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The Lecturer at the Lockup: Maine Prisoner Is First to Teach College Courses from His Cell

Professor Leo Hylton’s class is like almost every other at Colby College in Maine. Students form a circle with their chairs around their professor. His course on prison abolition – the movement to end incarceration – is offered through the school’s anthropology department. But there is one thing that sets it apart from any other undergrad class. Experts on prison education say Hylton’s class is the first of its kind because he co-teaches the course via Zoom from his prison cell.

Arranging a class to be taught by a prisoner was practically impossible in Maine. Randall Liberty, the sheriff who arrested Hylton 14 years ago, had an instrumental role in clearing the hurdles after he became Commissioner of the state Department of Corrections. First, he granted Hylton permission to earn an associate degree, then a bachelor’s, and finally a master’s degree.

Hylton had the opportunity to meet his students in person, an experience he treasures by keeping a cherry-flavored seltzer from the visit. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound prisoner was escorted by armed guards to the college campus in March 2023. A month later, those same students journeyed to the Maine State Prison and saw their professor’s home on a tour of the facility.

Hylton has contributed 30 columns to Mainer magazine, as well as an autobiographical article regarding trauma. He also contributes often to the journal Religion. His sister said, “Leo has worked diligently to rise from a truly dark place. He’s now a light in this world again.

Despite his benevolent nature, it is that darkness from which he rose that many people are unable to ignore. In 2008, Hylton and his foster brother stole a car and drove to the home of former Maine lawmaker William Guerrette, from whom they had previously tried to steal a safe. When the lawmaker’s handgun malfunctioned, Hylton beat him with a machete, resulting in life-long injuries. When Guerrette’s 10-year-old daughter appeared, Hylton proceeded to slice her to such a degree that when the first officer arrived, he believed her to be dead. The girl required several major surgeries and therapy to relearn how to perform basic tasks after the vicious attack.

Hylton was eventually sentenced to 40 years in prison. There is no parole in Maine, so he won’t be released until 2050. State politicians have been trying to bring back parole, for which Hylton advocates as a pathway for all who use their time in prison to better themselves. During his incarceration, Hylton educated himself and improved his relationship with society and with his faith. He and others like him certainly deserve the second chance that parole provides.

Sources: Mother Jones; Maine Wire