Brandon Brown was asked how long it had been since he was released from prison last fall, after serving 12 years on an attempted murder conviction resulting from a Portland shooting in 2008.
“Sixty-seven days,” he said, then, after checking his watch, “68.” Each day since then has been “overwhelming,” he added.
At first glance, Brown, 35, is a free man – as he put it, “confined to the community.” He reports regularly to a probation officer but can travel within Maine – including weekly visits to South Portland, where he counsels young people confined at Long Creek Youth Development Center for crimes committed when they were not much younger than Brown was at the time of his arrest.
Now a candidate for a Ph.D. in criminal justice at George Mason University – he’s completed all work except his dissertation – Brown is determined to test a Maine correctional system that most national surveys, including Pew Research and Ravena, describe as the harshest of any state, due in large part to its lack of parole or early release provisions.
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With the aid of state Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, Brown made two attempts to win clemency from Gov. Janet Mills. Since parole was abolished in 1976 – Maine was the first state to do so – Evangelos can find no record of a prison sentence ever being shortened by a governor.
Brown’s petitions were rejected. After the second attempt, Evangelos said, a letter from a Portland woman advocating a reduced sentence produced this one-sentence response from the governor’s office: “He needs to pay for what he did.”
Evangelos contends clemency is justified because Brown’s conviction was obtained in part through prosecutorial overreach and that a judge sentenced him far more severely than defendants in similar circumstances.
Evangelos spent six months helping Brown prepare for the first hearing, to no avail. He believes the advisory board was sympathetic, “but we’ll never know the recommendation because it’s private.”
He said at the time, and repeats today, “If Brandon Brown doesn’t qualify for clemency, no one ever will.”
Ultimately, Brown was released under a new statute that broadens early release criteria and allows the Department of Corrections some discretion – a rare achievement in a session where Mills also vetoed a measure that would have closed Long Creek.
Brown helped write the law after an earlier version was vetoed by Mills. It provides a two-year window where release can be considered, plus six more months if the corrections commissioner authorizes an exemption.
Brown was the first to be released under the new law. Now, when he talks with inmates back at the Maine State Prison in Warren, he said, “there’s hope.” About half a dozen are approaching eligibility.
“It’s hard, though,” Brown said. “These were my friends, the only people I saw every day. I miss them.”
‘I need to find my place’
Brown lives alone in Gilead, a small town near Bethel he admits he didn’t even know existed before moving there.
Aside from his service-dog-in-training Misty and visits to the outside world, “I need to be alone,” he said. “I need to find my place in the world again. I’ve spent my whole adult life in prison.”
He’s about two miles down the road from his father, who he calls his best friend. It wasn’t always like that.
Brown was a star athlete at Cape Elizabeth High School and expected to win a college scholarship for basketball when he suffered a knee injury that ended his season.
His parents were divorced when he was 2, and his father moved frequently for work-related reasons. He hasn’t spoken with his mother in more than a decade. Sports was what he lived for.
High school was a difficult time and, after conflict at home, he moved out and began couch-surfing. When it was reported he was living in South Portland, he was expelled from Cape Elizabeth – an example, he said, of how schools fail to help students on the edge.
“I think they were worried they’d have to forfeit some games,” he said. Asked if he could have rehabbed the knee and gotten back on track, he said, “Sure, if I had anyone in my life who was telling me that.”
Instead, he began spiraling down. “I became a resentful, bitter young man,” he said matter-of-factly.
After graduating from South Portland High School and moving to Portland, he began selling what he called “small amounts of marijuana.” A year later, he was selling “large amounts of marijuana,” and, in the logic of the drug trade, began carrying a gun for protection.
“I really embraced that lifestyle,” Brown said. “Most people might say, ‘maybe I should rethink this.’ Instead, you get deeper in.”
On a fateful June night, he set out with companions “because this guy had robbed my friend’s girlfriend.”
Brown didn’t even know James Sanders, the man he shot.
What began as a confrontation in a now-defunct bar called the Cactus Club spilled out into the street, and became a brawl. Brown was “tackled from behind.” He still doesn’t know who hit him.
“I was a naïve kid,” he said. “The guy who sold me the gun said when I pulled it out, people would run away. (But) it doesn’t happen like that.”
Instead, he said, he had about five seconds to react and pulled the trigger.
“I’ve thought about it every day since,” Brown said.
At his trial, he didn’t believe he would be convicted, because the prosecution would have to prove he intended to harm Sanders. “There was an element of self-defense,” Evangelos said.
But Brown was found guilty and sentenced to 17 years. “The prosecution creates a story,” he said, “a story about an evil person who committed this crime. That’s what the jury hears.”
His defense was hindered, Brown believes, because he had “to make up a story that wasn’t entirely true, either.”
One statement Evangelos obtained for the clemency hearing in late 2019 was from Sanders, now living in Georgia. “I hope this letter helps,” he wrote. “It’s rad to hear that you’re doing well. I believe in forgiveness and growth.”
The letter goes on to describe Sanders’ travails, including becoming addicted to the opioids prescribed after the shooting, the loss of a leg to an infection, and “treatment after a suicide attempt.”
Yet Sanders closed on a hopeful note: “I’ve been meaning to write this letter for a while to say I hope your growth continues and that I let go of anger and pain. Forgiveness and bettering ourselves is the way to be. So with that said, I hope this helps toward an early release for you. Take care, my Dude.”
While imprisonment was painful – “Every day was miserable,” Brown said, “as it was meant to be” – it was worse for Sanders. “Look what he went through. The state didn’t help him. Nobody helped him.”
“The system doesn’t serve anyone,” he said. “Not the victim. Not the community.”
But he believes forgiveness – and restorative justice – is possible.
‘A myth of personal responsibility’
Brown has plans that go far beyond just living on the outside.
He wants to teach and realizes he’s achieved something most of those on the inside, including guards and administrators, will never have: “I’m a genuine scholar, an expert,” he said. “I can use that.”
He designed a course called The Power of Story: Injustice and Redemption for the University of Maine at Augusta, and it’s been accepted for the fall semester; he hopes to teach it himself and should find out soon whether his application is approved.
The course subject, and the likely focus of his dissertation, is for those caught in the system “to tell their own stories, to create narratives that are also compelling.”
Evangelos would like Brown to look widely for opportunities, but said, “he’s pretty committed to Maine. He believes in his mission.”
Brown said nothing offered in prison was of any help. Still, the college degree program – delivered through UMA, and funded by the Dorothy Buffett Foundation – was a lifeline.
“We have six people close to their degrees,” he said. “But what good can it do if it doesn’t make any difference to their sentence?” That’s why he thinks parole is essential, as well as other steps to reduce Maine’s punitive approach.
We have “a myth of personal responsibility,” he added. “You’re not a bad person. You made a bad choice.”
“I used to think that only bad people committed crimes,” he said. “Everybody believes that until it happens with someone you love.”
Prospects brighten for parole study
After enduring several near-death experiences, a bill amended to study the return of parole to the Maine corrections system is back on track.
Disagreements between the House and Senate last year delayed enactment of LD 842, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Evangelos, I-Friendship, until the session’s final day in July.
As a result, Gov. Janet Mills was not required to act and has held the bill since then. A spokesperson said Mills hasn’t decided to sign, veto, or allow it to become law without her signature.
On Jan. 5, however, the first day of the new session, lawmakers recalled the bill from the governor’s desk, an unusual parliamentary step normally taken to “fix” a bill during a session.
In Evangelos’ absence, Judiciary Committee House Chair Thom Harnett, D-Gardiner, filed the order, and the Senate approved it later in the day.
The purpose of the recall, Evangelos said, is to extend the dates for completion of the study, which in the previous version was Jan. 15. “There haven’t even been any commission members appointed yet,” he said.
By conducting a study later this year, to be completed by Dec. 1, legislation should be ready for consideration in 2023.
By that time, Evangelos will no longer be a legislator; he announced in December that he wouldn’t run for a fourth consecutive term. He said later, though, “I’m not quitting. I’m just not running,” and said he expects to re-engage with his “roots as a 1960s activist.”
As for the bill’s reception from the governor, he said, “I hope she’ll sign it. After all, it’s a study. After so many years, how can you be against that?”
In its original form, the bill would have instituted a new parole board based on models in Colorado and other states, where parole is difficult to get – standards are high – but not impossible.
As for the specific form the proposal would take, Evangelos said he’d like to hear more.
A new voice in the discussion is Arthur Jones, a retired criminologist, professor, and career corrections administrator who served on both juvenile and adult parole boards in New Jersey, where it’s a full-time position.
He now lives in Belfast, and volunteers at the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, serving those released from jails in Waldo and Knox counties.
It’s Maine’s only program that actively seeks to connect inmates with jobs, housing, and substance use treatment, and serves 10-15 at a time. Only county prisoners are eligible, not those in the state system.
If Maine were to reinstate parole, it would need similar centers around the state, Jones said: “You can’t release people who’ve served years in institutions onto the street. It just doesn’t work.”
At the time Jones served in New Jersey, first as an administrator, then on the parole boards, he said standards were lax, and there was too much discretion for officials.
“Judges were sentencing juveniles to three-year terms, but they were out in three months,” he said. The board created new standards, specifying that half of sentences must be served.
“The kids didn’t like it at first, but once they saw it was being applied fairly, they did what they needed to do, including work and school,” he said.
Similar complaints about Maine’s parole system helped lead to its abolition in 1976.
Conversations with Jones have encouraged Evangelos that lawmakers may be willing to take a fresh look. “Here’s someone with a disinterested perspective,” he said, “who sees clearly what we could be doing here.”
And it’s happening elsewhere, he said: Mississippi just increased the number of inmates eligible for parole from 800 to 1,800, through a bill signed by a Republican governor, and enacted by an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature. It’s modeled on the parole system currently used in Texas.
— Douglas Rooks