Recently my wife, Martha McSweeney Brower, got her master’s degree in creative writing from the Stonecoast program of USM. Her family and friends celebrated the accomplishment, in style, at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. There were 17 other graduates that night; the dancing was hard and furious into the night.

We were proud and inspired, knowing the hard work Martha put in. Our children were shown, by example, the importance of following passion, no matter how old you are and no matter where you are in your life.

At about the same time, Mathiew Loisel was part of a group, similar size with 20 graduates, who also inspired their families, their friends, and other inmates. Mathiew is prisoner #66129 at Maine State Prison (MSP) in Warren.

Mathiew graduated with a 4.0 GPA and an award for academic excellence. Mathiew’s personal story is compelling; more on that in future weeks. For now, his essay speaks for itself. He is “well aware not all of society supports the idea of prisoners receiving full scholarships.”

I think Matthiew is right; there are many who just want punishment and retribution ― “an eye for an eye.” For them, the notion of restorative justice falls on deaf ears, as does the notion that love is a bigger motivator than fear or hate.

Inmate #66129 has a name; Mathiew Loisel’s essay follows:

“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” ― Edith Wharton, novelist (1861-1937)

***

“The Redemptive Power of Education” by Mathiew Loisel

Graduating college is a milestone for anyone, but for prisoners at MSP who graduated January 15, 2019, it was probably the greatest achievement of their lives. Thanks to Doris Buffet and her Sunshine Lady Foundation, along with Second Chance Pell Grant program, 20 prisoners graduated; over 100 prisoners have graduated with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree since 2007.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the dedication to our education shown by University of Maine at Rockland and Augusta. The unwavering professionalism each professor shows us at MSP is a blessing and a gift.

I am grateful for the compassion, mentoring and scaffolding received from professors eager to teach prisoners. While we receive a degree because of their guidance, they impart in us that we have immeasurable value and self-worth. By believing in us, and not abandoning us like much of the world, they coax us into believing in ourselves.

Some people don’t like prisoners receiving full scholarship, thinking it unfair. This is not unnoticed by me. As a society, we have a choice: We can continue to warehouse prisoners ($47,000 annually) or we can make meaningful investment in anti-recidivist programs. It is unfathomable that seven of 10 (70 percent) return to prison after release. Of note, prisoners with a college degree have recidivism rates of less than 1 percent.

Lately, criminal justice reform has received a lot of media coverage. In these diverse times, it is one of the few issues receiving bipartisan support. Even our capricious president supports “First Step Act” which brings criminal reform to the federal level. Criminal justice reform is sweeping the country; it must continue.

Many prisoners at MSP return to society. I believe everyone should be concerned with the state of mind of these prisoners. If we don’t invest in people, taxpayers will pay to warehouse them again. It is astonishing that the richest and most developed country in the world has the highest rate of incarceration. We claim to value freedom, liberty, and equality, but the U.S. incarcerates 25 percent of those imprisoned worldwide, despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population. Clearly, we have a problem that needs addressing.

Ex-offenders should champion the cause. We have insider knowledge and perspective to use to educate the public to the realities of mass incarceration. With the help of generous institutions like UMaine, compassionate philanthropists like Doris Buffet, many prisoners have the necessary skills to become leaders one day.

During graduation, I sat proudly alongside my brothers, knowing we all made decisions to be part of something outside the typical violence, scamming, and criminality that is pervasive inside prison.

I hope the audience saw us as determined men and saw our potential and the chance for self-transformation, inherent in everyone. I hope they became believers in the power of redemption and carry this message outside these walls so others understand we are more than just the worst thing we’ve ever done.

Change is the only constant in life, but is the aspect most avoided. On January 15, 20 men decided to no longer avoid change; instead, embracing it. These men will go on to become ambassadors of education, embodying the power of love, forgiveness and compassion, thanks to the redemptive power of education.

***

Bring the discussion to Village Soup online.

Reade Brower can be reached at: reade@freepressonline.com

Disclosure: Reade Brower is owner of these newspapers. The opinions expressed in his columns are his own, and do not represent the newspapers, or their editorial board.