Shining Light on Humanity

Life of Atonement

“Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. … It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls…” (Leviticus 23:27-32)

What does it mean to atone? In the context of my faith walk as a growing follower of Jesus Christ, it means to become “at one” with God and to live a life of ongoing reparative action for the harm I have caused in this world.

I usually limit my expressions of faith in this column to a biblical scripture or two, or the occasional reference to my spiritual father and his role in helping me heal and grow into a man of faith and godly integrity.

But, with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, Sept. 24-25) approaching as I put pen to paper, I find myself heavy-laden in the middle of a Year of Atonement, with my eyes, heart and mind firmly set on leading a life of atonement.

It has been over 15 years since I committed the horrific crime that sent me to prison for 50 years. Yet I have not been so deeply immersed in the acute and ever-present awareness of the pain I caused since I first tore apart three families and the safety of a community. The family of the people I harmed, my foster family, and my blood family would never be the same. And that is my doing.

There is a common perception that when someone goes to prison for a violent crime, they either think about the harm they caused every single day or not at all. Like all dichotomies, this one is false. It is not an either/or situation. At least, I haven’t met anyone who embodies one side of that supposed separation.

Before I was ever arrested, I was so wracked by guilt and shame that I wanted to take my own life. And nearly did a few times. Then, when I found myself trapped in a system designed to kill me, surrounded by bigots openly longing for the “good ol’ days” when I could have just been lynched in front of the courthouse, I steeled my heart to fight my case in hopes of saving some semblance of a life. Self-preservation numbed the pain of what I had done and pulled me out of accountability.

After receiving my de facto life sentence and giving up any real hope of life after prison, I settled in to do my bid, distracting myself with the pacifiers of frivolous books, TV, video games and basketball. Only after five years did I make it back to a place of sensitivity and loving pain. 

This required a budding relationship with God through being introduced to the Jesus of the Bible and learning how to apply the promises of Scripture to my life. It took a growing relationship with a woman from my past and her son, who soon became my own. My Lil’ Man is the reason I stepped into radical honesty and integrity on July 4, 2013, when I wrote letters to everyone who loved and supported me. I had to admit my lies so I could stop living in hypocrisy. Teaching my new son godly principles pulled me into fully cleaning up my language and actions.

He also pulled me deeper into a life of atonement. Through helping to raise him to be a loving, gentle, strong man of principle, I began to realize more fully my responsibility to create spaces of healing in this world as a way to prevent more harm. Every class I have taken, every behavioral program I have facilitated, every degree I have earned and training I have led have all been in atonement for the egregious harm I caused 15 years ago.

I’ve spent more time this year in reflection and remembrance than I have in any year since I was first incarcerated. I have shed more tears this year than in the 14 before it, combined.

The life I lead is one of love, passion and purpose. It is also one of atonement. Even though I cannot pay back what I did or repair the harm I caused, I can work every day and into every night to help people heal and to interrupt cycles of harm and violence wherever possible. It is all part of me fighting to hold myself accountable within a system that does not know the meaning of the word.

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

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