First Maine inmate to enroll in graduate school conducts groundbreaking research in prison

From The Portland Phoenix – Portland, Maine

By Jordan Bailey – January 22, 2020

Brandon Brown is on track to be the first Maine State Prison inmate to earn a master’s degree while serving time. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

In 2008, 21-year-old Brandon Brown shot a man in Portland’s Old Port. He was eventually convicted of attempted murder and elevated aggravated assault, and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Now Brown is poised to be the first person in Maine to earn a master’s degree while incarcerated, and may be the first inmate to conduct approved research on fellow inmates for his thesis project.

Brown shot former Marine James Sanders, crippling him, on June 24, 2008, and was sent to Maine State Prison in early 2010. His years of reflection on the crime and its aftermath, and his participation in the University of Maine at Augusta prison college program, led him to an interest in restorative justice and a commitment to education.

He is now the first Maine prisoner to enroll in graduate school and is a few months away from earning a master’s degree from George Mason University. He is researching the stories inmates tell of themselves for themes that might affect their reintegration into society. 

Brown, now 33, discussed how he reformed his life through education, his research, and his plans for the future in a Jan. 17 interview at the prison in Warren.

Downward spiral

After attending several schools in several states, Brown graduated from South Portland High School. He said education was never important to him; he was an athlete and his life revolved around sports.

He hoped to play basketball in college, but a severe injury his senior year of high school put an end to his planned career before it began. The injury set his life spiraling out of control, Brown said, and all of that culminated in the shooting in the Old Port. 

Seven months into his sentence he enrolled in the college program and experienced a profound shift in his worldview.

“When I’m learning and when I’m reading these books, and when I’m interacting with the college professors who just treat us like regular students — we were not treated like inmates in those classes — I found a level of freedom through that that I had never even known before prison,” Brown said. “And I think education allowed me to ask questions that I never asked myself before, like what’s my purpose in this world? And even though I’m in prison, is there still some way that I can live a meaningful life and contribute to the world outside, and can I contribute when I get out, too?” 

He also sought to contribute to life on the inside, by participating in other programs the prison offered. He was the first inmate to get a dog in a dog-training program through the Humane Society of Knox County. He participated in a program called “Reflections,” in which inmates write letters to their younger selves. He volunteered for the prison hospice program, became a certified yoga instructor, and served as president of the prison branch of the NAACP. 

He earned an associate degree from the college program in 2013, and won the student achievement award for maintaining the highest grade point average. In 2017 he earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in history, the Holocaust and human rights studies.

Another turning point came during Brown’s final semester toward his bachelor’s degree, when he took a course in restorative justice. He said it opened his eyes to how destructive the criminal justice process is, and how powerful it could be to change the narrative that emerges from that process.

By asking questions about who has been harmed, who did the harm, and what is needed by all the affected people, restorative justice forces people to listen to stories that the criminal justice system shields them from. 

“When you go through the process as the offender, you have to tell the self-defense story,” Brown said. “The real narrative is I was a 21-year-old kid who put myself in a bad situation and significantly hurt somebody. … Instead, I had to say, ‘I’m innocent, I protected myself, and that’s it.’

“I’ve gone through more than 10 years of imprisonment imagining what life is like for my victim. When I think about what I lost compared to what he lost that night, it makes me really disappointed in myself, but it also makes me really disappointed in the system, because the system shows up more for me than it does for him,” he continued. “I mean, I have heat, I have food, I have blankets, and I have TV, and I have all these things that the state is required to give me. But what is the state required to give him and what does the community choose to give him?

“I was a 21-year-old kid who made a horrible, horrible decision that caused a lot of people a lot of harm. It caused one person direct physical harm, but it also harmed everybody who witnessed it. It also harmed my entire network of family and friends and his entire network of family and friends. We need a system that focuses on repairing harm instead of creating more harm.”

Helping prisoners change their narratives, Brown believes, is crucial to reducing recidivism. “If I am the stories I tell, but the only stories I have are destructive stories, then, of course I’m only going to go back to destructive things,” he said.

Brown said his 11 years of writing letters from prison, and a memoir class helped him realize the incredible power that storytelling holds. He decided he wanted to continue studying restorative justice, which is included in the field of conflict resolution, at the graduate level. 

Scholarships

After completing his bachelor’s degree, he asked prison administrators for support in pursuing a master’s degree. He was told that if he was accepted to an online program, they could make it work by using a Department of Corrections policy that allows inmates supervised online access for education or programs, although the policy had not previously been implemented at Maine State Prison. 

Brown applied to all the schools he could find that offered degrees in conflict resolution and was accepted by Virginia’s George Mason University, with scholarships. He also received a scholarship from the Davis-Putter fund, which supports students working for social change. He paid the rest of the tuition himself.  

The work was difficult in many ways, particularly because of the five-hour weekly limit on internet use under the DOC policy. Brown said he usually gets closer to four hours a week online. In those four hours he has to do all his emailing with teachers and classmates, posting and retrieving assignments and any research for papers he has to write.

Being the first to do this means there were no protocols established. Every new prison staff member had to be informed about Brown’s special permission to go online. When the administration changed in 2019, everything that had been approved by the previous administration had to be re-examined and re-approved by the next. 

And there were all the other obstacles to doing academic work in the prison environment he had become used to over the years. Prison is extremely loud, Brown said, so he does most of his work between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., when it is quiet enough to concentrate. He doesn’t have control over his routine or when he has access to books, paper or pens.   

Despite the challenges he faced, Brown has managed to excel in his studies.

Sara Cobb, Brown’s adviser at George Mason, said Brandon “has proven himself to be an excellent student, outstanding, completing all his assignments, but even more, reading well beyond those assignments, demonstrating a thirst for learning, coupled with the discipline needed to master the social science theory and research methods.”

His thesis work is groundbreaking in that it may be the first instance of institutional-review-board-approved, inmate-on-inmate research. Brown will be interviewing inmates and looking for themes in the stories they tell about themselves in an attempt to understand the impact of stereotype, stigma, shame and humiliation on prisoner self-narratives and to determine whether these are barriers to reintegration into society.

He will interview inmates of various ages, races, religions, lengths of sentence and types of crime. If common themes emerge, he said, we would learn what needs to be addressed for true rehabilitation. His work will be all the more valuable, he believes, because of the trust he commands with his subjects as a fellow inmate rather than as an outside researcher. 

Brown is not sure what is going to come next after he graduates in May, but said he is already looking forward to expanding his research to find common themes in the stories told by other players in the criminal justice system – community members, victims, lawyers – possibly as a doctoral dissertation. 

Something that Deputy Warden Troy Ross said at a Board of Visitors meeting last year suggested Brown’s research, if applied to prison staff, would be valuable. Ross spoke about the challenges of being a prison guard and attracting people to the profession, and touched on the need to re-examine the stories told about correctional officers. 

“I think a lot of it is stigma,” he said. “How’s a prison employee portrayed on television? They’re usually an abuser, they’re corrupt, or there’s just no other option for them. They can’t do any other job.”

He said the depiction is not accurate, that his staff are correctional professionals and he tries to counteract the stereotypes when he’s training new employees. 

“We got a lot of people who come in here and think, ‘I’m going to lock them up and turn keys and that’s it,’” Ross said. “No. That isn’t it. You know, you’re a role model, you’re a mentor, you turn into a father figure to some of these guys or an elder brother, and you’re there for companionship for them sometimes.”

Brown has applied to his school’s Ph.D. program, but it does not offer an online option. If accepted, he would have to attend the school. That work may have to be put on hold for a couple of years, because Brown’s earliest release date with good time is late 2023. 

In the meantime, he said he hopes he can be involved with his school community in other ways, perhaps by working remotely as an assistant teacher. He has also proposed to the Department of Corrections that he could teach a training module in conflict resolution to new guards. 

At the last graduation ceremony at Maine State Prison, Brown delivered a speech in which he spoke of the potential for prisons to become hubs of education, because of the power of education to change lives. His work forging the way for Maine inmates to pursue post-graduate degrees brings that vision one step closer to reality.

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