“One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion.”
— James Baldwin
[Note: Suicide trauma trigger warning.]
I have now spoken publicly both for and against the recent legislative bill to “Prohibit Solitary Confinement in Maine’s Corrections System” (later renamed “An Act to Restrict the Use of Solitary Confinement, Segregated Confinement and Residential Rehabilitation in Maine’s Prisons and Jails”). I have angered people on both sides of this argument.
Now that the legislative session is over, I invite you to complicate things with me. Step outside the seemingly universal tendency toward lazy politics — Democrat vs. Republican, bad vs. good, right vs. wrong — and step with me into this challenge of complicating our politics and our partnerships.
Solitary confinement, segregated housing, restrictive housing, special management units, administrative control units — I hate them all. I have yet to meet one person who truly benefitted by living in any of them. People try to point to one of my early experiences of self-revelation and steps into relationship with God. These occurred in Segregation, so I benefited from the experience, right? Wrong.
The only reason I was still alive to have that experience is because my mother had already lost one son. Otherwise, by the end of 2008, my name would have been in the Portland Press Herald like that of Dante Majeroni’s in 2017. Five years later, my mother would have stood in the shoes of Rossana Natalini, begging anyone to care enough to prevent another mother’s son from killing himself.
Looking at pictures from inside Dante’s suicide cell, I remember the lessons I received in what may have been the same cell in Cumberland County Jail. I learned the alligator roll (tying a sheet tightly around your neck and rolling fast enough that you pass out before panic sets in), as well as the hangman’s prayer (kneeling with your feet pressed tight against the wall, sheet tied tightly and to the right length, so that when you fall forward you can’t hit the floor and the panic response of straightening your legs only tightens the noose).
In light of these lessons, coupled with the violent extractions I witnessed and the dozens of men I saw break in myriad ways over the two and a half years of total time I spent in various segregation units, I could not withhold my support for a bill that might save lives, minds, and spirits. But I didn’t think about the unintended consequences of the totality of the bill.
After looking deeper into the details of LD 696, I realized that forcing this level of change would harm everyone it aims to help. Those details include: redefining Solitary Confinement, defining Segregated Confinement, placing strict limitations on the use of Segregated Confinement, opening contact visits from these units, requiring daily mental health assessments by a qualified clinician, requiring congregate out-of-cell rehabilitative programming, establishing a residential rehabilitative unit, requiring staff training (both initial and ongoing), creating an ombudsman position for oversight, and more. In addition to other negative ramifications, by redirecting this level of staff to Segregated Confinement, the general population would end up being locked down even more often than we are now, as a result of short staffing. Each of these changes can, and should, be implemented. It just needs to be done in partnership with the people doing the work.
When I speak of my partnership with prison administrators and staff members, I do so in honor of their genuine efforts to bring about some good within this system. It is in full acknowledgment of their belief that this system exists to support public safety, while also maintaining my understanding that this system is inherently harmful and needs to be abolished. What exists between us is what Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty so tactfully calls “a natural tension.”
Our long-term visions are drastically different: they hope to transform prisons into healing environments; my hope is to replace prisons with community responses to harm that provide opportunities for accountability and healing (a fully Restorative system). My vision extends beyond the end of my life, so I see the need to do the former while working to make the latter possible. Our goal of increasing community safety is the same. Our methods and mechanisms to realize that goal are where we part ways.
If Mainers continue along the current path of unwavering adversarial relations with our respective others, none of us will see safer communities. Let us take this time to reflect on our goals and look toward how we can commit to complicating our politics and partnerships in ways that will create a better, safer, more peaceful tomorrow.
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.