For Leo Hylton, prison abolition doesn’t mean having no system at all: it means replacing what is with what should be.
“It’s tearing down the structures that exist and building ones that can be restorative in nature,” said Hylton, who is serving a 40-year sentence in the Maine prison system.
Such conversations around what abolition is and how to bring about an end to mass incarceration will be at the forefront of an upcoming Maine-based arts and humanities project launching in early September called “Freedom and Captivity.” The project, put together by a coalition of groups and advocates, will kick off with a public event Sept. 2 at Kennedy Park in Portland and continue into December with events around the state.
The initiative features a wide range of materials, including artwork by those who are incarcerated, an exhibition in Augusta examining prison from the perspective of veterans on the inside, and photography documenting artwork and murals done by those in prisons. Also included in the project will be a digital exhibition of pieces that respond to the prompt: “What does abolition look like, sound like, feel like?” Those submissions will be projected at the launch party and will come in various formats, such as film, poetry, prose and sculpture.
The exhibition comes at the same time that reform advocates are working to change aspects of the criminal legal system in Maine, such as the lack of an opportunity for parole and the dearth of clemency requests granted in the state — policies they argue have killed hope among incarcerated individuals that rehabilitative efforts will be recognized. The state system has also drawn criticism for large racial and gender disparities in drug-related incarceration and for not prioritizing those in prisons and jails for the COVID-19 vaccine despite their presence in high-risk congregate settings. Another source of frustration has been vetoes by Gov. Janet Mills, who earlier this year nixed a series of criminal justice reform bills, including a measure that would have closed Maine’s last youth prison.
Catherine Besteman, coordinator of the Freedom and Captivity project and a professor of anthropology at Colby College, said she hopes the project provides attendees with an education on the dire impacts of the carceral system.
“I want a lot more Mainers caring about this issue, about hyper incarceration and the impact of mass incarceration,” she said. “I want a lot more Mainers to feel personally implicated and personally responsible for the system as it exists now, and I want a lot more Mainers to have clearer directions on how they can participate in bringing this system to an end.”
‘We are still human beings’
Hylton — who writes regular columns for the publication Mainer — said he put together an essay on restorative justice for the Freedom and Captivity project, contributed to a piece on “the A.B.C’s of abolition” and submitted a series of poems.
“The whole restorative mindset is to address harm with healing, to create spaces of accountability for healing and potential reconciliation,” he said. “But [that’s] just not feasible with the current magnitude of incarcerated bodies right now, so it needs to be scaled down so you can really deal with the root of crime.”
In addition to spurring such conversations, Hylton hopes “Freedom and Captivity” will serve to humanize those who are incarcerated.
“Regardless of the worst thing we have done in our lives that led us to this place, we are still human beings and we still have all those basic human needs of expression, of compassion, of empathy, of love,” he said. “And I think that comes out a lot in the different pieces that are going to be on display from incarcerated people.”
That’s been the takeaway for Jan Collins, the curator of an exhibit of artwork by incarcerated people that will launch Sept. 3. Collins, who is also the assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said while the artwork is “as individual as the artists themselves,” the collective pieces show that people who are incarcerated have many of the same hopes and desires as those on the outside.
That is a powerful message to send, Collins said, and one she hopes will spur increased energy for prison reform.
“I think the only way to get changes is for people to see themselves in these men or these women,” she explained. “Until we can see people as people and other members of the human race, it will be extremely difficult to make any changes to policy that reflect that humanity.”
In one case, Hochstadt said the initiative helped unearth a passion for arts and painting for one of the contributors, an incarcerated individual named Chris, who said he had never picked up a paintbrush before participating in the project.
Hochstadt said Chris came to their meetings every week with beautiful paintings of landscapes that featured winding paths of water leading to sunsets and sunrises, complete with vivid greenery in the background.
“He was like, ‘Well, in my cell I look out onto a cement wall and I can’t see anything beyond that wall. And so my paintings are what I imagine is behind the wall,’” Hochstadt said.
“To me, that just shows the impact making art has for these guys and the freedom it gives them,” she added. “It’s just amazing.”