Joseph Jackson is being awarded the Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize by the Maine Humanities Council for his work with Maine Inside Out. The program uses art and theater to improve outcomes for youth returning home after incarceration. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — People who work toward restorative justice and the reformation of the prison system often have a common goal when it comes to the individuals for whom they advocate: redemption, a change in how the person views their world and how the world views the person.

For Joseph Jackson, director of leadership development at Lewiston-based Maine Inside Out, an individual’s redemptive moment is a core reason for dedicating himself to this line of work. Of many examples, one stands out to Jackson.

Maine Inside Out, which uses art and theater to improve outcomes for youth returning home after incarceration, had been working 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 at the school he had previously attended and had drunkenly vandalized.

“They had closed the school down and the gym was filled with folks,” Jackson said. “I introduced the young man, who knew he had to apologize but didn’t write anything or prepare anything. (He) got up and gave one of the most sincere apologies that I had ever heard in front of a crowd of people and then went on to perform the play.”

After the performance, there was an opportunity for the audience to give feedback.

“This young girl at the very end stood up and said she was amazed by what she saw and that she forgave him, and she invited anyone else who forgave him to stand, and then the entire room stood,” Jackson said. “I think for me, that was one of the proudest I 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 titled “Black in Maine.” While incarcerated, he wrote a poem that was later dramatized by students at the University of Maine, Augusta, and performed throughout the state and at the Maine State Prison, where Jackson sat in the audience.

He has used performance, poetry and visual art to advocate for restorative justice in the state since 2013, when he was released from the 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 that as a way of highlighting issues and humanizing what the issues are,” Jackson, 53, said.

Almost a decade later, Jackson will be honored Thursday night with the Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize by the Maine Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit that utilizes the humanities to promote positive change throughout the state.

“(Maine Inside Out) uses theater as a way of activism to heighten the need for prison reform in Maine,”  Jackson said. “Being able to utilize the art form that I love and care about along with activism and social change seems to come natural,” he added.

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


The Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize was first awarded in 1998 to recognize exemplary contributions made to the public humanities in Maine. The prize is named after Connie Carlson, the first female president of a University of Maine System.

Jackson was selected for his “work (that) truly exemplifies 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 an inspiration and a perfect example of how the humanities can be used to make a profound positive difference in Maine communities. His work uses poetry and theater to improve conditions for inmates, their families, victims of crime, and others, and to bring about community change,” added Ian Watkins, communications director for the council.

Aside from his work with Maine Inside Out, Jackson is also the executive director of Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and campaign adviser of Maine Youth Justice. His work with prisoner advocacy stretches back to his incarceration, during which he co-founded the Maine State Prison branch of the NAACP. Jackson earned his associate and bachelor’s degrees, 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 prisoner in the state to be selected for a graduate program.

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