“In every community, there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart, there is the power to do it.”
– Marianne Williamson
What is community? I have been wrestling with this question longer than I have known it was a question worth exploring. For most of my life, I felt apart. Separate. Other. Whenever I started in a new school as I shuffled my way through the foster system, I’d see mini-communities of young people who had known each other their whole lives. Only occasionally would I stumble upon someone who knew what it was like to not be known.
I longed for community. I knew there was a strength there, a magnitude of power I would never be able to experience in my isolation. The same is true today. In my efforts to create community with the other 29 men in Maine State Prison’s Earned Living Unit, we continue to strive together to figure out what community is. What community is supposed to feel like. What community is supposed to accomplish. How community is supposed to serve each of us, and how it’s supposed to empower us to serve others.
How many in our outside communities are asking the same questions? The more I engage with people beyond these walls, the more I realize the yearning for interconnectedness exists everywhere. We all want to feel seen, heard, and known for the totality of who we are. Some of us are blessed enough to find that experience in others. Some must be content in their solitude with God. And even then, in the silence, we wonder if we are being heard.
So, what do we do about this?
A great deal of my time and energy is spent envisioning how to overcome the base human impulse to separate ourselves into groups of “us” and “them.” Specifically, I am looking at the criminal legal system, prisons, and how to address harm in a way that holds people accountable and creates opportunity and structure that supports the healing of all people involved. The landscape of jails and prisons is vast and has conditioned us to believe that it’s a viable solution to the social ills that lead to acts of harm between people.
Jails and prisons are not the answer. Community is the answer.
Knowing the power of community offers a pathway to shift our collective understanding of what accountability means and how communities achieve it. When you realize that punishing people who have caused harm does not prevent further harm, but actually creates more harm, do we have a collective responsibility to change our response to harm?
Everyone has a role to play interrupting the cycles of harm in their communities (however you define the term). One point of intervention is the support of community members returning from prison. I am humbly imploring you to do your part.
People returning from jail and prison need support. Whether due to terrible decisions, addictions, poverty, or mental illness, a vast number of people who leave carceral settings are stepping out with no support system. Their only community is the people they did time with — people trapped in the system.
Those of us leaving prison have made terrible decisions and some of us have done terrible things that landed us in prison. Yet, the vast majority of us want to come home and do right. We want to work and take care of our families. To do so, we need opportunities, guidance, and support. We need community. Especially those of us who have been imprisoned for years or decades.
Those of you who are business owners and managers should understand that returning community members are likely to be your best workers, and that you receive financial protection through the federal bonding program. Educators and vocational instructors, can you find the courage to write letters of recommendation, serve as references, and reach out to your professional contacts to help people get jobs that pay a living wage? And if you are among the leaders of community organizations — including restorative justice, reentry, recovery, prisoner advocacy, and civil rights — please work with others to stop the petty in-fighting and competition for state funding; come together and create a meaningful network of collaborative and communicative services.
A community into which a returning member can step with confidence, leading to the beginning of a successful life after incarceration — this can only be made possible together.
Leo Hylton is a recent Master’s 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.