Leo Hylton, 33, an inmate at Maine State Prison, participated in a debate this month during which prisoners advocated for the reestablishment of parole in Maine. Hylton is serving a 90-year sentence, at least 50 of which he’ll spend behind bars, for attempted murder. He was 18 when he tried to rob a home and nearly killed William Guerrette and his daughter with a machete. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It’s quiet when Leo Hylton, 33, approaches the podium in the visiting area of Maine State Prison.

His teammates, dressed in blue polos, sit to his left. Their opponents, the Wake Forest University team in North Carolina, are attending via Zoom.

They are debating whether the U.S. should abolish the use of life sentences without parole. The prompt is hypothetical, but the topic is personal for Maine inmates, who haven’t been able to apply for parole since it was abolished in 1976.

“Life without parole is a death sentence. Death by incarceration,” Hylton says. “I am serving one such sentence.”

The prisoners won this round, defeating Wake Forest, but they haven’t yet won over state lawmakers in the real yearslong debate.

The latest bill seeking to reestablish parole in Maine faces an unlikely trajectory in this legislative session after a split committee last week voted not to recommend it to the full Legislature. It also lacked key support from the state Department of Corrections and Gov. Janet Mills, who said she was “troubled by the lack of consideration given to victims of these crimes and their families.”


Hylton was given a 90-year sentence, at least 50 of which he’ll spend behind bars, for attempted murder. He was 18 when he tried to rob a home and nearly killed William Guerrette and his daughter with a machete.

Today, Hylton leads several restorative justice efforts. He helps people make amends, is a hospice volunteer and has earned several degrees – he was accepted into a doctorate program in the fall. He also co-teaches a high-level course on incarceration and abolition at Colby College.

“Yes, I committed a violent crime, but I am not a violent person,” Hylton said at the debate.

Guerrette told lawmakers in March that his family would fear for their safety if Hylton was granted a path to parole.

“I know you all love the people you represent. I know you all want to do well. I respect you for being here,” Guerrette said. “Restorative justice, rehabilitation, college education and training – where are those benefits for my daughter and I?”

Among Hylton’s teammates: Steven Clark, sentenced to 43 years for killing a friend in 2006, mentors others in the prison and is starting a Ph.D. program later this year looking at ways to foster human connection with technology, and team captain Shaun Libby, serving 40 years for killing a man while trying to rob a gas station, helped launch a program to mentor teenagers at Long Creek Youth Development Center.


Even after the bill was shot down, they’re still hoping lawmakers consider what they have to say.

“Now our job is to basically do outreach to House members and Senate members, just basically gauge and try to sway who’s supportive of the bill,” said Brandon Brown, a former prisoner and member of a citizen’s initiative supporting the bill.

The Press Herald attempted unsuccessfully to reach the victims or the families of the victims of the inmates interviewed for this story.


Graduate programs weren’t an option when Libby first entered prison more than 20 years ago. Today, he has a bachelor’s degree in mental health and human services from the University of Maine and a master’s in youth development from Michigan State University.

In addition to working with young people at Long Creek over Zoom, Libby tutors and counsels incarcerated adults.


“Everybody’s better than their worst mistake, their worst decisions,” said Libby. “Just letting people know that rehabilitation is a real thing, that growth and maturity are real things that happen inside prison.”

What many of these prisoners recognize, however, is that no matter how many programs they’re able to access while behind bars, they may never be able to put it to use outside of confinement.

Steven Clark, an inmate at Maine State Prison who participated in a debate tournament in which prisoners advocated for the reestablishment of parole in Maine. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Am I going to be a transformed prisoner for the rest of my sentence?” said Clark, 45, who has earned several degrees and certificates since he was convicted of fatally shooting his friend Robert Wagner.

The bill would have created a parole application process in which applicants would present their case to a board of experts in mental health, Maine’s legal system, rehabilitation and the formerly incarcerated, all appointed by the governor and approved by lawmakers.

The board would consider input from victims, how an applicant has spent their time behind bars, the nature of their conviction and sentence, and whether they’re likely to reoffend.

Brown isn’t on the debate team. He is finishing the last 30 months of his sentence for attempted murder on supervised community release, a program he helped expand in 2021 and which some point to as a reason why parole isn’t needed – there are already other pathways for early release.


“They’ll tell you about all of the progressive, amazing things that they’re doing,” Brown said. “But they refuse to acknowledge that these men and women who now have master’s degrees and are working on Ph.D.s, they refuse to acknowledge that those people deserve to be out in our community.”

Several of the debate team members live in the prison’s Earned Living Unit, where men have fewer restraints because they’ve proven to prison officials they aren’t a risk to themselves or others in the facility.

“That unit shows that those men are fit to live in society,” Brown said. “The only difference between what they can have in there and what they can have out here is the freedom to make choices and move.”


Just before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety committee voted 6-5 against the bill, an analyst for the committee said his office was most concerned about potential backlogs in applications if parole were to be reinstated.

Some lawmakers were concerned the bill would change sentencing flexibility, where judges can choose to suspend portions of a sentence, putting those convicted of a crime under close supervision but outside the walls of a prison.


But it was victims’ rights organizations, and some victims themselves, who shared the strongest opposition.

Vicki Dill’s sister Debbie was killed before the state abolished parole in 1976. Dill told lawmakers that she could still remember her family having to meet with the parole board in the basement of the state prison every time her sister’s killer applied for release.

West Gardiner resident Vicki Dill holds a photo of her sister Debbie, who was beaten to death in 1973, three years before Maine abolished parole. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal, file

“Here’s a glimpse of what we went through: intimidation, fear, nervousness, sleepless, not eating, migraines, and reliving Debbie’s and our family’s nightmare,” Dill said tearfully. “There, we would beg them to not let these prisoners out on parole. Reliving Debbie’s murder was painful each time.”

The bill was amended several times to allow victims to submit “standing testimony” to the parole board to be considered each time a prisoner applies, and to allow victims to attend meetings remotely. It also included a procedure to notify victims of upcoming release dates and hearings.

But some advocates warned lawmakers they would likely never get victims’ full perspective.

Joanna Stokinger, a former victim witness advocate for the attorney general’s office, is now navigating the court process herself after the death of her 6-month-old grandson.


“I can tell you, because I know, that my daughter is not standing here today, talking about the homicide of her son because it’s too hard,” Stokinger said in March. “Sometimes, you don’t get to hear from the victims. It’s too hard to come here, to come back over and over and over again, and speak to committee members.”

Guerrette said it was by “a miracle of God” that he and his daughter survived. She was declared dead at the scene. He still has brain injuries.

“She will likely be forced to move from our state by constant fear if this bill passes,” Guerrette told lawmakers in March.

During an interview this month with the Press Herald, Hylton watched much of the public hearing from the prison. Putting himself in Guerrette’s shoes, Hylton said he understands the fear. But as far as Guerrette knows, he is still the 18-year-old kid who nearly killed him and his family.

“I can imagine that if I was someone who had been harmed … and the only experience that I know of that person is what they did to me and I don’t know who they are now, then I have no reason to not fear that release date,” Hylton said.

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