“Real courage … is shown by those who don’t merely follow the trend or status quo, but who stand up for that which is right and truly just…”
– Mark Twain
Over the past several months, I have been blessed to engage with dozens of amazing people who are passionate about addressing the needs and rights of incarcerated people. People all over this country, and overseas, are seeking to humanize the American criminal justice system and its penal institutions. I leave these conversations full of encouragement and hope.
Then I step back into an environment saturated by anger, cynicism and hopelessness. Most days, I can hold these disparate realities in my heart and mind. I can channel the love, hope and encouragement I receive and use it to fill the dark spaces around me. Other days, I allow myself to remember how comfortable it feels to give in to anger, cynicism and hopelessness; to sit in that space with no desire to improve it; to have no vision of how to bring about positive change.
Some days, I miss that place of lazy hopelessness — not needing to care about the suffering of others, not needing to feel the helpless desperation of men trapped in cycles of disciplinary infractions, drug use and self-sabotage. There is a sad comfort in nurturing a callous heart, because once you begin to allow yourself to feel others’ pain, it can quickly become overwhelming, especially when it’s heaped upon a lifetime of personal suffering and loss.
With tears welling in my eyes, I have to remind myself of the purpose of this month’s column: to ask for help.
I know I’m not alone in my desire to alleviate the suffering of residents and staff in this prison. Yes, I said staff, too. The mothers and fathers who can’t tuck their children into bed at night, or help them get ready for school in the morning, because they have to stay “over-shift,” due to understaffing. The broken relationships and estrangement from family members caused by the institutionalized mentality many bring home with them. We need to change the culture for all of our healing.
I need your help on two fronts: we need caring volunteers and we need restorative-minded staff at Maine State Prison, Warren. I wrote in last year’s December issue [“Love Changes Lives”] about the life-changing power of love that manifested itself in the presence of Doris Buffett through her superhuman caring and generosity. And I wrote about Kandyce Powell, of her dedication to helping us learn how to genuinely love ourselves and others, and how to show that love through our hospice service and in our daily lives.
I know there are plenty of you out there who have a heart for helping people heal and grow. Maybe you don’t think you can really make a difference in such a complex system, or you don’t know how your skills or services would be of use in this environment.
Here’s the key: We need people who are courageous enough to see prisoners as human beings. People who truly believe in the human capacity to change and improve. People who are willing to dedicate their time and energy to the arduous work of reforming an entrenched prison culture. We need people who want to help broken people heal, so we can return to our communities in a better condition than the one that led us to prison. There are several staff members here who fit this description, but they need more support.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better. But I truly believe that, with your help, this prison can be better. The Maine Department of Corrections administration, including Commissioner Randall Liberty, Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell and Warden Matthew Magnusson, is committed to changing the way this prison is run. They are working to shift the culture from one of unnecessary punishment to one of rehabilitation and restoration, to create an environment that fosters healing and growth, rather than progressive hardening and disconnection.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for prisoners and their guards to work together toward a common good. The vast majority of incarcerated people have caused some form of harm in our community. However, there are also many of us who share a driving desire to break the cycles of harm that perpetuate cycles of incarceration. And we finally have a prison administration that shares this goal.
Now we need you, and every other caring person you know, to join this mission to make Maine’s communities safer by helping to heal those of us who will be returning home someday.
If you have the caring courage to seek employment or to volunteer at the Maine State Prison, please reach out to Warden Matthew Magnusson at email@example.com.
Leo Hylton is a hospice volunteer, mentor, peer facilitator, K-9 Corrections dog handler, Master’s student, and Executive Secretary of the NAACP in Maine State Prison, Warren. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Road, Warren, ME, 04864, or firstname.lastname@example.org.