Are prisoners allowed to use knives when eating? one student wonders. (Yes, but they’re tied to the tables.) Why are the toilets and sinks made of steel, not porcelain? asks another. (So they can’t be broken apart and used as weapons or instruments of self-injury.)
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Are prisoners allowed to use knives when eating? (Yes, but they’re tied to the tables.) Why are the toilets and sinks made of steel, not porcelain? (So they can’t be broken apart and used as weapons or instruments of self-injury.)
Walking backward, like a docent in a museum, Hylton, 33, leads the students down the concrete “mile” that crosses the prison campus, past the mess hall, basketball courts, and pool tables, and into the higher-education wing of the activities building.
It was here that Hylton, who is serving 50 years for burglary, robbery, and attempted murder, began his higher education, earning an associate degree in 2016. Seven years later, he has a master’s degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University and is about to start working toward a Ph.D.
As they enter the room at the center of the higher-ed wing, a man wearing a skullcap stands to greet them. “What is this — Colby?” asks Nadim Haque. “I like Bates.” He gestures, grinning, to Foster Bates, president of the prison chapter of the NAACP.
Hylton became a visiting instructor at Colby College last year, after an anthropology professor there, Catherine Besteman, heard about his efforts to bring restorative-justice practices to Maine’s prisons and invited him to deliver a lecture on criminal-justice reform. She was so impressed by Hylton’s speech that she asked him to co-teach a seminar she was offering that spring, “Carcerality and Abolition.”
Getting Colby’s provost to sign off on the novel teaching arrangement wasn’t hard; she just had to clear it with the college’s lawyers. The Maine Department of Corrections was trickier. State policy had historically limited outside employment to prisoners in minimum-security facilities who were participating in work-release. But the commissioner of corrections, Randy Liberty, who had arrested Hylton 14 years earlier and witnessed his growth in prison, liked the idea. He agreed to let Hylton be a test case.
The pair came to the course with radically different teaching philosophies, Besteman says. She wanted to dive right into the literature; he wanted to start by building community — collectively establishing class agreements and opening class with a circle response to a question, “so everyone’s voice would be heard,” he said. She’s super-structured; he’s more fluid, “responsive to the mood in the room,” Besteman says. When Hylton led the class in a circle, “I could feel the atmosphere changing.”
Hylton talked openly about the violent crime that had landed him in prison when he was 18, younger than most of his students: the burglary and machete attack that maimed a former state legislator and his 10-year-old daughter — and the “daily active remorse” he feels. “I carry with me a constant awareness of my inability to repair the harm I caused,” he says, “and so everything I do … is all in an attempt to interrupt cycles of harm.”
And the students opened up to Hylton in turn, sharing stories they’d never shared with anyone at Colby — about incarcerated family members, and about being victims of violence.
For Hylton, steeped in a culture that demands hardness, the class was an opportunity to be vulnerable, “in ways I hadn’t since I was a 12-year-old in foster care and cauterized the emotional nerves around my heart.”
“Students were coming to my office hours, talking about really tough stuff,” Hylton says. “I felt I had to meet their vulnerability.”
Hylton and Besteman describe what they’re doing as “flipping the inside-out model”: Instead of bringing students and professors into the prison to learn alongside incarcerated people, they’re bringing a prisoner into the classroom, as an instructor. It casts prisoners not as students but as experts in the experience of mass incarceration.
They believe their course is the first of its kind, but Besteman says it could be replicated on other campuses.
“There are a lot of incarcerated people who would be great professors,” she says.
A typical class begins with Hylton logging on from his cinder-block cell in Maine State Prison, in coastal Warren, Maine, while students gather in a Colby classroom, about 45 miles inland. Everyone, Besteman and Hylton included, answers the same check-in question or prompt, and then the class dissects the weekly readings and videos, as a whole and in small groups.
On the day before the prison tour, the prompt is “describe your mood as a body of water.” Several students, feeling stressed and tired, describe themselves variously as “a whirlpool,” “an eddy,” a “Category 4 rapid,” and simply “a puddle.” Hylton says he is “a stream headed toward the ocean of justice.”
Today’s topic is solitary confinement — its impact on prisoners’ mental health, how society justifies the practice, and whether there could be a future without supermax facilities. One discussion question asks students to consider who is “good” and “bad” in the context of solitary confinement. Are the prisoners truly the “worst of the worst”? And what about the guards?
In one small-group discussion, a student named Olivia says she tends to view the prison guards as bad, because they “like the idea of having power over people.”
But Jouanna says “good” and “bad” are subjective terms. “Is a ‘good’ prisoner complacent? Or are they ‘good’ if they’re speaking out about what’s happening?” she wonders.
Later, during the whole-class discussion, Jen argues that there are no good or bad guys in a supermax. Both the prisoners and the guards are just “trying to survive in a dehumanizing situation.”
Besteman asks Hylton — the only person in the class who has been in solitary confinement — how he held onto his sense of self through the experience. He sang, he says, and one song in particular: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
The next day, the students get a glimpse of the former “Special Management Unit” — “Seg,” in prison parlance — where their instructor spent much of his time in solitary confinement. There are far fewer prisoners living in isolation in Maine’s prison today, thanks to policy changes that limit the use of “restrictive housing,” and the space has been turned into an unstaffed “earned living unit.” Here the best-behaved prisoners, including Hylton, share responsibility for the cooking and cleaning, and meet weekly to make group decisions and resolve community conflicts. On this day, the unit smells like last night’s dinner: ham and sweet potatoes.
But Hylton, who spent nearly a year confined in solitary here, remembers how it used to smell — of blood, and of the urine and feces that would spill into the corridor when prisoners clogged the toilets with bed sheets to punish the guards. He remembers the sounds, too: the slamming doors, the shouting among cells, the “sudden click, whoosh, slam” when guards yanked a misbehaving prisoner from his cell.
Hylton, who helped transform the unit last year, tells the students that the process of scrubbing and sanding the cells and scraping away the “vileness” etched into the walls, doors, and bunks was cathartic.
At the end of the tour, he leads the students through a courtyard with a colorful mural of the Maine woods and concrete bed frames that have been painted with dew-covered leaves and repurposed as planters. The group continues through a gate and up into the prison yard, past the garden where prisoners are growing more than 3,000 strawberry plants. Hylton pauses at the top of the slope, near a fence topped with razor wire.
When this place was “Seg,” he might have been shot for venturing so close to the fence, he tells the students. Now, it has become “my spot of peace,” the one place in the prison where you can see beyond the razor wire to the Camden Hills beyond.
He asks the students to form a circle, hold hands, and share one word about how they’re feeling now.
“Hope,” says one. “Connection,” says another. “Changed,” says a third.
They say goodbye, and the students head back to their cars for the winding drive back to campus. Hylton, who still has 32 years left on his sentence, heads back to his cell.