Shining Light on Humanity – Mainer

“You can only face in others what you can face in yourself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and our compassion.
—James Baldwin

[Note: Suicide trauma trigger warning.]

I have now spoken publicly both for and against the recent bill to “Prohibit Solitary Isolation in Maine’s Corrections System” (later renamed “An Act to Restrict the Use of Solitary Segregation and Residential Rehabilitation in Maine Prisons and Prisons”). I have angered people on both sides of this argument.

Now that the legislative session is over, I invite you to complicate things with me. Break out of the seemingly universal trend of lazy politics — Democrat versus Republican, bad versus good, right versus wrong — and rise with me to this challenge of complicating our politics and our partnerships.

Solitary confinement, separate housing, restrictive housing, special management units, administrative control units – I hate them all. I have yet to meet a single person who has truly benefited from living in one of them. People are trying to point to one of my earliest experiences of self-disclosure and steps in relationship with God. These happened in segregation, so I benefited from the experience, didn’t I? Bad.

The only reason I was still alive to have this experience is that my mother had already lost a son. Otherwise, at the end of 2008, my name would have been in the Portland Press Herald like Dante Majeroni’s in 2017. Five years later, my mother reportedly stepped into Rossana Natalini’s shoes, begging anyone to care enough to stop another mother’s son from killing himself.

Looking at photos from inside Dante’s suicide cell, I remember the lessons I received in what was possibly the same Cumberland County Jail cell. I learned the alligator roll (tightening a sheet around your neck and rolling fast enough to pass out before panic sets in), as well as the hangman’s prayer (on your knees with your feet firmly against the wall, sheet well tied and the right length so that when you fall forward you cannot touch the ground and the panic reaction of straightening your legs only tightens slip knot).

In light of these lessons, coupled with the violent extractions I have witnessed and the dozens of men I have seen broken in myriad ways over the two and a half years of total time I have spent in various segregation units, I couldn’t hold back my support for a bill that could save lives, minds and spirits. But I didn’t think about the unintended consequences of the whole bill.

After digging into the details of LD 696, I realized that forcing this level of change would hurt everyone it aims to help. These details include: redefining solitary confinement, defining solitary confinement, placing strict limits on the use of solitary confinement, opening contact visits from these units, l requiring daily mental health assessments by a trained clinician, requiring an out-of-cell rehabilitation program, establishing a residential rehabilitation unit, requiring staff training (initial and ongoing), creating an ombudsman position for oversight, and more. Along with other negative ramifications, by redirecting this level of staff into isolation, the general population would end up being locked down even more often than we are currently, due to understaffing. Each of these changes can, and should, be implemented. Just do it in Partnership with the people doing the work.

When I speak of my partnership with prison administrators and staff, I do so in honor of their sincere efforts to do good within this system. This is in full recognition of their belief that this system exists to support public safety, while maintaining my understanding that this system is inherently harmful and must be abolished. What exists between us is what Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty tactfully calls “a natural tension.”

Our long-term visions are radically different: they hope to transform prisons into healing environments; my hope is to replace prisons with community responses to harm that provide opportunities for empowerment and healing (a fully restorative system). My vision extends beyond the end of my life, so I see the need to do the first while working to make the second possible. Our goal of increasing community safety is the same. Our methods and mechanisms for achieving this goal are where we separate.

If the Mainers continue on the current path of unshakable adversarial relationships with our others, none of us will see safer communities. Let’s take this time to reflect on our goals and see how we can commit to complicating our policies and partnerships in ways that create a better, safer and more peaceful future.

Leo Hylton is a graduate student of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, currently incarcerated at Maine State Prison. Her education and work focus on social justice advocacy and activism, with a vision toward an abolitionist future. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Road, Warren, ME, 04864, or [email protected]

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