“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
– C.S. Lewis
Holidays do strange things to people in prison. I am writing this column the night before Thanksgiving. Sitting down after another long day of work that followed another short night of sleep. Watching the comedy Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Thinking about death. About character. And about how people change.
There is one part in the movie that depicts the passing of 28 years. A montage of short scenes is set to a musical backdrop as each character is shown on screen, then quickly disappears, leaving behind an empty room. In my world, each of those faces has a name — people who have lived, grown old, and died right here in Maine State Prison. The montage of faces continues to play in my mind long after the movie scene has passed. Then it stops and I see a man who spent more than 40 years of his life in prison.
He died much better than he lived.
Sadly, the world remembers this man as a violent criminal who “deserved” to live a miserable life and die in prison. What only a relative few of us were privileged to witness was the beautiful selflessness that characterized the man he had become in the time since his social death.
I had done time with Joe for more than 11 years before he took his last breath. Even when most of the prison hated me and looked down on me for the crime I committed, Joe never disrespected me in any way. Before he knew my name (and whenever he would forget it), he called me Young Man.
Like very few before him, Joe had an opportunity to be released into his family’s care, or to a nursing home for hospice care. He didn’t have to die in prison. Joe chose to die here. He chose to be buried in the “potter’s field” down the road from the prison. Joe didn’t want to be a burden to his family. Although they’d been estranged for decades, Joe’s fixation at the end of his life was to make sure all his savings and investments were sent to his children and grandchildren. Being a very private person, most people didn’t know that Joe dedicated much effort over the years to saving and investing what little money he made to ensure he left an inheritance for his children and his children’s children — as Scripture says a good man should (Proverbs 13:22).
The distance in space and time didn’t matter. The prolonged silence of his family had no bearing on Joe’s decision. He needed to do this one thing right. “I haven’t done not one thing right in this world,” he said. “I’m gonna do this one thing right!”
Too many people die in prison with no family, no support, no hope. Right now, the man who asked me to write this month’s column is 10 years into a life sentence. One terrible moment at age 25 has Mike now “staring at my inevitable future,” he told me. “I’m going to die here.” Looking into this bleak future, Mike faithfully stopped by to check up on Joe every day as Joe’s end drew near and his body wasted away.
There’s currently no place in the criminal-justice system for an understanding of how trauma shapes a person’s life and leads to violence and crime. We must seek to understand trauma and its connection to crime. We need to acknowledge the humanity that exists even within those who’ve created the greatest harm in our communities. Rather than ostracizing and excommunicating us, such that we die twice in this life, let us imagine a future where, in the wake of harm, the focus is shifted to restoring, healing and transforming individuals and relationships.
While we work toward transforming the system, let’s start with creating opportunities for incarcerated people to begin paying our debt to society. Right now, you are paying my debt to society.
Send Gov. Mills an e-mail (email@example.com) and let her know Maine needs parole. Tell her you want harmdoers to take responsibility for the harm they caused and to hold themselves accountable to the people they harmed. Using incarceration to kill people does nothing to encourage personal responsibility or accountability. Instead, it perpetuates cycles of trauma and harm in families all over Maine.
Guys like Joe need a chance to help their families heal from the suffering they caused, instead of increasing it through an estranged and isolated death. You can be part of the solution. You can be part of the healing.
Leo Hylton is an incarcerated graduate student at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. His education and work are focused on Social Justice Advocacy and Activism, with a vision toward an abolitionist future. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Road, Warren, ME, 04864, or firstname.lastname@example.org.