Good Prisoners Make Bad Neighbors
It’s three days before the 4th of July, the first day that Pell Grants are being universally offered to incarcerated people to help support them in pursuing higher education in prison. There is so much to be thankful for and to celebrate, yet I sit here contemplating, for the first time in many years, the wisdom of carving a permanent reminder of my situation into my flesh: PRISONER #70199. Right above my heart, lest I ever forget. Thinking about Juneteenth and Independence Day, about the ongoing push for freedom and the push back for a continual expansion of mass incarceration, I wonder what the future holds. I wonder what my role in it will be.
I will never be a model prisoner. I came to this conclusion several years ago when a field training officer (FTO) was introducing me to a new recruit. The FTO was complimenting me for the way I show up for people, my devotion to service and support of others pursuing higher education, and my empathy for the struggle of officers working within a system that demands much from them, but does not give much in return.
I sincerely thanked him for the affirmation, then gently corrected him regarding his reference to me as a “model prisoner” (we weren’t called residents yet). I told him I don’t show up the way I do because of this system, but rather, in spite of it. Over the past 15 years, some residents, staff and administrators have had the courage and wherewithal to operate in ways counter to the expectations of prison culture. Despite the system, these people came through for me time and time again.
My dear friend and mentor, Ephriam Keith Bennett, introduced me to the Jesus Christ of the Bible. He challenged me to grow from a scared, broken child into a man of honor, integrity and godly character. Yes, I fail miserably in my efforts to walk out the word of God in my everyday life. Yet that is my aim. I do not carry myself according to the rules, regulations, policies and prison politics that are supposed to govern my life. If I did, I would be a model resident. And I would be setting myself up for failure if and when I’m released. Model prisoners don’t make model neighbors.
What do you want from the prison system? Do you want incarcerated people to be molded into good prisoners? Into people who obey the rules and ask for permission for everything? Into people who need every aspect of their life governed by somebody in power?
Or do you want incarcerated people to be supported in learning about their interests and aptitudes, developing their own skills, knowledge and understanding? Should they be supported in cultivating character and the ability to self-govern, to regulate emotions and assess situations with discernment?
This day of reflection, darkness and celebration will have passed long before this issue goes to press. Yet I feel obligated to offer this glimpse into what I do not often share. I struggle. I doubt. I have days when I want to throw my hands up and call it quits. No mas!
Change takes time. This is something I know very well. So, while I continue to dream, hope and envision a future that does not include prisons, I ask you to join me in working to transform the ones that still exist. Maine’s transition from past prison practices into the Maine Model of Corrections is unfinished, but it does foster a bit of hope for what’s possible within carceral spaces. The Department of Corrections’ new mission statement calls for people who enter prison from a place of harm and desperation to be transformed into people who know what it means to live an empowered and restored life.
Implementing this mission can bring good neighbors home. Good prisoners don’t make good neighbors, and good neighbors don’t belong in prison. Someday, we are going to have to bring this into line. Maine’s lawmakers are going to need to listen to Maine’s people, who have told them they want substantive change in the criminal legal system. They want avenues that acknowledge rehabilitation and personal transformation — avenues that don’t currently exist.
Whenever you have time, please reach out to your state representatives and remind them that the status quo is harmful. Rather than funneling more money into policing and prisons, they need to reallocate funds to support community-based Restorative Justice organizations, improve and expand opportunities for young people, and divert cases from the criminal legal system into harm-repair processes that are locally led and informed by individual circumstances. All of this is possible — we just need leaders to answer the call.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.