“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar of the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you… Go make up with that person.” (Matthew 5:23-24, NLT)
Frustrated with the lack of access to nutritious 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 happily exhausting process of preparing, planting, weeding, watering and tending to nearly an acre of garden behind the Earned Living Unit (ELU), it is time to make an update.
Before diving into this, however, I must address an element of personal hypocrisy. Last month, I did exactly what I continually warn people about: I harshly simplified and unfairly lumped together a prison administrator as a other. Feeling the pressure of my responsibility to avoid writing from my position of relative privilege within this prison, I separated the Deputy Director of Programs from the good work they have done in supporting transformational efforts, such as lead the creation of the ELU last year. Additionally, in characterizing a handful of OCs strictly by their perceived mindset, I failed to put the emphasis where it should: on the system, not on the people. Those who still struggle with punitive mindsets do so because of the extensive conditioning of the system in which they have worked for so long. I did a disservice to all of them and will be more attentive in the future.
Last year, I called out the prison kitchen management for a lack of follow through on Warden Matthew Magnusson’s commendable efforts to increase meal portion sizes during the pandemic lockdown. I also spoke about the overabundance of empty calories served on trays, which fuels the chronic health conditions that plague incarcerated populations. Across the country. To their credit, Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Randall Liberty invited me to participate in a virtual call on this issue, and professional instructor Rebekah Mende, who oversees the extensive gardening programs and beekeeping here, supported my participation. The call was moderated by Peter Allison, Executive Director of From Farm to New England Institution (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 could say that I had contributed to the donation of over 400 pounds of fresh produce to the Area Interfaith Outreach (AIO) pantry and more than 140 books supplied to the prison kitchen. I had never seen the acre of land behind the old supermax look like anything other than a wild field of jungle weeds. From now on, thanks to the implementation of the ELU and the dozens of thousands hours of work put in by my other 26 ELU community members, this field is a picturesque garden of raised beds filled with a variety of peppers, cucumbers, snow peas, blueberries, cantaloupe, strawberries, raspberries, celery, beets, Swiss chard, radishes, onions, eggplant, zucchini and more kinds of tomatoes than I knew. We have also revived a small garden for herbs like garlic, chamomile, mint, cilantro/cilantro, oregano, basil and dill.
The 400 pounds of product donated to AIO came just of the ULU. The prison as a whole has already donated over 1,000 pounds to AIO (plus 11 buckets of beautiful cut flowers) and 395 pounds to the Chelsea Food Bank and Augusta’s Bread of Life soup kitchen, while supplying the prison kitchen with fresh produce throughout the summer (a total of 6,611 pounds). Our new Executive Chef, Jeff Space, has created new salads and soups and is incorporating nutrients into meals in a variety of ways. I also look forward to Impact Justice”Chef in residencewhich will support efforts to reduce food waste – another notorious problem in prisons. During the years I worked in the kitchen, it perpetually pissed me off: watching hundreds of pounds of unserved food thrown away every day.
At the end of a recent meal, I thought to myself how nice it was to want to eat every morsel of what was served. Granted, as a 6-foot-6, 270-pound, physically active man, I need to eat all three meals at once to feel full. However, it speaks to a systemic problem that puts me in an abolitionist’s dilemma. Does this mean that the DOC should be allocated more funds to pay more than the approximate amount $3 per person, per day, spent on food? Or does that mean the DOC needs to move more people out of its facilities?
Or (my favorite) does it mean that we as a state need to stop locking up so many people; begin to create more opportunities for meaningful, accountability-focused, community-based diversion; and start welcoming people home after incarceration to help prevent them from re-entering the system?
We all have a role to play in creating a safer future. What is your?
Leo Hylton is a graduate student of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, currently incarcerated at Maine State Prison. Her education and work focus on social justice advocacy and activism, with a vision toward an abolitionist future. You can reach him at: Leo Hylton #70199, 807 Cushing Rd., Warren, ME 04864, or [email protected]