million followers,” she said. “Despite what I talk about and despite being a felon, I had a massive following of people that believed in me.”

Harber’s TikTok growth would land her brand sponsorships. The money she makes from TikTok covers her monthly rent now. She shares videos about being a felon and a single mom. She shares videos about what goes on in prison and what happened to her during her sentence. She talks about what Florida’s prison system gets wrong and how it can be changed for the better. She advocates for more women boot camps because of how “life-changing” the program was for her.

Harber talks about how hard life can be as a felon, how hard obtaining a job can be, how difficult housing can be and more. She doesn’t hold back, either. All aspects of her life as both a prisoner and a felon on the outside are on the table.

“I just want to help others,” Harber said, touching on how something so negative in her life is now fueling positivity in her life. “I want more girls to be aware of the boot camp program and ... I want more girls to know that prison doesn’t have to be the end of their life. There is still a life to live and I want to be proof of that.”

Harber plans to get a communications degree and learn more about marketing so that she can promote herself better on TikTok and as a public speaker. Public speaking is her ultimate goal, after all. She wants to speak in schools and especially in prisons. She wants to share her story.

“There are so many obstacles to cross as a felon on the outside,” Harber said. “My thinking is if you’ve served the time, is that not enough? If a judge says that I need to serve this much time for the crime I committed, then isn’t that time enough? If more time was deserved, the judge would have sentenced it...and yet, when you get out of prison, you’re still dealing with that charge...even though you served your time.”

Harber said she understands how tricky that can be, especially in the realm of murders and sex-related charges. But she’s unsatisfied with the blanket statement-like way criminal charges are applied to human beings.

When people pull up her record, they just see an armed robbery felony charge. They don’t see that she’s served the time and bettered her life. They don’t see she wasn’t the one with the gun. The same goes for felons around the country. She wishes there was more nuance in the conversation and tracing of criminal records. Why does a crime she served the mandated time for still need to follow her around for the rest of her life?

She’s not sure of the answer, but she’s using her story and her massive TikTok platform to spread awareness, support other women in positions similar to hers, and ultimately, change the landscape of criminal charges and how they follow people.

“I am more than my record,” Harber said. “My issues are someone else’s issues too and if sharing my story makes people feel a little bit better, or if they help people in their own situations even just a bit, then I have succeeded.”

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