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Shining Light on Humanity

Enduring the “Hidden Punishment” of Prison Food, Pt. 2

by | Sep 5, 2022

“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you … Go and be reconciled to that person.” (Matthew 5:23-24, NLT)

Frustrated by the lack of access to nutritional food in prison, I wrote last year about the experience of “Enduring the ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food” [May 2021]. Now that we’re harvesting after a long and joyfully grueling process of prepping, planting, weeding, watering and tending nearly an acre of garden behind the Earned Living Unit (ELU), it’s time for an update.

Before I dive into that, though, I need to address a piece of personal hypocrisy. Last month, I did exactly what I continually caution people against: I harshly simplified and unfairly grouped a prison administrator as an other. Feeling the pressure of my responsibility to avoid writing from my position of relative privilege within this prison, I divorced the Deputy Warden of Programs from the good work they have done supporting transformative efforts like heading up the establishment of the ELU last year. Also, by characterizing a handful of CO’s strictly by their perceived mindset, I failed to place the emphasis where it belongs: on the system, not the people. Those still wrestling with punitive mindsets are doing so because of the extensive conditioning of the system within which they have worked for so long. I did a disservice to each one of them and will be more mindful moving forward.

Last year, I called out the prison’s kitchen management for a lack of follow through on Warden Matthew Magnusson’s commendable efforts to increase the serving size of meals during the pandemic lockdown. I also spoke out about the overabundance of empty calories being served on the trays, which fuels the chronic health issues plaguing incarcerated populations across the country. To their huge credit, Maine Department Of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Randall Liberty invited me to join a virtual call about this issue, and vocational instructor Rebekah Mende, who oversees the vast gardening and beekeeping programs here, supported my participation. The call was hosted by Peter Allison, Executive Director of Farm to Institution New England (FINE), and was joined by food-justice advocates and activists from across the country.

At the time, I couldn’t have imagined that 16 months later I’d be able to say I contributed to the donation of over 400 pounds of fresh produce to the Area Interfaith Outreach (AIO) food pantries, and over 140 pounds provided to the prison’s kitchen. I’d never seen the acre of land behind the old supermax look like anything more than a wild field of jungle weeds. Now, thanks to the establishment of the ELU and the tens of thousands of man-hours devoted by my 26 fellow ELU community members, that field is a picturesque garden of raised beds filled with a variety of peppers, cucumbers, snap peas, huckleberries, cantaloupe, strawberries, raspberries, celery, beets, swiss chard, radishes, onions, eggplant, zucchini, and more kinds of tomatoes than I knew existed. We also revived a smaller garden for herbs like garlic, chamomile, mint, cilantro/coriander, oregano, basil and dill.

The 400 pounds of produce donated to AIO came just from the ELU. The prison as a whole has already donated over 1,000 pounds to AIO (plus 11 buckets of beautiful cut flowers) and 395 pounds to the Chelsea Food Bank and Augusta’s Bread of Life soup kitchen, all while also supplying the prison kitchen with fresh produce throughout the summer (a total of 6,611 pounds). Our new kitchen manager, Jeff Space, has created new salads and soups, and is integrating nutrients into meals in a variety of new ways. I’m also really looking forward to the Impact Justice “Chef-in-Residence” initiative, which will support efforts to reduce food waste — another notorious problem in prisons. During the years I worked in the kitchen, that perpetually infuriated me: watching hundreds of pounds of unserved food dumped out every day. 

At the end of a recent meal I was thinking to myself how nice it’s been to actually want to eat every piece of what’s been served. Granted, as a physically active, six-foot-six, 270-pound man, I need to eat all three meals at the same time to actually get full. However, what that speaks to is a systemic issue that puts me in an abolitionist’s quandary. Does this mean the DOC needs to be allocated more funds to afford more than the approximately $3 per person, per day, spent on food? Or does that mean the DOC needs to transfer more people outside its facilities?

Or (my personal favorite), does that mean we, as a state, need to stop locking so many people up; start creating more opportunities for meaningful, accountability-centered and community-based diversion; and start welcoming people home after their incarceration to help prevent their return to the system? 

We all have a role to play in creating a safer future. What’s yours?


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 Rd., Warren, ME 04864, or 

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