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### Transformative Impact: My Life Altered by Teaching at Colby College During Incarceration

“Hey Hylton, they need you in receiving. You’re about to embark on a journey,” the officer informs me as he stands at the entrance of my cell. “You know your destination, right?”

It’s April 2022, and it has been twelve years since I last stepped beyond the prison confines in 2010. With no further legal recourse available, I am not expected to glimpse the world outside these walls for another 26 to 28 years, barring any unforeseen circumstances or medical emergencies that may necessitate a temporary departure.

On this delightful spring day, I make my way to the section of the prison where new arrivals are processed, photographed for identification purposes, provided with prison attire, and given a plastic container to store their belongings. Here, I encounter two unfamiliar individuals who will be accompanying me on this journey.

Swiftly, I disrobe completely, undergoing a thorough search of each article of clothing before they are returned to me.

“Try these on and see if you can walk without resembling Frankenstein’s monster,” another officer jests as I am introduced to hobblers: ankle restraints concealed beneath my pants that automatically lock if an attempt to flee is made.

“I have no intention of running anywhere!” I reassure my escorts. “You can trust me on that. I understand the significance of this moment. I am aware that the Department [of Corrections] is taking a leap of faith by granting me this opportunity.”

Though my demeanor is solemn, a smile persists on my lips. Adorned with hobblers on my legs and a belly chain secured around my waist connecting to handcuffs on my wrists, the fugitive investigator chuckles and remarks, “You seem quite elated, don’t you?”

“You bet I am! I am looking forward to seeing my students today!”

This is no ordinary trip to the court or medical facility; I am en route to Colby College to conduct a class. On campus. In person.

I am privileged with the duty and honor of educating fourteen young individuals. This cherished engagement is something I aspire to extend to the numerous graduate and post-graduate scholars currently incarcerated nationwide.

It is believed that I am the first incarcerated individual to be appointed and compensated as an adjunct professor to instruct non-prison students.

And what remarkable students they were! Even now, over a year later, I can vividly recall the subtle widening of Grace’s eyes and the smile that her N95 mask couldn’t conceal when we crossed paths in the hallway before class.

In an instant, I can feel the affection, trust, and bravery of our intimate classroom community resonate within me, conveyed through each student’s voice as they expressed the impact of having me as their professor, alongside anthropologist Catherine Besteman.

Serving as a professor has been a profoundly transformative experience, with my students evolving into some of my most influential mentors. Prior to receiving Catherine’s invitation to co-teach the 300-level anthropology course with her, my aspirations were modest, hoping at most to serve as a teacher’s assistant.

Now, halfway through my master’s program at the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University — and fifteen years into a 50-year prison sentence — I found myself in uncharted territory.

Having committed a violent home invasion at the age of 18, I believed my life was irreversibly altered. Pursuing GED classes while in county jail was an attempt to demonstrate to the judge that I possessed some worth. However, she remained unmoved, handing down what essentially amounted to a life sentence to a 19-year-old, indifferent to my academic achievements.

“If there was ever a time I felt like I was safeguarding society from a threat, today would be that day,” the judge declared. “If I could impose a harsher sentence, I would.”

Thus, I was condemned to a potential 50-year incarceration, relinquishing my aspirations of obtaining a Ph.D. in psychology. My ambition to become a beacon of hope for traumatized foster children, offering them empathy born of shared experiences, seemed shattered.

Despite numerous encounters with therapists, none truly grasped the depth of my struggles. The only individual who came close was the same person who diagnosed me with oppositional defiant disorder and emotional detachment disorder at the age of 13. In reality, my emotional detachment was a coping mechanism in response to childhood trauma and abuse.

Desperate for healing and growth, I found little solace within the confines of prison. Access to educational resources, let alone opportunities for higher education, remains a contentious issue across correctional facilities nationwide.

The prospect of graduate education, a prerequisite for teaching at the collegiate level, remains a distant dream for many incarcerated individuals.

In Maine, advancements in online platforms and technology during the pandemic have paved the way for progress. The Maine Department of Corrections has gradually expanded online educational access to all incarcerated students, with no significant incidents reported thus far.

By the time I commenced teaching at Colby, I believed my heart had softened considerably. Over a span of twelve years, I had matured, received guidance, embarked on a spiritual healing journey, and provided compassionate end-of-life care.

Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the profound sense of vulnerability and love that Catherine and our students would instill in me. It began with the establishment of trust between us as we meticulously revised the syllabus for the Carcerality and Abolition course we co-taught.

While Catherine emphasized a comprehensive review of the course materials on the historical roots of mass incarceration stemming from slavery and the criminalization of Black individuals, culminating in the necessity for a cultural shift away from systemic oppression towards the construction of a community founded on abolitionist principles (envisioning a world we aspire to inhabit and actively working towards its realization), I was inclined to delve straight into the practical implications of the material.

“So, having delved into these challenging topics, what now? How does this knowledge resonate with you on a personal, professional, and academic level? What impact do you envision from this learning experience?”

Beyond the classroom, I held virtual office hours (with me on zoom and Catherine and the students on campus). Week after week, we navigated through complex subjects in the classroom, witnessing shy students gradually voice dissenting opinions and others open up about their struggles with acceptance and comprehension.

Each time a student mustered the courage to share a personal triumph in their journey of trauma recovery facilitated by our class, my heart melted with tenderness.

Through the cultivation of trusting relationships with Catherine and our students, I have come to understand the profound transformation symbolized by God replacing my heart of stone with one of flesh — gentle, compassionate, and loving (Ezekiel 36:26).

By fostering community and nurturing healing beyond the traditional classroom setting, within the same county where I committed my offense, I have undergone a personal metamorphosis that renders me unsuitable for continued imprisonment.

I aspire for this transformative healing opportunity to extend nationwide. Through collaboration with the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, we are transitioning to remote work in Maine, diminishing the burden on our families and taxpayers while enabling incarcerated individuals to contribute towards any financial obligations they may have.

At Colby, I earned $6,300 for the semester, equivalent to the compensation of any external visiting instructor. Through the Alliance, I receive a salary that supports my family and community, and prepares me for an eventual release. It is imperative for other educational institutions and correctional departments to emulate this model for individuals with similar qualifications.

While prisons endure, their function should be to prepare individuals not for continued incarceration, but for reintegration into society. By creating supportive avenues for personal, professional, and academic advancement, this vision can be realized.

Taking calculated risks, such as permitting a long-term inmate to teach on a college campus, fosters a secure pathway towards restoration and redemption.

This piece was originally published by , a nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigating and elevating higher education.