The Limits of Humanity: How to be a Professional Prisoner
“Be kind to people, be ruthless to systems.”
— Michael Brooks
Endure. To establish and maintain an ethics of professionalism as a prisoner, one must learn to endure. Humiliation, degradation, dehumanization, demeaning actions, disrespect, dismissal, judgment, condemnation, oppression, suffocation of voice, stripping of personal agency, the tearing away of family and community. Endure it all. Do not react, for the only entity allowed to be harmful in its reactivity is the prison itself.
To harmfully react is to ensure personal destruction.
When a prisoner is no longer willing to endure, they are faced with two options: fight with their fists or fight with their pen. Yet, the question I ask myself and whomever else feels trapped in that adversarial false dichotomy is, “What’s the third option?”
The third option is to cultivate community in direct opposition to the system that has been designed to separate, isolate, and destroy human connection. Everyone has their breaking point, and I have been fighting and clawing to avoid reaching mine. In partnership with Dr. Catherine Besteman and other incredible outside community members, I have worked tirelessly to co-create spaces of shared humanity, care, compassion, and understanding. From my prison cell, I have invited and challenged hundreds of thousands of people to realize the humanity of my captors.
Love the people, hate the system.
Time and again, their humanity has been smothered by the prison system’s rigid structure of reactivity. Our collective work toward fostering a culture of healing and community connection has been undermined and jeopardized by harmful policies that demand separation and power dynamics grounded in subjugation. Only so much humanity is allowed in prison. Permission to be a full human being: DENIED.
No matter how much we try to reduce the harm, prisons were designed for torture. They will never be the answer to our community safety problem because they were designed to perpetuate the cycle of violence. Rather than meeting harm with healing, the criminal legal system meets harm with harm, keeping the cycle going rather than breaking it.
For 15 years, I have watched men lose hope, have it ripped away from them time and again until they finally stop trying to get it back. Though I too have been violated, dehumanized, demeaned, silenced, suffocated and degraded more times and in more ways than I can count, I still have hope. I still have hope that one day I will be allowed to be a full human being again.
I have had the blessed experience over the past two years of starting to meaningfully heal my past traumas in ways I didn’t realize I still needed to. After years of self-reflection, prayer, meditation, fasting, programming, mentoring, and fighting to heal in isolation, I was finally introduced to what community is supposed to feel like. I began working with Dr. Besteman to organize the 2021 Freedom & Captivity Project (F&C). Then I stepped into teaching with her at Colby College. Then we collaborated on the F&C Curriculum Project. Between starting my trauma healing in earnest during my Master’s program, and continuing my growth through convening with the Freedom & Captivity family, I was starting to feel like a full human being again. Growing with my Colby students and community partners, my heart was finally able to give and receive love in ways I thought I had successfully killed off during my years in foster care and prison.
Then I was reminded: this system was designed to kill me, not heal me. I have, and I will continue to applaud the good work happening within Maine State Prison and the Maine Department of Corrections. I honor the people doing the humanizing work within the system. And I am required in this moment to have compassion for the people and to be merciless with the system.
I am disgusted by the ways that policies demand punishment, separation and isolation. I hate that people in our outside communities have to drive themselves into the dirt just to get lawmakers to acknowledge that people are not disposable like so much garbage, to see that those of us who caused the greatest harm in our communities are also some of the most passionate and driven to facilitate healing.
Like it is in nearly every state, parole is supposed to be a no-brainer. LD178 – An Act to Support Reentry and Reintegration into the Community has been reworked and rewritten to take care of all people affected by crime: victim/survivors, prisoners and community members.
If you believe in humanity, dignity and the human capacity for change, please write your state senator and representative and tell them Maine needs parole. Visit parole4me.com for the latest news on this crucial bill’s status.
If this is the land of the free, it’s high time we stop throwing people away to die in cages. I’m not asking for freedom. I’ll stay in DOC custody. I’m just asking for parole. Tell Maine lawmakers to Bring Back Parole!
Leo Hylton is a recent Master’s graduate of 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 email@example.com.