“So if you make an offering at the altar in the temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you… Go and be reconciled with that person.” (Matthew 5:23-24, NLT)
Frustrated by the lack of access to nutritional food in prison, I wrote last year about the experience of “Enduring the ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food” [May 2021]. Now that we are harvesting after a long and joyfully grueling process of preparing, planting, weeding, watering and caring for nearly an acre of garden behind the Earned Living Unit (ELU), it’s time for an update.
Before I get into that, though, I need to address a bit of personal hypocrisy. Last month I did exactly what I constantly warn people about: I severely simplified and unfairly grouped a prison administrator as a… other. Feeling the pressure of my responsibility not to write from my relatively privileged position in this prison, I separated the Deputy Director of Programs from the good work they have done in support of transformative efforts, such as leading the founding of the ELU last year. By strictly characterizing a handful of COs based on their perceived mindset, I’ve also failed to put the emphasis where it belongs: on the system, not the people. Those who still struggle with a punitive mindset do so because of the extensive conditioning of the system in which they have worked for so long. I have done each of them a disservice and will be more aware in the future.
Last year, I appealed to prison kitchen management for a lack of follow-up to Director Matthew Magnusson’s commendable efforts to increase meal portions during the pandemic lockdown. I also spoke about the abundance of empty calories served on the trays, fueling the chronic health problems plaguing incarcerated populations across the country. To their great credit, Randall Liberty, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC), invited me to join a virtual call on this issue, and vocational instructor Rebekah Mende, who oversees the vast horticulture and beekeeping programs here. , supported my participation. The call was hosted by Peter Allison, executive director of Farm to Institution New England (FINE), and was joined by food justice advocates and activists from across the country.
At the time, I could not have imagined that 16 months later I would be able to say that I contributed more than 400 pounds of fresh produce to Area Interfaith Outreach (AIO) food pantries, and provided more than 140 pounds to the kitchen of the prison. I’d never seen the acres of land behind the old supermax look like anything more than a wild field of jungle weeds. Now, thanks to the creation of the ELU and the tens of thousands of man hours expended by my 26 fellow ELU community members, that field is a picturesque garden of raised beds filled with a variety of peppers, cucumbers, peas, blueberries, cantaloupe, strawberries, raspberries, celery, beets, chard, radishes, onions, aubergines, courgettes and more varieties of tomatoes than I knew existed. We have also revived a smaller garden for herbs such as garlic, chamomile, mint, coriander/cilantro, oregano, basil and dill.
The £400 worth of products donated to AIO have arrived only of the ELU. The prison as a whole has already donated more than £1,000 to AIO (plus 11 buckets of beautiful cut flowers) and £395 to the Chelsea Food Bank and Augusta’s Bread of Life soup kitchen, while also supplying the prison kitchen with fresh produce throughout the prison. summer (a total of 6,611 pounds). Our new kitchen manager, Jeff Space, has created new salads and soups and is integrating nutrients into meals in all kinds of new ways. I’m also very much looking forward to the Impact Justice “Chef-in-Residence” initiative, which will support efforts to reduce food waste – another notorious problem in prisons. During the years I worked in the kitchen, it constantly infuriated me: seeing hundreds of pounds of unserved food thrown away every day.
At the end of a recent meal I thought to myself how nice it actually was? want to eat every piece of what has been served. Admittedly, as a physically active man of six feet and 270 kilos, I have to eat all three meals at the same time to get really full. What that is about, however, is a systemic issue that puts me in the dilemma of an abolition of the death penalty. Does this mean that the DOC needs to get more money to pay more than the roughly $3 per person, per day, spent on food? Or does that mean the DOC has to transfer more people outside its facilities?
Or (my personal favorite), does that mean we as a state should stop locking up so many people; begin to create more opportunities for meaningful, accountable, and community-based distraction; and welcoming people home after their incarceration to prevent them from returning to the system?
We all have a role to play in creating a more secure future. What is yours?
Leo Hylton is a graduate 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 focuses on advocacy and activism for social justice, with a vision of an abolitionist future. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Rd., Warren, ME 04864, or email@example.com.