In 2010, Brandon Brown was sentenced to 27 years in prison — with all but 17 suspended — for attempted murder after shooting James Sanders, a former Marine, in the chest at point-blank range outside an Old Port bar two years prior. 

Brown was 21 years old.

While incarcerated, Brown became the first inmate in state history to receive a higher education degree, first earning an associate degree, then a bachelor’s degree and, most recently, his master’s in restorative justice from George Mason University. Released on probation in October 2021, he now lives in a secluded house in Gilead on a plot his father owns, and volunteers at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland speaking to at-risk youth.

He has embraced what he sees as a second chance by focusing on helping others through restorative justice.

Brandon Brown stands Jan. 19 in front of the small cabin he calls home in Gilead. Brown’s family owns the tiny cabin, which was moved to the site on the banks of the Androscoggin River and joined with an ice cream stand in 1972. Brown grew up visiting the property and skiing at Sunday River in nearby Newry as a child. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Now, three months after his release, Brown, 35, sits at a table at the Crossroads Diner in Gilead. He is tall and thickly bearded, with a soft voice that barely reaches past the steaming coffee mug in front of him. Brown is grateful for the path he’s been put on, he said, despite the circumstances that led him to it. 

Prior to the shooting, Brown was a college dropout with no plans or prospects in his future. His hoop dreams were snatched away by a torn ligament and cartilage in the knee during practice his senior year of high school in Cape Elizabeth.

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Born into a military family in Panama, Brown moved extensively after his parents’ divorce when he was 2. He grew up with his father, whose ever-changing job prospects brought his family to New Hampshire, then Texas and Maine, moving from one town to the next almost annually in each state. 

“I tried to go to college after graduation, but it was (mostly) because it was what everyone else was doing,” he said. “I wasn’t ready at all. That lasted three weeks and then I just stopped going. That was at (Southern Maine Community College).

“And then after that, my life started going a little bit downward and college was not something I thought about at all after that,” he said. 

Fueled by a roiling resentment about his situation and numbed by a nihilistic outlook on life, Brown began selling marijuana, eventually moving in with friends after a blowout with his family. Though he cannot remember what the argument was over, Brown said he did not speak to them for a year afterward. 

Brandon Brown talks to his father on the phone in his kitchen Jan. 19 in Gilead. Brown’s father lives nearby in West Bethel. Brown has been in prison his entire adult life and finds being in crowds of people overwhelming. His cabin in the woods offers him privacy to retreat from the world. His friend, Kim Magiera, visiting from Germany, and his dog, Misty, relax near the wood stove. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“When he turned 18, he chose to live on his own and, like many kids that age, he made some bad decisions and hung out with some troubled individuals,” said Mark Brown, Brandon’s father. “He was immature and struggled with being an adult on his own. But through all his struggles, he was always a kind and caring person.”

But the person his father knew, who grew up well-adjusted and social, played sports and had never even tried alcohol, took a back seat to the lifestyle Brown had adopted as his new personality. “There was a point in time where I just wanted to be a thug,” said Brown. 

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“I don’t think I ever even thought about my future at all to be honest with you,” he said. “I mean maybe I thought about the immediate future, like what am I gonna do today and next week. Am I gonna have a job or am I just gonna sell drugs? What am I gonna do? That was about the extent of my hope and my planning for the future, just how to be successful in the space that I was in at that time.” 

When Brown arrived at the Maine State Prison in Warren in 2010, he decided to pursue an education. Six months into his sentence, he was accepted into the college program through the Sunshine Lady Foundation, a program funded and supervised by Doris Buffett, billionaire Warren Buffett’s sister.

Buffett established the Sunshine Lady Foundation in 1996, a year after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed, eliminating inmate eligibility for Pell Grants and greatly diminishing inmates’ ability to pay for college tuition while in prison.

At the same time he was attending classes, Brown volunteered in the prison hospice unit and was secretary of the prison’s NAACP chapter, eventually becoming vice president and then president. He became a peer tutor, ran programs, and joined the prison’s service dog training program as well.

Little Angels Service Dogs and the Maine State Prison partner with the Prison Puppy Program to raise and train service dogs for disabled veterans or first responders. The dogs live in the prison during the week with inmates, and stay with local families on the weekends.

At Brown’s graduation for his associate degree, he won the student achievement award, which is given to the associate degree graduate who maintains the highest GPA in the program. He was also the chosen student commencement speaker.

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During his speech, he said earning his degree offered him his first glimpse of redemption. Of the possibility that he might have a second chance.

Brown was transferred to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where he stayed for two years before returning to the Maine State Prison in 2016. Through his work with the NAACP and other advocacy groups within the prison, Brown said he had begun to rub the administration there the wrong way. He faced retaliation, he said, through harassment and reprimands for infractions he didn’t commit. 

Brown cites the negative culture at Windham as the reason he transferred back to the state prison, saying its lack of programming and negative atmosphere led to his lowest point while incarcerated.

“I just became the angriest, worst version of myself in that facility,” he said. “I woke up every day legitimately angry about everything; about the people around me, about my life’s choices. I was angry at myself and angry at the world.” 

The negative effects of his stay at Windham revealed to him the damage the correctional system can inflict on its inmates, releasing them into society worse than when they arrived. During his incarceration, Brown watched other inmates spiral into cycles of violence and addiction, equipped only with the skills to harm others because they were harmed themselves while in prison. Such behavior was reinforced by the convict culture that Brown felt was not being discouraged properly, if at all, by staff. 

It was at Windham where Brown was introduced to the concept of restorative justice, which changed the way he thought about his life in prison, allowing him to confront his choices and the direction his life was heading.

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“I met a volunteer who was doing this program where everything flipped for me,” he said. “I learned to ask different questions about my situation, I learned that the system itself was keeping me from taking responsibility and accepting my role in everything that had brought me to prison.”  

Back at Maine State Prison, Brown learned to appreciate the network of friends he had built and the programs offered with a new perspective. He began to pursue this new interest while making positive changes in life — doubling down on his education and improving his situation by doing the same for others. 

While finishing his bachelor’s degree, Brown took an accredited course on restorative justice, determined to use what he had lived while in prison and bring it out in the real world. 

Brandon Brown sits in his home office Jan. 19 in Gilead. Brown is the first prisoner in the state of Maine to receive a master’s degree while incarcerated. He is pursuing a future in criminal justice reform. When he was in prison he did all his work on a word processor or tiny laptop, and now enjoys a three-screen setup. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Throughout Brown’s incarceration, his methods of applying to school and completing coursework varied. In the beginning, most of his writing was done by hand until the prison was supplied with word processors by the University of Maine.

As his courses intensified, he was granted limited internet access on a computer provided by the state. He began seeking graduate programs having anything to do with the topic of restorative justice, determined to use his experience to positively influence other people’s lives.

“If you don’t have an opportunity for peace in your life, wherever you are, you can’t grow,” he said. “You can’t accept the things that have happened and your role in them.”

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According to Oxford Languages, “restorative justice” can be defined as a system of criminal justice which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.

Brown’s concentration is in narrative study, which aims to dispel the justice system’s simplification of the sequence of events of a crime. Without truly understanding what a person is going through to contextualize the crime, he said the motives of defendants are often misattributed to stereotypes. 

“The system tries to teach us that bad people go to prison and evil people make mistakes,” Brown said. “I can’t tell you how many people I meet out here that don’t believe me when I tell them what I did. If we give ourselves the chance to get to know people for who they are instead of what they did, then we’ll all find that that’s the case. Only when we have those labels assigned to people and then we question that, if we shed them, then we see people for their complexity.”

While the ultimate goal of the process is justice, it must be achieved for both parties. An emphasis on rehabilitation in a prisoner’s sentencing must be made when considering how much time they should serve. Lengthy sentences given to the satisfaction of the victim helps no one, although their suffering and healing must be taken into account, he said.

“I know I got what I deserved within the structure that we allow,” Brown said. “Within the framework of criminal justice, the only real option was me going to prison. But subjectively, I got way more for what other people get for the same offense or worse; not minimizing the harm I caused.” 

“Brown’s sentence was fair,” said Meg Elam, the prosecuting attorney in Brown’s case. “The sentencing justice considered the factors laid out by our Legislature when imposing a criminal sentence, and used the process laid out by the Legislature.”

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“Prosecutors take an oath to ‘do justice,'” she said. “That means both to do what is fair and to follow the law. When crafting a sentencing recommendation, prosecutors must consider the nature of the crime and its impact on the victim(s) and the community, as well as the personal circumstances of the defendant.”

In 2013, during his first stay at the Warren prison, Brown met Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, after the Brown gave the commencement speech at the college graduation ceremony. Evangelos was floored by Brown’s words and approached him. “I just stopped at his table and said, ‘Wow. When are you getting out of here? That was brilliant,’” Evangelos remembers. 

Evangelos, who serves on the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and is serving his fourth term in office, has been heavily involved in state prison reform advocacy and post-convictions appeals. Last year, his bill, LD 842, “An Act To Reestablish Parole,” passed in the House and Senate but is still holding on Gov. Janet Mills’ desk. He said his bill was motivated by the denial of Brown’s clemency request in 2019.

During the public hearing on that bill, Mills provided written testimony in opposition to its passage, pointing to fresh trauma that could be incurred by victims who may have to attend parole hearings, because many inmates found the criteria for parole to be amorphous, and because the “possibility of parole also led to some still dangerous inmates passing themselves off as reformed when they were not, and then going on to commit violent offenses while on parole.”

Brown had petitioned Mills for clemency so he could enroll in the doctorate program at George Mason University in Virginia in person. Mills denied that request, telling him he should direct his request to the state’s pardon board instead of directly to her.

James Sanders, who Brandon shot, supported Brown’s request for clemency, even writing a letter saying he had forgiven Brown and moved on.

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Sanders lives in Georgia and uses a wheelchair, having struggled with opioid addiction, the amputation of a leg due to infection, and a suicide attempt in the years since the shooting. He could not be reached for comment for this story.

In his testimony in support of the bill to reestablish parole, Evangelos said, “Truthfully in Maine, while pardons are sometimes issued, often for politically connected individuals, pardons are never issued to incarcerated individuals who have worked tirelessly to improve their lives and have held themselves accountable for their mistakes.”

Evangelos told peers on the Judiciary Committee, “I believe in the dignity of people, I believe in second chances. I believe in accountability and most importantly, I believe in redemption, the capacity of human beings to right the wrongs of the past. Yes, I feel deeply for the victims as well. But society is not made safer when Maine’s corrections system frustrates hope and redemption. All this does is increase recidivism when a resident is released and 95% of incarcerated people will be released someday.”

Maine abolished parole in 1976, becoming the first in the United States to do so. Thirty-four states offer parole.  

Last year, Rep. Rachel Talbot-Ross, D-Portland, sponsored LD 1593, “An Act To Provide Pathways to Rehabilitation, Reentry and Reintegration,” which Brown co-wrote with advocates, lawmakers and prisoners as a backup for Evangelos’ parole bill. That bill, intended to provide a functioning form of reentry into society for long-term inmates, passed the House and Senate in June and became law without the governor’s signature. 

It was that law that allowed Brown’s early release in October, or he would otherwise have remained at Warren until March 2023.

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When he emerged from Maine State Prison, Evangelos was standing there with Brown’s father.

Brandon Brown plays with his service dog, Misty, on Jan. 19 at his home in Gilead. Misty is in training to be a service dog through a program that matches puppies with Maine prisoners. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Two years shy of earning his doctoral degree, Brown continues his dog training with a pup from the prison, named Misty.

He also volunteers at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, speaking to at-risk and youth running educational programs.

Brown’s conditions of release prohibit him from leaving the state, so he cannot attend his graduation at George Mason University in Virginia, and he is required to disclose his whereabouts to his probation officer.

Even so, Brown is content with his freedom, is adapting well, and is hoping to teach full-time at the university level once he is able. 

According to Brown’s father, Mark, “It could not be going any better. I worry as a dad about the anxiety and stress that is inherent to someone coming from prison and back into the community. But he is doing very well.”

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