Hylton has spent more than a dozen years in Maine State Prison in a 6½-by-14foot cell since he was 17. Still, he managed to obtain the GED, a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine and a master’s degree from Virginia-based George Mason University in conflict analysis, with a concentration in social justice advocacy and activism.

Hylton, whom Abigail Glasgow profiled in the March+April issue of Mother Jones, comes from a troubled background. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison for a violent home invasion with his elder foster brother. He began to turn his life around after he met Ephriam “E” Bennett, an inmate 35 years older and serving a 25-year sentence. He discovered Christianity defined by “the Jesus of the Bible with whom he could relate, the callous-handed, darker-skinned, rough around the edges … Jesus, not the blondhaired, blue-eyed European Jesus,” Glasgow reported.

Hylton’s life took another step forward when he met tenured anthropology professor Catherine Besteman of Colby College in Maine. She persuaded the college to make him a co-instructor and a year ago he began teaching via Zoom a class of 14 who “collectively reflect on weekly readings covering police, prisons, surveillance, the United States’ history of slavery and incarceration centers and, ultimately, alternatives to such systems,” Glasgow reported. Some prison education experts describe Hylton as “the first professor of his kind in the United States.” Mother Jones headlined his story “The Prison Professor.”

Hylton has shown that at least some inmates can be rehabilitated. With more than two million Americans in prison, at an annual cost that could reach $50,000 each, economics alone, if not empathy, would suggest that more emphasis should be placed on rehabilitation and providing a path for some inmates to rejoin society. But that has not been the case.

The administrations of Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton emphasized harsh punishment, including decades-long prison sentences. That has led to some inmates still serving time in their 70s and older. Most of those in federal prison were convicted of non-violent offenses. Writing in The Nation magazine last December, freelance journalist Victoria Law blamed Democrats – specifically the Clinton administration and lawmakers – “for a human crisis in the prison system created by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which … encouraged states to pass more punitive sentencing laws and awarded federal funding for new prisons and jails in exchange for dramatically limiting ‘earned time’ credits for incarcerated people.”

That provision meant that, no matter what strides towards rehabilitation a prisoner made, “there was virtually no time off their sentence for good behavior (or self-transformation). The act also stripped Pell Grants from college students behind bars.” But, Law added, “During that decade, a new prison opened every 15 days.”

Law’s report, produced in partnership with Type Investigations and with support from the Puffin Foundation, said that hundreds of thousands of “extreme” sentences were handed down in the 1990s, “as politicians, racing to be the toughest on crime, passed laws enhancing and extending prison sentences.” As a result, although crime rates were actually declining, the number of people sentenced to prison rose by 59 percent, from 789,610 in 1991 to 1,252,830 in 1998.”

Between 1995 and 2010, the inmate population aged 55 and older nearly quadrupled. By the end of 2020, more than 22 percent – or 261,000 inmates – were 50 or older. By 2030, the number will be one in three, experts estimate.

Law noted that while 50-year-olds in the wider community are no longer considered senior citizens, imprisonment “often brings with it years of poor nutrition, infrequent opportunities for exercise, inadequate medical care, and constant stress, chaos, and violence.” That speeds up the physiological aging process and can shorten life expectancy by two years, research suggests.

Further, as the inmate population ages, there is “an explosion in geriatric needs,” and prison medical systems, “already illequipped to address many basic need,” have to deal with “patients with declining mobility and cognitive abilities” and “a steep increase in conditions such as arthritis, pulmonary and heart disease, and cancer.” Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, has warned, “The worst of this aging crisis in prisons is yet to come.”

To make matters worse, some longserving inmates are innocent. Maurice Hastings spent 38 years in a Los Angeles prison for a 1983 sexual assault and murder. His request for a DNA test was rejected until the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit in 2021 with the arrival of a new district attorney, George Cascon. Hastings filed a claim of innocence with the unit, a DNA test last June confirmed he did not commit the crime and he was released at age 69.

African Americans are about 14 percent of the U.S. population but are 53 percent of all those falsely convicted of a serious crime and then freed after serving at least part of their sentence, NPR’s “All Things Considered” reported last September, citing a National Registry of Exonerations report.

Solitary confinement, which some experts regard as a form of torture, is another problem. African Americans comprise 37 percent of all male prisoners placed in solitary confinement, European Americans, 31 percent, and Latinos, 21 percent. African American women, who are 24 percent of the general population, account for 41 percent of those put in solitary confinement. European American women, comprising 58 percent of the general population, were 42 percent of those in solitary confinement.

The late Albert Woodfork, a member of the “Angola 3” Black Panthers held in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary, was wrongly convicted of killing a corrections officer in 1972, and spent more than 43 years in solitary confinement, 23 hours a day, in a 6-by-9-foot cell. He was freed Feb. 19, 2016, on his 69th birthday and died last August at age 75.

African Americans bear the brunt of such miscarriages of justice because they are disproportionately represented in the prison population. In 2019, states imprisoned African Americans at five times the rate for European Americans, Katie Mettler wrote in The Washington Post, citing a report by the independent, bipartisan Council on Criminal Justice. A year later, as the campaign against drugs raged, the rate shot up to 15 times.

By 2022, “people of color” comprised “60 percent of people in cages” and “one in eight black men in their twenties [is] locked up on any given day,” the Center for Law and Justice stated. Florida ranked third among states with the highest number of prisoners, with 96,009, after Texas, 154,479, and California, 122,417.

Overall, African Americans are 38 percent of inmates in prison or jail, and the incarceration rate is an astonishing 2,306 per 100,000, compared to 450 per 100,000 for European Americans, the Prison Policy initiative has reported. The arrest rate is 6,109 per 100,000 compared to 2,795.

To make matters worse, African Americans are 30 percent of those who are on probation or parole, in addition to those who are locked up. It is not necessary to be too woke to realize the devastation which this causes among African Americans and their communities.