News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Shining Light on Humanity

by | Aug 17, 2020

I hate prison. It’s not only that I’m averse to locking human beings in cages like animals. Not just that my stomach turns when I think of the dehumanization built into the Criminal Justice System. Not merely the mind-numbing monotony experienced by over 2 million people in this “Land of the Free.”

No, I hate prison because it is unjust and largely unnecessary. Prison doesn’t make my family any safer. Contrary to popular belief, locking people away in jails and prisons doesn’t make your neighborhood more secure. Even cursory research into incarceration’s effect on crime rates will show you the truth of my words.

In addition to knowledge of this research, I have lived experience. Time and again I have seen victims of abuse and drug addiction turned into criminals. That’s what prison is good for: turning victims into criminals.

Yes, there are some people who need to be physically separated from their community for a time. But not everybody. And not forever. Not for the extensive lengths of time being handed down in today’s courts. Prison should be a last resort, not the first option.

Over the course of my 12 years of incarceration I have met many well-meaning people who work within this evil system. Security staff members, mental health workers, substance abuse counselors, caseworkers, teachers, nurses, administrators. Sadly, I have seen many truly decent people swallowed up or spit out if they tried too hard to change the status quo, to sincerely make an effort to highlight the humanity of those incarcerated.

Thankfully, efforts have been made to change this reality, and are still being made. But a lot of work remains to be done.

Right now, Gov. Mills and Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enact real, lasting, positive change in a system that’s been broken since its inception. I’ve never met the Governor, but the Commissioner has known me since I was arrested. He was the Sheriff of Kennebec County and overseer of that county’s jail while I was going back and forth to court. Later, he was warden of this prison from which I write. Last week, during his visit to the prison, he made a point to ask me about my family and my brother’s health and MMA career. I know this man. He has shown himself to be truly decent and well-meaning.

It is my fervent hope that the Governor and Commissioner will break the destructive cycle of fear-guided decision-making when it comes to criminal justice and corrections policy. Let us no longer make decisions based on the political backlash we might get if things go wrong. Let’s finally start making decisions based on what is just, right, and good.         

Instead of bemoaning the lack of support for people released from jails and prison, let’s look at what does exist and then start building. There was a very well-written open letter sent to the Governor and Commissioner in April seeking the expedient implementation of protocols that would reduce the populations of Maine’s penal institutions. It was signed by 26 organizations.

As of this writing, there has been only silence in response. In a May 3 Portland Press Herald article about the pressure on prisons to release more people, Gov. Mills said she will grant no commutations. Commissioner Liberty said his department was doing all it could to safely reduce the incarcerated population.

I wholeheartedly agree that our communities need to be kept safe. I don’t envy the Governor and the Commissioner for the balancing act they must perform each day — working to keep Maine’s penal institutions free of COVID-19 and its communities safe. But the fact remains: Maine needs fundamental change in how it deals with crime and incarceration.   

Right now, there is genuine fear for the lives of Maine’s incarcerated citizens. Every time a staff member doesn’t wear a mask around a man with COPD, asthma or diabetes, or who’s over 65, men fear for their lives. And don’t let that staff member cough or sneeze! It is by the grace of God, diligent cleaning, and the myriad protocols put in place by the Administration that this disease has not yet breached the walls of this prison.

The time for change is now. There are dozens of organizations and state legislators willing to help the Governor and Commissioner make positive change possible, safely. The Maine Prisoner Reentry Network is constantly working to help returning citizens succeed upon their release. Restorative Justice Institute of Maine is always ready to assist with reintegration efforts. The MSP branch of the NAACP, through our Community Liaison, Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, is establishing a technology fund to help provide hardware and digital skills. 

Call on us. Many of us have spent years wracking our hearts and minds for ways to help heal our communities. Include us in the conversation. When we start working together, that’s when real change is made possible.

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