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Maine's Leo Hylton: Prisoner, College Teacher and Abolitionist

Leo Hylton is a professor collaborating with Colby College's anthropology department while simultaneously being an inmate working from inside a Maine prison, according to Mother Jones. Alongside tenured Prof. Catherine Besteman, this spring for the second year he’ll teach via Zoom from inside the walls about abolition—the movement to end incarceration. Prison education experts say Hylton is the nation's first professor of his kind. Last March, the prison approved an unprecedented chance for Hylton to meet his students in person on campus. He left under armed guard, wearing a freshly pressed blue button-down shirt and jeans—and handcuffs, belly chains, and hobbles that would clamp his legs if he tried to run. “I’m going through this whole process of putting these restraints on, cheesing ear to ear,” he remembers. Headed to Colby, he says, “I don’t think I had felt more free in my life.” This was all possible because Hylton has long-standing relationships with prison officials and staff, including Randall Liberty, who, as sheriff of Kennebec County arrested Hylton 14 years ago. Now Maine’s commissioner of corrections, he helped clear the way for Hylton’s job at Colby despite countless policy hurdles. Liberty, Hylton said by email, “has seen me at my worst and is now supporting me in the realization of my best.”

Besteman met Hylton in the fall of 2021 while running a statewide arts and education project on ending incarceration. Hylton participated in several related programs, including helping to gather peers at the prison to participate in a short film on abolition. Calling him a “fulcrum between the inside and outside,” she arranged for him to speak at a Colby human rights lecture series held on Zoom during the pandemic. Afterward, Besteman put in a request to Colby’s provost to let Hylton join her as a co-instructor. “I knew he would be a powerful teacher,” she said, “extremely compelling and deeply interested in people.” Their time together offers the barest glimpse of an abolitionist future, when the punishment and separation underlying incarceration are supplanted by programs rooted in community building. A typical class has Hylton teleconferencing on a projected screen while Besteman and 14 students gather in person. The students collectively reflect on weekly readings covering police, prisons, surveillance, the United States’ history of slavery and incarceration centers, and alternatives to such systems. “It’s one thing to just read an article about solitary confinement,” says Halle Carroll, a Colby senior who took the class. “It’s another thing to finish reading and hear Leo talk about his experience and the experience of others.”


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