“In the wake of harm, making it right is not solely the responsibility of the individuals directly involved; it is also the responsibility of communities.”
— Fania E. Davis
I spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about how community is established and maintained. Too many people live around each other. How many of us really live with each other? After 14 years moving through the pain and traumas of my life, growing into healing and serving others, I am just now being welcomed into small pockets of community in Maine.
The harm I created in this State is irrevocable. I cannot undo it. I cannot make it right. Yet, what I can do is work to prevent further harm from occurring. What I can do is create spaces for healing; interrupt the cycles of harm, rather than perpetuate them. That is my commitment. And I am not alone in making it. There are a great many incarcerated people who have harmed other people, yet who are deeply passionate about breaking these cycles in the lives of others after successfully breaking those cycles in our own lives.
Thankfully, we finally have the level of partnership necessary to support us in these goals. The Maine Department of Corrections catches a lot of flack for the suffering that has existed within its facilities for generations. Yet, in the face of constant challenges and negations of their efforts to create spaces for healing, normality and humanity, the current leadership has persisted in their good work.
I stepped outside of Maine State Prison for the first time in 12 years last month! Even before stepping foot on the campus of Colby College, I felt more free and peaceful than at any other point in my life. Cooped up in the backseat of an SUV cruiser, with hobblers on both legs, handcuffs and box affixed to my midsection by a belly chain, I felt free.
I had the honor of holding a co-learning space at Colby with my co-instructor, Dr. Catherine Besteman, MDOC Commissioner Randy Liberty, anthropology professor Winifred Tate, Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition Director Joseph Jackson, the MDOC’s Head of Special Operations, and 13 of the brightest, most passionate and self-aware undergraduate students I have ever known.
Never have I been so acutely aware of the power of holding physical space with other people. Feeling the vibrations of each person’s voice as they spoke from different places in the room resonated in my body in a way I had not anticipated. When checking in with each person about what this semester has meant to them, I was deeply moved to hear, and feel, the connections being made between the concepts we have been covering and personal experience.
For better or worse, my physical presence in the room seemed to amplify the reality of my incarceration. As Catherine later shared with me, “This is one of the things that having you as their teacher is teaching them – the enormous chasm between viewing you as a grounded, together, loving human being and knowing that you are a prisoner. They just can’t square it.”
Holding class together with the Commissioner and Head of Special Operations, we allowed ourselves to strip away the titles of positional power and relate to one another on a human-to-human basis. We each put our humanity on the table. We held class using a modified Circle Practice and learned together how possible it is to humanize one another.
This is what Maine needs on a larger scale. We need community. We need humanity. Those of us on the inside need opportunities like this to show people on the outside who we are now. How can I expect people to not dread the day of my future release when all they know about me is that one horrible thing I did when I was 18 years old? How can I expect people to not imagine me as that same harm-inflicting person, only older, stronger, and more criminally savvy?
There are incarcerated men and women all over the country who are silently screaming for an opportunity to share who they are now, to be welcomed by their community. Yet, we still wonder: does such a community exist? Is Maine ready to acknowledge that incarcerated people are part of our greater community?
With intention, compassion, vision, trust, and courage, real systemic change is possible. There are truly decent human beings who work within and lead the MDOC. There are also truly decent human beings who live within this system. Together, we can create spaces for restoration and transformation. We can manifest a hopeful future in partnership with those of you in outside communities who are willing to step into this future with us. We need you.
The first step is to see me as fully human. The next step is to have the courage to push for the change you want to see. Catherine and her team at Colby are great examples of the famous quote: “Be the light you want to see in this world.”
Leo Hylton is a graduate student at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, currently incarcerated at Maine State Prison. 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.