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Shining Light on Humanity

From Segregation to Normality, and Back

by | Oct 3, 2021

“Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid … for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9, NKJV)

I haven’t been in Seg for more than 10 years, and of all the scenarios I’ve imagined that might bring me back, I never thought my return would be like this! 

Maine State Prison administrators recently decided to transform part of the Special Management Unit (a.k.a. the segregation unit, or Seg) from a tool of punishment into a reward. The 10 cells of what’s called “the lower el” of Seg, where some of the greatest suffering has occurred, are now reserved for prisoners whose good behavior has earned them an opportunity to spend time in a space of minimal restrictions. It’s now called the Earned Living Unit (ELU), and I’m one of the first seven prisoners allowed in here. The plan is for up to 35 prisoners to eventually be able to use space in the ELU for storage, study or exercise.     

I spent hours today erasing some of the lower el’s vile history. Laying on my side with nothing but my clothes and a piece of cardboard separating my skin from a concrete floor saturated with tragedy, I scrubbed filth off the underside of a concrete bunk. But before I set my hand to work, I paused to read the words of hopelessness and bigotry carved into the concrete by a hand in pain. 

The bunk in an adjacent cell had black streaks running down the side. The stain called forth a vision of a man in a forest green suicide-prevention smock, sitting on the edge of the concrete slab that passes for a bed, elbows resting on his knees as his life leaks out of his upturned forearms and pools at his bare feet. The man is long gone, as are the pools. But those black streaks remain. 

The Seg “still has an architecture of suffering,” a fellow ELU resident insightfully remarked to me, “but there’s hope here now.”

The guiding principle of the ELU is normality, that life in prison should mirror life in society as much as possible, without compromising safety. 

In our current carceral state, when a person enters the prison system they’re expected to act like an animal. If they act a little better than an animal, they are rewarded for that improvement. Then, when they return to society (still acting little better than an animal), people wonder why they are swiftly returned to their concrete cage. 

The principle of normality flips this way of thinking. We are now expected to conduct ourselves as citizens in society, and when we fall short of those expectations, corrective and supportive action will be taken to return us to that level of conduct.

No, we are not yet at that ideal. There is still a great amount of work to be done on the individual, community and systemic levels. Further, many prisoners here suspect the ELU will be just one more example of the empty reforms floated by past administrations. Something new and shiny is created as a feather to put in their cap. This feather benefits a few “model” prisoners for a time, and then the “good ol’ boys” gradually reestablish the status quo of arbitrary punishment. Meanwhile, the façade of positive change lingers.

It is my prayer and belief that this will not be the case. I have placed a potentially dangerous amount of trust in this administration by so openly supporting and collaborating with them toward realizing a better, more humane Department of Corrections. I could be wrong.  This whole thing could come crumbling down around my ears, leaving me to look like a fool.

But who would I be if I didn’t take that chance? What manner of man would I be if I didn’t stand up for what I stand for?  

Right now I’m speaking as much to the incarcerated populations as I am to those of you in the free world. This applies to you, too. If you know something is wrong and you do nothing, you are complicit in the wrongdoing. If you say you stand for a certain ideal, are you willing to stand up for it? Speak out for it? Take a risk to see your vision realized?

MDOC leadership and staff are taking a risk on me. Some of us residents are taking a risk in partnering with them. So I ask: What is a better, safer tomorrow worth to you?


Leo Hylton’s sister, Rosie, is organizing a fundraising campaign to cover tuition expenses for Leo’s pursuit of a Master’s degree via George Mason University. Click the link above to contribute, and thank you!             

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