“I forgive you.” Those three words are a stumbling block for most people today. And since society is comprised of individuals, this unforgiveness becomes collective. So I pose the question: Does society allow redemption?
A common catchphrase of the Criminal Justice System is that those who commit a crime must “pay their debt to society.” However, once a person’s sentence is complete, his or her debt remains unpaid. They are not redeemed.
I once believed society cared about rehabilitation, and that Corrections promoted redemption — that once a person proved he was no longer a threat to society, he would be afforded the opportunity to become a productive member of society again. I was dead wrong. Not only does Maine not have parole, but the only avenue available to people seeking to prove their transformation seems nothing more than a farce, a charade performed to show that a path for early release exists, but not one that actually releases the rehabilitated.
Case in point: Brandon Brown. I have known this man for the better part of a decade. I served with him on the prison hospice team, the Legislative Steering Committee, the Restorative Practices Steering Committee, and the Prisoner Advisory Council. I participated in several college classes with him and spent countless hours discussing the topics of healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, transformation, redemption, conflict resolution and systemic change, as well as the merits of love, hope and faith. I witnessed him stand up for what is right on numerous occasions, even to his own detriment.
Yes, Brandon can be abrasive in his approach to rectifying wrongs. But, without fail, his pursuit is the betterment of himself and his community. So imagine my disappointment when Gov. Mills denied his request for clemency this summer.
If there was anyone I believed had half a chance at early release, it was Brandon. He has a loving family and an amazing support network that includes esteemed professors from the University of Maine at Augusta and George Mason University. He has the support of state lawmakers — one of whom, Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, of Friendship, continues to passionately advocate on Brandon’s behalf.
Brandon recently became the first Maine prisoner to obtain a master’s degree while incarcerated. He was seeking early release to pursue a doctorate degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at GMU, in Virginia. All this man wants to do is infuse his community and his country with some healing, having caused harm one night 12 years ago. (Brown was convicted of attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault, and given a 17-year sentence, after shooting a man during a bar fight in Portland’s Old Port.)
If Brandon doesn’t deserve a second chance, who does? I’m only 12 years into my 50-year prison sentence, and I know I will never be less likely to return to prison than I am today. There’s a point on the “rehabilitative arc” where a person has resisted the draw of institutionalization, become genuinely rehabilitated, and is ready for their chance at a new life. Shortly after this point is reached, self-motivation begins to fade, hope dies, bitterness sets in, and rehabilitative progress is slowly lost to the system.
When a man I deeply respect heard the news of Gov. Mills’ decision, he said it means “prison reform in Maine is dead.” As a man of faith and hope, this was hard for me to hear. Even if reform is dead under this governor, the God I serve has resurrection power. So I will press forward and encourage others to do likewise. Genuine reform will be realized, and it will come about through education, mobilization, prayer and policy change.
As the late John Lewis said so well, we must persist in making Good Trouble. All of you reading this have the power to help agitate for systemic change. Write letters, send e-mails, make phone calls. If you want to see parole reinstated, let your voice be heard. If you want the Criminal Justice System to focus more on rehabilitation and transformation than on punishment and warehousing, speak on it. Challenge your elected representatives to make efforts like the one District Attorney Natasha Irving made this past winter, when she included incarcerated voices in a panel discussion at the Bangor Public Library. Their participation highlighted a little-accepted truth: there are many incarcerated people who deserve an opportunity to demonstrate their rehabilitation outside the prison walls.
We need society to allow and accept our redemption. And every voice matters.