“Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12, NKJV)
“What am I here for?”
This question is usually asked in exasperation when a Corrections Officer (CO) laments the perceived “entitlement” of a prisoner. It feels like the unspoken part of that question is, “If I’m not here to enforce the rules and punish people, what am I here for?”
Over the past twelve and a half years I have come to realize that many, if not most, of the CO’s in Maine State Prison (MSP) are truly decent human beings. They have the same needs as every other human being: to love, be loved, and live a life of meaning. Yes, the word love is contraband in carceral spaces (places of incarceration), and as a prisoner it is my duty to dehumanize them in the same manner they are supposed to dehumanize me, to strip them of their dignity and see them as “pigs,” “scumbags,” anything less than human.
What many people don’t realize is that they are more like us than we care to admit.
The Maine Department of Corrections has been changing how incarceration is carried out in this state. Rather than a focus strictly on punishment and control, the Maine Model of Corrections “involves an approach that is non-adversarial, with staff and residents working collaboratively to model problem-solving, community building, and healthy interactions with others.” A closely held secret is that for as long as there have been prisons there have been people working within them who conduct themselves in this way. In fact, many of the warmest moments I have experienced over the course of my incarceration are due to the kindness, compassion and understanding of a CO or DOC administrator. Thankfully, this is slowly spreading throughout the prison.
As one long-standing staff member recently said, encouraging me toward patience, “Change takes about five years to become normal in here.” Sadly, what this means in practice is that, even with the positive change in direction, there are still some CO’s, and even one particular Deputy Warden of Programs at MSP, who seem bent on holding fast to a mindset of dominance and punishment, who feel it’s necessary to condescend to the people beneath them, to berate them and write them up (thus derailing their lives for anywhere from months to years, depending on the Class of infraction). All in the name of upholding the rules — even when the rule has nothing to do with promoting or maintaining safety.
At this crossroads of change and struggle, I encourage all of us — residents, staff, administrators and outside community members — to ask ourselves this question: “If CO’s aren’t here to punish and control, what are they here for?” Let’s imagine… What if we accepted them as community members instead of vilifying them for their choice of profession?
Although their system is imperfect, I look to Norway’s model of Contact Officers: security staff who maintain safety and order through care instead of punishment. With the exception of those few who genuinely enjoy witnessing the suffering of others, the vast majority of officers in Maine are deprived of experiencing any real meaning in their current control-focused role of CO. When that focus is shifted to the Maine Model of community-building and supporting incarcerated people, officers will be able to relate to experiences like that of Halden Prison’s Maria Frøvik, a contact officer who views her job as being “a link between the person and society beyond these walls as part of the release process,” in partnership with social workers and others.
This model of corrections provides an early step toward building greater community safety in Maine. The prison’s administration and many of its staff have truly bought into this shift (a number of them have been engaging in this way for years) and the effects have been largely positive, even in the face of stubborn opposition. Most noticeably, this change is felt in the Earned Living Unit (ELU), where officers do their hourly rounds with confidence that the most stress they’ll experience is the pressure on their knees while going up and down the stairs, verbally checking in with the residents to see how we’re doing and being respectfully greeted in kind.
Imagine the relief of caseworkers if security staff were being trained to help guide and encourage residents along our journey of growth and healing. I think of some of the more staunch opponents to this shift in Corrections and can’t help but see the positive qualities of personal discipline, fiscal responsibility, stress-management skills and professional connections that they are prevented from passing along to some of the residents who need them most — those same “knuckleheads” who give them such headaches.
If we can successfully build community between staff and residents in carceral spaces, we can all be better prepared to engage with people in outside communities. For the toll of incarceration is as toxic to staff as it is to prisoners.
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.