Putting Prison Education into Action
People come to prison with an internal structure. It may be damaged, bent or broken, but whatever condition it may be in, everyone has one. Then they step into an environment where everything is grounded in structure and obedience. Step outside the lines and punishment awaits. This external structure is one of the main sources of harm that supports the perpetual cycle of incarceration. Creating pathways of professional development in prison is one way to break this cycle.
The external structure of prison is enveloping. You’ve likely heard of institutionalization. When a person lives under the dictates of a system where other people hold complete control of your circumstances, the external structure takes over. The internal structure that a person had begins to atrophy. After years of incarceration, a person’s internal structure becomes so weak that, once released, it crumbles. I cannot count how many times over the past 15 years that I’ve seen someone come back, saying, “I don’t know what happened. I had everything planned out but somehow I’m right back here.”
The work going on within the Maine Department of Corrections, in particular with the Maine Model of Corrections, has the potential to interrupt this cycle. Its partnership with the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, in particular, gives me hope. I spent three consecutive weeks in June engaged in a three-part Community Conversation series on the Alliance’s Education in Action (EiA) initiative. Along with Victoria Scott, currently living in Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center, I am working as an Alliance Fellow, building and expanding this initiative.
EiA seeks to open pathways for the professional application of higher education in prison. MDOC has done a great job supporting and expanding higher education opportunities within Maine State Prison and throughout its facilities. Now, understanding the need for next steps, there has been an expansion of professional opportunities — avenues opening for currently incarcerated people to be able to work for outside organizations. The hope and goal of the EiA initiative is to enable people to contribute to their family and community and to better prepare them for their eventual release.
Keeping people incarcerated for most or the rest of their life does nothing but cause more harm to our society. Opening opportunities for paid employment during incarceration can serve as an avenue to: 1. Relieve the financial burden on incarcerated people’s family and loved ones; 2. Alleviate the financial burden on taxpayers; and 3. Interrupt the cycle of incarceration in that person’s life — and maybe in their family.
Since starting to work last year, I have accomplished the first and second of these points, and I’m preparing for the day when I realize the third. Being able to contribute to my family’s financial stability has been a blessing. I’ve been incarcerated since the age of 18, so I do not know life as an adult outside of prison. Yet, what I have experienced year after year for the past 15 years is an ever-present awareness of the mental, emotional, spiritual and financial burden that my imprisonment has placed upon my family. It has only been in the past two years that I have been able to meaningfully remove some of that weight. I was able to provide funds for my sister to have her tooth infection cared for. Without my assistance, she may have died. Several times, I have supported my eldest nephew as he navigated the probation system, working to establish a life for himself. And this year is the first time in my whole life that I have paid taxes.
One thing that most people don’t know about the current criminal legal system is that fines, fees, restitution, victim compensation and child support remain and build as debt during a person’s incarceration. Even someone who works in one of the best paid positions in a prison isn’t likely to make the smallest dent in this mountain of debt before they are released. Ultimately, this sets people up for failure. People get out, find themselves quickly destitute and desperate, and people come back. More harm is caused.
We are working to break this cycle. This can all be made possible through establishing EiA as not just an initiative of an organization, but as a movement toward substantive systems change. As Catherine Besteman and I laid out in the first three months of this year through our Restorative Pathway to Decarceration and Abolition, there are a whole lot of moving pieces to account for if we are going to successfully make our communities safer. However, professional development is one piece that can make a meaningful difference from where we are, with what we have.
If you are a business owner or manager who is interested in providing one of these opportunities, or if you are a family member of someone engaged in higher education in prison, take a moment to check out the EiA landing page (https://www.higheredinprison.org/info/education-in-action) and let the Alliance know so we can continue to build this bridge between our inside and outside communities.
Leo Hylton is a PhD 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 email@example.com.