“Because the Lord has anointed Me… To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound…” (Isaiah 61:1, NKJV)
What’s the point of it all? Everyone I love is going to die. As will I. So, what’s the point?
Growing up in Maine, I was neither Black enough nor white enough. Through my adolescent years, I was neither content enough nor ambitious enough. Now, as an adult, I am neither compliant enough nor radical enough.
This column was ramping up into a soliloquy about how it’s impossible to meet the needs of all my partners while working to change the criminal legal system. Then, as I allowed my mind to spin through the mounting frustrations of my inability to accomplish the impossible, I asked myself that all-important question: why? Why am I feeling so burdened and angry when I know I am physically incapable of exerting any more energy than I already am without falling into my old patterns that drive me to sickness?
Then, as has so often happened during the past dozen years of my life, E (my best friend and mentor) told me exactly what I needed to hear, exactly when I needed to hear it. “Remember, Leo: You can’t be everything to everybody,” he said. “I’m concerned about you.”
God speaks through people, places and things. Over the years, I have learned to become more sensitive to His voice. Even though I haven’t spent any time with this man recently, E was able to see what I have been refusing to see: I’m trying to be too much to too many people.
Because I am uniquely positioned, and I have no time to waste. I am one of 24 men who live in an environment that allows more freedom than anywhere else in the prison; a place where we are charged with creating community inside an institution that is hostile to community. I am one of two men who have ready access to the Internet for graduate-level schooling. I am one semester away from attaining my Master’s degree, and now have my heart set on pursuing a Doctorate focusing on the intersection of trauma, crime, spirituality and healing. I am co-teaching a course at Colby College that explores Carcerality and Abolition. I am engaging in a virtual internship with the Carter School’s Transitioning Justice Lab, spending most of my time and energy with the Carceral Societies and Restorative Justice sections of the Lab. With Carter School colleagues, scholars, and practitioners, I co-founded the Carter School’s Working Group on Forgiveness and Reconciliation, which officially launched last month.
But what about the others? What about the rest of the men in this facility? What about the two million incarcerated human beings spread throughout the system of prisons and jails in Maine and across the country? What about them?
“Your life isn’t about your success; it’s about how many others you can bring with you.”
This statement is tattooed on every level of my consciousness. It keeps me up half the night and drags me out of bed in the morning. How many can I bring with me?
And, if this wasn’t enough, I have a family undergoing multiple life transitions simultaneously. The son of my heart wants to die at the tender age of 15. Some people in this system see me as a sellout to the Administration and others see me as a potential adversary, given my newfound passion for abolition. People suffering with substance-use disorder are dying every day everywhere in this state. Family members of incarcerated people are paying through the nose just to hear their loved ones on the phone in the county jails. Homeless people are being run out of town and jailed for being unhoused. The ills of Maine’s communities (both private and public) seem endless.
I’m 31 years old and can’t even have a cell phone my son can call when he’s feeling suicidal.
Add to all this the cancerous stone in the pit of my gut that has been growing for almost 14 years and you have the perfect recipe for an early death. That stone is the violent act that brought me to prison. Rather than dissolving in the acid of my stomach, this stone has attached to its walls. As I heal and grow, so too does the mass of scar tissue that surrounds the stone of that harm I cannot undo.
So, why do I push so hard? Why am I willing to sacrifice my sleep, my health — even my life, if necessary?
Because it doesn’t matter that God has forgiven me. It doesn’t matter that I have forgiven myself. I am trapped in a system that denies me the ability to seek the healing of my victims/survivors. Therefore, I must work to build a restorative justice system that will allow others to do what I can’t — and simultaneously work to dismantle this carceral system that stands in my way.
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.