BELFAST — The Maine Department of Corrections is seeking public comments through Nov. 6 on a revised disciplinary policy that includes, among other violations, prohibitions against writing: writing to a pen pal, writing via a blog that a friend on the outside helps maintain or writing through any other media outlet. I hope my fellow Mainers will join me in opposing this revision.
When I get an envelope in the mail marked “Maine State Prison” in the corner, with a name and number hand-written underneath, I rejoice. Such letters come to me from my former students, students enrolled through the University of Maine System who are taking college courses and working toward degrees.
By working hard and staying matriculated in the program, these incarcerated men are choosing – actively choosing, every day – to buck a system that could easily keep them hopeless and angry, and instead to face their sentences and their envisioned lives beyond with fortitude and resilience.
Such inmates are educating themselves, and they also educated me, their professor: They have helped me understand the concepts of justice, growth and learning in a wholly new light.
Of course, not everyone in prison is working to improve themselves. But some are. Some are vulnerable beings tempted by poor choices and plagued with regrets. Some grew up with few resources or role models, and this threw them off track. Some have gone through life with a falsely tough exterior to mask deep insecurity or hurt. Some need only support and encouragement to find a new way. I only had to spend a few hours a week in class with these men to see that.
And because I teach writing, I saw again and again how expression through language can be an instrument for transformation, compassion and insight for those who choose to harness it. Many of us figure things out about ourselves and our world through writing – and this is all the more true for prisoners, for whom pen pals and publishing are often their only positive connection to the world beyond their cells.
As a writer myself, I believe fundamentally that language can promote empathy, influence decision-makers and unify communities. I’m assuming you believe these things, too, or you wouldn’t be reading a newspaper.
And I’m assuming that part of why you live in America is because we are a nation built upon freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and that, like me, you want access to truthful reporting about all of what goes on in our nation and around the world, even – especially – if what’s going on is happening in places and to people that are hard to access.
These are among the many reasons I am appalled by the proposed policies that would make “corresponding with a pen pal” or “acting as a news agent, directly or indirectly” Class B offenses in the Maine prisons. If these policies stand, prisoners who try to stay connected and honest via writing could be put in segregation for up to 20 days merely for reaching out to the world via a letter to a friend or an article about their experiences.
When people are in prison, prison is the only culture they know: Separating them from the rest of society is the whole point.
But some of them aim to rejoin the world in productive and meaningful ways, and for those, we must provide a glimpse of an alternative while they’re still locked up. Corresponding with people on the outside helps them feel human in a dehumanizing environment, and none of us can make good choices unless we feel fully human.
“One of our friends from the college program is getting out and going to the University of Georgia. I’m happy for him and proud of him,” one of my former students wrote me in a letter. Later he continued, “It’s unfathomable to most who have not had to experience prison how much a little bit of hope can change a person’s life. Education breeds hope.”
Please stand up for the ability of our brothers and sisters in prison here in Maine to stay in touch with people who care about them, report on what it’s like to be inside the justice system in which we all participate and to keep their hope for a better self and a better world alive through the power of the written word.