Governor denies clemency for groundbreaking inmate scholar

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Gov. Janet Mills last week denied clemency for the first Maine prison inmate to earn a master’s degree while incarcerated. 

Brandon Brown sought to have the last few years of his sentence commuted so he could attend George Mason University’s Carter School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, where he was accepted into the Ph.D. program after graduating remotely from the Virginia school’s master’s degree program.

At his clemency hearing on April 9, a GMU professor said remote study would not be an option for the doctoral program. 

Brandon Brown at Maine State Prison in Thomaston Jan. 17. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Because of broad interest in his master’s thesis, based on first-of-its-kind research he conducted on how incarceration negatively affects prisoners’ ability to reenter society, he defended it publicly online April 16. He hoped to continue his research on the doctoral level to do similar studies about other elements of the criminal justice system. 

The governer’s decision, sent in a letter to Brown, did not include her reasons for the denial.

State Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, who convinced Brown to apply for clemency, guided him through the process, and gathered 27 letters of support, said he was “devastated” by the governor’s decision. He called it an “abuse of power.”  

“The quality of a civilization is measured by the degree of its empathy and belief in redemption,” Evangelos said in an email July 26. “ … On that score, Janet Mills has failed on every count. If Brandon Brown doesn’t qualify for clemency, no one ever will. Maine does not have parole anymore. This is the only process available to demonstrate rehabilitation and redemption.” 

Brown, who is now at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, is serving a 17-year sentence for attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault for shooting former U.S. Marine James Sanders in 2008 in Portland’s Old Port. He denied he was trying to kill Sanders and has since worked through restorative justice classes and his studies in conflict resolution to take responsibility for the harm he caused that night when he was 21 years old. 

Sanders, who lost a leg from his injury and has been unable to work, backed Brown’s bid for clemency. “Forgiveness and bettering ourselves is the way to be,” he said in a letter of support. 

James Sanders. (Courtesy Diana Young)

At the clemency hearing held via conference call before the Governor’s Board of Executive Clemency, other supporters included Midcoast (District 6) District Attorney Natasha Irving; Deborah Meehan, director of the University of Maine at Augusta’s nine off-campus centers; professors and students at George Mason; Brown’s family members, and former inmates. Three of Sanders’ aunts were the only opposition. 

The board’s recommendation was not made public. 

“After we’ve taken our vote, we all go our separate ways and I do not discuss the matter at all under any circumstances,” Chair Fernand LaRochelle said at the hearing. “It’s not the board’s decision, it is the governor’s decision, and so I make no public comments regarding anything that has happened during the hearing, or after.” 

In addition to the board’s recommendation, Mills also had an investigation conducted by the Department of Corrections’ Division of Parole and Probation to consider. 

Sara Cobb, a professor at GMU’s Carter School, chaired Brown’s thesis committee. She said in an email on July 25 that she was disappointed in the decision but hopes accommodations can be made for him to stay in the program.

“I am very much looking forward to working with him,” Cobb wrote. “I am certainly supportive of his attendance in the fall, virtually, but I do not have the authority to make any decisions regarding how classes are taught, or how/if students attend.”

Thomas Flores, director of graduate studies at George Mason, said he had no comment at this time about whether Brown might be allowed to complete the program remotely.

Regardless of whether Brown can continue his studies, Evangelos believes the governor’s denial has broader implications. 

“It represents a huge loss of an opportunity to signal to all prisoners that there’s a better way and better life out there,” he said. “This decision will destroy morale at the prisons and undermines all the good work undertaken by (Maine State Prison Warden Matthew) Magnusson and Commissioner (Randall) Liberty.

“While it is clear today that there are no winners in this matter, it is also clear that there is one loser, the state of Maine, which reinforced its image of a brutal and broken criminal justice system, which chooses to break people rather than support redemption.”

Jordan Bailey is a freelance writer and former staff writer for the Phoenix.

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