I was held as a prisoner in Maine for two decades. Now I coordinate the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC), a grassroots organization, advocating directly with the Maine department of corrections on behalf of prisoners and their families. When I am asked why I am so passionate about transforming the system that held me captive, I always respond the same way: I can’t walk away and leave the people I lived beside for 20 years in a state of perpetual fear and endless torture.
I do this work because years of liberal studies and distance allowed me to make sense of the unfathomable world I experienced. It is a world in which abuse is relentless. It defies comprehension. Liberal studies helped me see that time inside isn’t the only punishment imposed on convicted felons. The predominant cultural belief that we are all subject to is that once you make a mistake you must forever be defined by it. Every sentence, then, is lifelong. Our unspoken reality is that the majority of those whom we imprison are socially destroyed. They often lose everything: their homes, their belongings, their jobs, their partners, the support of their families.
I do what I do because I witnessed a period of time when confinement in Maine didn’t necessarily result in this social destruction – and I am convinced that one way to bring about reform is to return to the progressive prison policies of old.
The old prison system was structured around the humanity of inmates and a belief in healing and restoration. It gave prisoners opportunities not just to advance, but to thrive. It applied progressive thinking to challenge the collateral consequences of incarceration and provided prisoners with a solid foundation with which to re-enter society.
I do this work, too, because I am a person of color. Like other prisoners of color, I was subjected to covert and overt racism – routinely passed over for paid jobs, denied adequate medical care, physically and verbally abused, and too readily designated a “security threat” – particularly after the prison system in Maine transformed.