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Blog Post

Freedom and Captivity

By Catherine Besteman
November 16, 2021
Freedom and Captivity

A performance at Abolition Night at the Strand, an evening of performance by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated university students. Image courtesy of Catherine Besteman.

This is a revised version of an essay that appeared in the Maine Arts Journal, fall 2021. It is reprinted with permission.


How do you change the conversation in Maine about incarceration? And what is the role of art and the humanities in that conversation? Freedom & Captivity is a Maine-based initiative founded to address these two questions, conceived with the participation of people in Maine directly impacted by incarceration and those working to end incarceration. Our goal is to promote story-telling, art, critical reflections, performance, book-based discussion groups, and community conversations about carceral experiences and abolitionist imaginings in Maine as a way to open public discourse to possibilities for building an anti-carceral future.

Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, there were about 5,000 people incarcerated in Maine and another 7,000 under criminal justice supervision, including a disproportionate number of people of color. Maine jails hold an annual total of about 40,000 people prior to sentencing. Even though Maine has the lowest violent crime rate and one of the lowest overall rates of incarceration in the U.S., Maine still incarcerates people at a higher rate than most countries in the world. Over the past few decades, the number of people incarcerated pre-trial, the rate of incarceration of women, and the number of people arrested for drug-related offenses has grown. Sentencing to prison for drug offenses grew 59% from 2014–2018, by which time drug offenses were the largest reason for incarceration. The 2015 Report of the Intergovernmental Pretrial Justice Reform Task Force recorded 1,100 statutes on the books in Maine that carry minimum sentences or fines, another driver of incarceration. As a result, the number of Mainers in jail increased 649% since 1970 and in prison increased 151% since 1983. In recent years, over 40% of prison admissions were for probation revocations, due in large part to “a lack of community-based programming and resources for people with mental illnesses and substance addictions,” and Maine’s recidivism rate within 3 years of release was 31% for men and 28% for women. To lock up so many people, Maine spent $186 million in 2018, an increase of 167% since 1985. This rate of increase is much higher than increases in other areas, such as education.

This is clearly the wrong path to follow. The destructive impacts of the “War on Drugs” and “Tough on Crime” legislation and policy are evident in the climbing rate of incarceration, the growing number of children with an incarcerated parent, the devastation of rural communities by the opioid crisis, and the siphoning of public funding toward carceral solutions to social problems. Maine joined the “War on Crime” as the very first state in the country to repeal parole and institute “truth in sentencing” (eg, the policy that criminal sentences must be predetermined and cannot be reduced through parole); the choice now is whether Maine can embrace transformative approaches to address the damages wrought by hyperincarceration. Abolitionist and transformative justice organizations in Maine are showing the way. Can the state follow their lead?

Freedom & Captivity was founded in order to focus perspectives from the arts and humanities on the push for abolition in Maine. Freedom & Captivity, which will run through December 2021, has a Coordinator, a Website and Media Manager, an 18-member Advisory Board, and over fifty partner organizations. The initiative brings together a broad coalition of artists and arts organizations, educators, advocates, and community organizations to nurture and expand creative thinking about the relationship between freedom and captivity and to explore alternatives to incarceration. Our hope is to enlist the power of the arts and humanities to amplify the voices of those incarcerated in Maine about their experiences, promote critical reflection, and offer fresh perspectives about pathways toward abolition and an end to incarceration.

Freedom & Captivity offers a diverse range of opportunities during fall 2021 that will allow participants to question the use of prisons and jails to manage social problems and to ask how Maine might approach harm reparation, safety, security, and justice differently. The project was built through invitations extended to organizations throughout the state to participate in the initiative in a way that aligns with their mission, values, and memberships or audiences. Thus, as a statewide, coalition-based initiative to imagine a future without prisons and jails, Freedom & Captivity is multifaceted. It includes these components:

  • Art on Abolition, a digital exhibition juried from a national open call and supported by three major Maine-based arts institutions;
  • Partner exhibitions aligned with the theme offered at 13 different venues, including four college and university campuses (Colby College, University of Maine-Farmington, Maine College of Art and Design, University of New England);
  • Calendar of events (webinars, film screenings, performances, panel discussions, community conversations) offered by partner organizations;
  • Arts and Humanities workshops offered by Maine-based arts and humanities organizations;
  • Documentation of art inside Maine’s prisons by Maine-based professional photographers viewable on the project website and in several exhibition spaces around the state;
  • The F&C Podcast, a series about abolitionist visions and organizing in Maine, sponsored by the Portland Media Center;
  • The ABCs of Abolition and other short documentary films about incarceration and abolition in Maine;
  • Action steps toward abolition and educational materials about incarceration in Maine, including timelines and essays about incarceration in Maine by lawyers, advocates, and those impacted by the criminal legal system;
  • The F&C Archive where people in Maine can upload stories about their experiences with the criminal legal system, housed at the Maine Historical Society;
  • The Freedom & Captivity website with the full calendar, list of collaborating partners, resources about incarceration and decarceration, curricular materials, podcasts, and videos.
  • Courses offered by faculty at several Maine colleges and universities in conjunction with Freedom & Captivity.

Ending prisons is actually within our reach in Maine, but it will take community solidarity, the robust involvement of Maine’s universities, and a full commitment to community-based solutions to social problems and addressing harm.

Catherine Besteman is the coordinator of Freedom and Captivity and a professor of Anthropology at Colby College.

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