It doesn’t take a lot these days to make me happy. Being with family makes me smile. Just sitting on my steps, listening to music, watching people go by. Some stop to chat, some say hi, and others simply walk by. Nonetheless, I feel happy.
I love my two-bedroom apartment in West Philadelphia. My life is peaceful and rich beyond compare, just by being surrounded by family and friends. I’ve got a great job, I’m learning to cook, and I’m dedicated to staying fit. You might think my life looks pretty ordinary — but it is far from it! Until a little over three years ago, I was in prison for 36 years.
I’m the youngest of five children, and I grew up in a household full of love and laughter. School was important to me and math was my favorite subject. My parents separated when I was young but I kept a close relationship with my father and would see him often. My parents struggled at times, but there wasn’t a night my siblings and I went to bed hungry or didn’t have clothes on our backs. It may not have been what I wanted — but it was exactly what I needed.
But one cold December night, when I was 16, everything changed. I had just left some friends and was heading to the store when I saw an older friend, William, slumped on some steps, drunk. I tried several times to get him to go home. Finally, he agreed, but decided to come with me to the store first. As we headed toward the store, a man exited and was walking by us when William bumped into him. Words were exchanged and a fight was about to ensue but the man ran across the street to avoid it. William went after the man and they began fighting, with William ending up stabbing him in the back. I panicked and began to flee but not before yelling to William to come on. We ran away, leaving the man bleeding in the street.
I’ve thought about that night literally millions of times, and here’s one of things I’ve come to understand: Growing up during that time, in the culture of that neighborhood, we were taught never to leave your friend behind and never to snitch. That’s why I ran away and encouraged William to do so also. It is why I kept quiet about what happened that night. A few weeks later, I was arrested near my home for murder and robbery, among other charges.
Before this, I had zero criminal history. During jury selection, I was offered a plea deal after some inappropriate behavior by the prosecution. It was for ten to 20 years in prison. Looking back, I should’ve taken that deal, but I was just a kid with no understanding of the law. I was oblivious as to what to do. My court-appointed attorney told me that they had a chance of winning the case at trial, but even if they didn’t and I was sentenced to life, I would be eligible for parole with good behavior around eight years. Never once did the attorney explain to me or my family what a life sentence really meant! Needless to say, I rejected the plea and stood trial. After I was found guilty of second-degree murder, robbery, and possession of a weapon, I received a mandatory life without parole sentence. I was to remain in prison until I died.
I was determined to one day walk out of prison, and not be carried out feet-first!
I often have reflected on that plea offer and it still doesn’t make sense to me. I’m offered ten to 20 years as a reasonable amount of time for my participation in the crime. I reject the offer, I go to trial, and now you say that I deserve life without the possibility of parole? What changed to make me, a juvenile, now this monster who should die behind bars? That made no sense to me then, and it doesn’t now.
I knew that I was a better person than what the court, society, and the institutional staff deemed me as. I was not a monster, murderer, nor a lifer, and I refused to let those labels define me. When I entered prison, I was midway through the 12th grade. The first opportunity I had, I signed up for school and was able to obtain my G.E.D. I immediately enrolled in Harrisburg Area Community College on a Pell Grant, seeking a business management degree.
As the years turned into decades, I completed all the programs and classes available to those serving a life sentence. I worked on various skilled level jobs as well. Drawing on reserves of will, faith, and hope over the years, I grew from a naive kid into a respected leader in the prison community. Eventually I became a facilitator in reentry and cognitive-behavioral groups. I worked closely with thousands of men, showing them better methods to manage their anger. I assisted in preparing many men to go back to society and to stay out there. I continued that work until I was released.
I also spent a lot of time in the law library, trying to find a way out of prison. There was hardly a time during those years I didn’t have an appeal in court. Why? Because I was determined to one day walk out of prison, and not be carried out feet-first! See, I never believed that I would spend the rest of my life in prison, which is why I worked to educate and better myself to be prepared for when those doors swung open. I would dissect new cases to find some part of it that was applicable to mine and then I’d file an appeal. No matter how many times I was denied, I kept filing something.
I began hearing about Roper v. Simmons, which ruled it unconstitutional to execute juveniles. That case turned out to be paramount for other decisions that followed. I followed the work of the Juvenile Law Center and Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative, especially after the Graham v. Florida decision holding that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses. It was clear how that ruling could be argued in favor of homicide cases as well. In 2012, Miller v. Alabama was decided, stating that it was unconstitutional to sentence a child to mandatory life without parole, except in the rarest of instances.
We were all so excited when the news came out. I was entrenched in studying the law by then so I somewhat understood what was really going on. Guys would read or hear things and would come to me for clarification. In a nutshell, I would tell them to be patient because we would be going home. I anticipated opposition through appeals over the ruling but not to the tune of four years later. That was a long time to wait, but worth it; it was pure joy when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller decision was retroactive. That decision brought about a change in this country that led to me being released in 2017.
There are so many beautiful men and women inside who are deserving of a second chance after serving decades behind bars.
I lost a significant portion of my life. I am now 56 years old. Of course I look back on those decades in prison, but I try not to dwell on what I lost. I tell friends still inside who are coming home after decades of incarceration, “The worst thing you can do is try to make up for lost time, because that time is gone and you can never get it back!” When I walked out of those prison doors, my life was in “full effect.” I wasn’t concerned about those lost years but rather the many wonderful years that awaited me on the outside. Trying to make up for lost time can only cause you to mess up!
Part of moving forward is giving back. I have thrown myself hard into criminal justice reform and youth advocacy, working with many organizations to bring about meaningful change. I am very involved in Bibleway Baptist Church’s Prison Ministry (BrothaHood), visiting the county jail to talk with juvenile offenders charged as adults, just as I once was.
When I am there, more than anything I try to give them a sense of hope in what seems like a hopeless situation — especially for a child. I let them know that I care, as well as BrothaHood, and no matter what, never lose hope! I still have contact with many of my incarcerated friends, and I’m determined to advocate for them. There are so many beautiful men and women inside who are deserving of a second chance after serving decades behind bars. If given another chance, they would prove to be assets, as opposed to liabilities in society.
One thing that helps is that I am very family-oriented. I was close to my grandmother before her death nearly two years ago. On the day of my release, I went straight to her house and into her room where she was in bed. She was just so happy that I was home. She was like, “I was asking God to let me be alive by the time you get home,” And I was like, “I was praying the same thing!” We just held each other and cried for a while. That was and always will be memorable.
Hindsight is always 20/20. You look back on things, and going back to that night when I was 16, when so many lives were forever changed … I just wish I could have done something different that could’ve changed what happened. Maybe I could have intervened sooner when the fight between William and the gentleman started.
Earlier this year, I happened to be visiting juvenile offenders at the county jail with BrothaHood on a day that is sort of an anniversary for me. I shared with them that that day, January 9, was an important date for me. That date, way back in 1981, was the first day I woke up in jail. It was really emotional for me, remembering that and telling them about how it felt that morning.
But now, I feel like God has put me in the right place to be the person to go in and talk to these young people in jail (and out). They see me, they hear me, and they know, “OK, Charles was 16 just like us, and he got through this.” I realize that I cannot change what happened. But I can learn from that experience, as I have done, and just keep pushing forward to give back in an effort to prevent another youth from having to walk in the shoes I once walked in.
By Charles Brown
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