Myles Bullen is a writer, rapper and hip-hop artist who teaches creative writing to Maine prison inmates. (Courtesy mylesbullen.com)
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Last Friday was a big day at the Maine State Prison in Warren: 10 days past the point at which the last resident tested positive for COVID-19.

That meant the prisoners could be out of their cells for 2 1/2 hours each day, up from just a half-hour in the first week of the virus lockdown. 

That’s right: With the exception of 30 minutes each day to shower and make phone calls, prisoners essentially found themselves in solitary confinement, a practice condemned by the United Nations.

Yet, somehow, a cohort of about 25 inmates continued with their studies, as they work toward associate’s degrees, and then often bachelor’s degrees, through a program administered by the University of Maine at Augusta – Rockland Center (aka URock).

Robert Bernheim, UMaine Augusta. (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

“Up until last spring,” said Robert Bernheim, UMaine Augusta assistant professor of history focusing on the Holocaust, genocide and human rights studies, “we were coming into the prison, meeting once a week for 15 weeks, writing papers, engaging in debates, doing all the things that university students do. Then COVID hit.” 

First, in-person classes turned into Zoom meetings. When COVID got in the building, and it was no longer possible for them to gather in the same room, professors and instructors started recording their lessons, which were then placed on tablets supplied to the inmates via a company called Edovo. They also have laptop computers, without internet connections, on which they can journal and write papers.

Just like any other university students, the Maine State Prison’s inmates have had to adjust their learning habits. Unlike most university students, however, the prison’s residents have little else to actively engage their minds, so losing their classes can be a significant blow.

Bernheim praised prison administrators for their dedication to keeping the program up and running, in at least some format. “It’s not ideal, but it’s contact,” he said. “There’s a lot of infrastructure changes that had to happen and that the folks at the prison provided.”

Why is it worth it for prison officials to make the effort? Because the program pays big dividends. While Maine as a whole has a recidivism rate of roughly 70 percent, of the approximately 100 prisoners who have acquired a degree of some kind and then been released, that number is under 10 percent. 

Matthew Magnusson, Maine State Prison warden. (Portland Phoenix/Sam Pfeifle)

“The further we can get someone toward that college degree,” MSP Warden Matthew Magnusson said, “the less likely they are to come back. … We have people who are serving life sentences here, and a lot of people would question why you would put that resource toward someone who’s serving a life sentence, but this is their community. They’re going to be here a long time. And when we get them into a place where they make their community better, it’s a safer place for everyone.”

The more positive the experience, however, the more the prison residents feel its loss. 

“We were just getting to a point where we were going to start editing our work,” said Myles Bullen, a writer and hip-hop artist teaching creative writing alongside Bernheim, “and thinking about a public sharing, and now we can’t do that.” While recording lectures is a decent gesture, Bullen said, it obviously can’t replace the hour of back and forth each week the students normally get. 

“They’re all very compassionate and dedicated to self-interrogation,” Bullen said of the inmates’ writing. “They’re discovering habits and patterns, things from their childhood, really discovering themselves through writing, with this cathartic, therapeutic practice. They’re sharing really vulnerable, deep, personal stories and we’ve only met a few sessions. … Now we’ve missed four sessions and we can only work with them until mid-December. That’s a little disheartening.”

Nor is it just university education and work toward high school equivalent diplomas that are disrupted. There are an array of opportunities for Maine’s prisoners that used to be in person, then went virtual, and are now unavailable entirely when COVID-19 lockdowns happen at places like the Maine State Prison, the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, and the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland: Guitar lessons, book groups via the Maine Humanities Council – many nourishing creative experiences with the outside world are eliminated along with the time residents are allowed outside their cells. 

Magnusson knows first-hand the negative effects this kind of isolation can have on the inmates. 

“The last few weeks have been tough on people,” he said, “and I’ve been very impressed by how well they’ve adapted. We’ve tried to communicate with them as best we can, and we’ve tried to hear what their main concerns are. … All of us like comfort food. When they’re locked in their cell more, they’ve asked for more food items, specialty meals, a few extra goodies. We’ve tried to do some of those things that have been the most important.”

He said they’ve also allowed the prisoners 20 free text messages each week from their tablets to numbers they have for families and friends, and they’re hoping to increase that allowance.

Advocates for the incarcerated, meanwhile, have advocated repeatedly for these texts to be made universally free, along with phone calls, which can be onerously expensive. They’ve also advocated for general “decarceration” to keep prisoners safe from outbreaks they can’t escape. 

But prison administrators don’t make those kinds of calls. They just work to keep the peace inside.

“I’ve been really impressed by the guys’ flexibility,” Magnusson said. “Even though the temperature in here could have gotten really high, it’s stayed relatively mild. I commend the residents for not over-reacting and knowing that as soon as we could increase the time out of cell, we would.”

If all goes well and there are no more positive tests, the Maine State Prison will return to as many as 10 hours outside of cells on Nov. 30, and classes should be able to resume via Zoom. 

For his part, Bernheim said he’ll do whatever it takes to keep the university program up and running. “These guys and their passion for education drive me to stay involved,” he said. “Some of the best students I’ve ever taught have been in that prison. And I’ve taught at UVM, Middlebury, and here at UMaine Augusta for 20 years.” 

Bullen said he is continually struck by the inmates’ talent and dedication.

“I’ve been so blown away by some of the stories and connections that I’ve had with these guys,” he said. “They make one decision in their youth – a lot of them got locked up at young ages and were in terrible situations, ‘my life or yours’ kind of situations – and now they’re in for 40 years. It’s horrible.

“And a lot of these guys are so brilliant and so in touch with their feelings. These aren’t those dumb kids who make those awful decisions. These are grown people who have developed and changed. They’re seeking knowledge and self-development constantly because it’s all they can do.”

It saddens him, Bullen said, because during a COVID-19 lockdown so much of that is taken away.

“I might be the only person who listens to them who isn’t in that place,” he said. “… It’s really frustrating.”

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at sam@westgraycreative.com.