Two years ago Brandon Brown became the first person to earn a graduate degree while incarcerated in the state of Maine. Now Brown — who was arrested in 2010 for attempted murder when he was 21 — is pursuing a Ph.D. in restorative justice from George Mason University, in Virginia.
Brown was the first person to take advantage of a department of corrections policy that allowed supervised virtual learning when he enrolled in an online masters program. Now, halfway through the second semester of his doctoral program, he’s been released on a community confinement program thanks to legislation that he helped author.
I talked with Brown about navigating higher education in prison and how his efforts have helped pave the way for at least six other prisoners in Maine to pursue online graduate programs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How did you get involved in prison education?
A. I got really lucky. When I arrived at Maine State Prison from the county jail, I immediately started putting in requests to get involved in something positive. Because I had my high school diploma, the education department reached out and said there was an opportunity if I wanted to work towards a college degree.
Q. When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a graduate degree?
A. In 2014, I was two classes away from my bachelor’s degree. And then I was transferred to a medium security prison from the maximum security prison. I thought for sure that there were going to be more opportunities for me. And the opposite was true, there was nothing to do at that facility.
The [administration at] the facility didn’t care that I still had funding and the university was willing to assist me with independent studies. And so I was there for two years, without education, and without other positive aspects of contributing to my community. I just got in a really dark place. I was eventually able to secure my transfer back to the prison that I came from. And so when I got back to that prison, I was able to get right back into the college program.
One of the last courses I took was in restorative justice with my favorite professor, and it was during that class that I had the realization that my bachelor’s degree is ending, there was no other avenue for me to continue my education. And that was really scary for me, because I saw what it meant not to have the opportunity to continue to educate myself before.
We had a really progressive warden at that moment. And so I just approached him a couple times and asked him if he would support me if I could find a master’s degree program that was correspondence or online learning. The Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) had a policy for a long time that allows you to do supervised online learning, they just never used it. When I was talking to the admin, they’re like, ‘This guy’s out of his mind, nobody’s going to accept him into a program.’ So they just said, ‘Yes, if you can get accepted, we’ll facilitate it.’ And then I got accepted and they had to keep their word.
Q. How were you able to secure funding for your education?
A. My associate’s and bachelor’s at University of Maine at Augusta were paid for by Doris Buffett’s non-profit, The Sunshine Lady Foundation. When I was applying to graduate programs, and specifically in conversation with George Mason University, they wanted to know how I was going to pay for it. I told them that I would figure that afterwards. If you accept me, maybe I’ll defer for a year, and secure funding over the next year, reach out to my family and friends. Luckily, while I was going through the application process, I had simultaneously applied for a couple of scholarships. My first semester was completely covered by a tuition discount that the university gave me for having an excellent application. And then I secured a $9,000 scholarship that covered what was left of my first year. And then the second year of my master’s degree, I was able to secure internal scholarships from George Mason.
Q. How did this lead into the Ph.D. program?
A. When I wrote to schools about applying for master’s programs, I made it very clear that my long term goal was to get a Ph.D. before I got out of prison. The last semester of my master’s degree, I went through the application process for the Ph.D. I got really lucky because of the research that I was able to get approved by the prison. I’ve looked and I’ve never found any other instances of a prisoner getting approval by an institutional research board to do human subject research in the prison that they’re in.
I got accepted by George Mason, but they told me I could only really inch forward while I was in prison because it’s an in-person program. And that’s why I filed for commutation, which was denied by Governor Janet Mills in July 2020. But then, oddly enough, the pandemic really saved my academic life, because the university went completely online because they had to. My whole first year plus half of a semester into my second year, I did from the facility.
Q. What is the subject of your doctoral dissertation?
A. I think what I’m going to end up doing my dissertation on is the idea of inclusive policy and law. So what happens when we include marginalized voices in the creation of policy and law that will govern their daily lives? And a specific kind of case study that I’ll use is the Maine Department of Corrections, and this new supervised community confinement law, because there’s a small group of [prisoners] that in collaboration with the administration, lawmakers, and other stakeholders, we actually wrote the law and the law passed, and then we helped write the policy that was implemented. Are people [skeptical] of it because there was some involvement from prisoners? Is it better law and better policy because we were involved in the process?
It’s one thing to engage with a marginalized population in discussion. But it’s another thing to empower them to actually write and create law. I know what happens in the prison more than some person in Augusta who’s never actually been to the prison. I know what policies and practices are shaping the culture and all these other aspects of the institution. A lot of times, it’s sexy to invite the inmate and the formerly incarcerated voices to the table. But a lot of times, those conversations don’t necessarily bear fruit. And what I’m interested in talking about is what is the fruit that’s born if we actually empower those people to write the policy and write the law.
Q. What do you want people to know about your story?
A. When people find out that I’m getting my Ph.D., I always get comments like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so articulate, and it’s so surprising.’ And I’m like, ‘Why is it surprising? Why is it surprising to you that a prisoner can rise to the same academic and educational level as you when given a chance to do so?’ Because before I committed my crime, I was a kid, I was a student, I was a son. If you give people the chance to believe that they can achieve something, chances are that they’ll achieve it. So for me, it was sad that I was the first person in the state of Maine to get an advanced degree while I was incarcerated. And at the same time, it was beautiful, and I was really proud of that. I don’t believe I’m exceptional, only that I had exceptional opportunities. It gets under my skin when all people want to talk about is how I did this; it doesn’t matter how I did it unless we can make it possible for other people.
Q. What advice do you offer other incarcerated people who want to pursue higher education?
A. Understand the power of your narrative even if it’s a really shitty fucking story you have to tell. I apologize for cursing, but there’s power in vulnerability and honesty, especially when you’re looking to convince an institution to take a shot on you.
When I was applying, I wrote to my 10 dream schools that had what I wanted to study. And in every letter I wrote, I was just very honest about my situation. I was honest about the mistakes I made, honest about the stigma that’s associated with those mistakes, but also honest about the fact that as a student, as somebody who knows this oppressive structure that I’m a part of, I am most situated to change it.
If you believe your story, and if you can tell it in a compelling way, then you can convince people to give you chances and opportunities. Because if you want to get an education, but you’re apprehensive about telling parts of your story, or you’re scared to be honest about what it is that brought you to prison and what your experience in prison has been, then how are you not going to expect that apprehension from the people that make the decisions about your education? Explore within yourself what’s powerful about your story and why it uniquely situates you to do something meaningful within the framework of what you want to study.