Lewiston prison reform activist and artist to receive humanities award


Joseph Jackson receives the Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Award from the Maine Humanities Council for his work with Maine Inside Out. The program uses art and drama to improve outcomes for youth returning home from incarceration. Andrée Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — People who work for restorative justice and prison reform often have a common goal when it comes to the people they defend: redemption, a change in how the person views their world and how the world perceives the person.

For Joseph Jackson, director of leadership development at Lewiston-based Maine Inside Out, an individual’s moment of redemption is a critical reason to commit to this line of work. Among many examples, one stands out from Jackson.

Maine Inside Out, which uses art and drama to improve outcomes for youth returning home from incarceration, had worked with a young man who had been incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. The young man was to put on a play in the school he had previously attended and vandalized while drunk.

“They had closed the school and the gymnasium was full of people,” Jackson said. “I introduced the young man, who knew he had to apologize but didn’t write or prepare anything. (He) got up and gave one of the most heartfelt apologies I’ve ever heard in front of a crowd of people, then continued playing the piece.

After the show, the public had the opportunity to give their opinion.

“This young girl at the very end stood up and said she was amazed at what she had seen and that she had forgiven him, and she invited everyone who had forgiven her to stand up, and then the whole room rose,” Jackson said. “I think for me that was one of the greatest things I’ve witnessed in my career, seeing how art influences people.”

Jackson himself is an accomplished poet and playwright – his master’s thesis at the University of Maine was a collection of poems called “Black in Maine”. While incarcerated, he wrote a poem that was later dramatized by students at the University of Maine, Augusta, and performed statewide and at Maine State Prison, where Jackson sat in the audience. .

He has used performance, poetry and visual arts to advocate for restorative justice in the state since 2013, when he was released from Maine State Prison after serving a 19-year sentence. for a manslaughter conviction in 1995. In 2014, he began working with Maine. Inside Out, which was founded in 2008.

“I’ve used art throughout all of this as a way to highlight the issues and humanize what the issues are,” Jackson, 53, said.

Nearly a decade later, Jackson will be honored Thursday night with the Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Award from the Maine Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit that uses the humanities to promote positive change. throughout the state.

“(Maine Inside Out) uses theater as a medium for activism to reinforce the need for prison reform in Maine,” Jackson said. “Being able to use the art form that I love and care about with activism and social change feels natural,” he added.

During the online ceremony Thursday, Jackson will receive the biennial award along with Carol Dana, language master for the Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historical Preservation Department.

The Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Award was first given in 1998 to recognize exemplary contributions to public humanities in Maine. The award is named after Connie Carlson, the first female president of a University of Maine system.

Jackson was selected for his “work (which) truly illustrates how the public humanities can be powerful tools to make things better for all of us,” Maine Humanities Council executive director Hayden Anderson said in an announcement of the award. last month.

“Joseph’s work with Maine Inside Out and the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition is inspiring and a perfect example of how the humanities can be used to make a profound positive difference in Maine communities. Her work uses poetry and drama to improve the conditions of prisoners, their families, victims of crime and others, and to bring about change in the community,” added Ian Watkins, director of communications for the advice.

In addition to his work with Maine Inside Out, Jackson is also the executive director of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and campaign advisor to Maine Youth Justice. His prisoner advocacy work dates back to his incarceration, during which he co-founded the Maine State Prison branch of the NAACP. Jackson earned his associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree, both summa cum laude, from the University of Maine at Augusta. When he enrolled in USM’s Stonecoast Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, he was the first state prisoner to be selected for a graduate program.

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