A punishing culture

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  October 24, 2013

Delivered to an admiring audience of 350 people, her talk in a University of Southern Maine auditorium was impromptu and often humorous. Before she spoke, six prisoners from the Long Creek Youth Development Center, in South Portland, put on a rap-and-dance performance, “A Journey through Punishment.”

The young men acted out and, in a conversation with the audience afterward, shared their thoughts on what leads to youthful incarceration. Family and social neglect and stigma vied with mental and physical abuse as prime causes. The subtitle of the “Culture of Punishment” events was “from Parenting to Prisons.”

The nonprofit group Maine Inside Out, which provides “creative arts programming to some of our community’s most marginalized members,” was the symposium’s organizer.

In her speech and her own discussion with the audience, Prejean dwelt on the emancipating power of education — education in the broadest sense — in breaking the bonds of a narrow-minded culture. “Cross the boundaries,” she urged the audience. “If you’re not educated, you don’t know who you are.”

For a prisoner, education might mean learning to read and write; many don’t know how. For privileged people, education might mean visiting a prisoner — in spite of how scary a prospect that might seem. “The first time I ever went to a prison,” she admitted, “I was very, very scared.”

But visiting prisoners reveals “they are human beings.” Paraphrasing Gandhi, she urged: “Become the change you seek.” Personal and social change go together.

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