John Brookins’ story is filled with pain and injustice. But more than that, John’s story is a love story, one that goes all the way back to his childhood, when he met a girl named Karen at the Salvation Army Church. As teenagers, “we were each other’s first loves,” Karen Brookins says now. But life happened: John moved, and they broke up and lost touch.
Almost 30 years later, John and Karen reconnected — in a prison visiting room.
“He really wasn’t expecting me to come see him that day,” says Karen. “I kind of showed up as a surprise. When I walked in, he yelled my name across the room. Here he comes, running for me, and he just grabbed me and picked me up. Then he said, ‘Karen, I’m so happy to see you, my God.’”
Turns out that John had been trying to find Karen for years before that fateful day. He’d even put her name down on his visitors’ list, year after year, in case she tried to visit. And if he saw someone in the visiting room from the old days who knew her, he would tell them, “If you see her, tell her I want to talk to her. I’ve been looking for her for years.”
Karen describes the day she visited: “I was in awe: He was the same sweet Johnny I’ve always known, and I couldn’t understand why he was in there. And it didn’t take long — we just fell back in love.” They picked right back up where they’d left off, and Karen started visiting every week.
Two years later, they married.
“Compassionate release (called medical or geriatric parole in Pennsylvania) would offer the kind of justice and safety that his case seems to require.”
Before that joyful day, a lot had happened to both of them. Karen married someone else, had children, and divorced. And for John, life had been a very long nightmare. In 1990, John, then 26 years old, was a witness at the scene of a murder. He was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison without parole. John has maintained his innocence all along, and he has many supporters who share this view, including the Innocence Project and Pennsylvania’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. John has been in prison for 30 years. He is now 56.
John’s clemency application to Pennsylvania’s governor is pending. It was this process, actually, that led him back to Karen. “His sister reached out to me and asked me if I would write a letter for his application. She said, ‘You’re one of the people that has known him for the longest.’”
“I thought, what a waste of a wonderful life.”
Karen started digging into John’s case, learning everything she could about the series of events and troubling decisions that had led to his conviction and long sentence. With every document she read, she saw corruption and a huge miscarriage of justice. She was appalled – at the injustice of it, and also because of who he is.
“I thought, what a waste of a wonderful life. John is highly respected in the prison system amongst the residents there as well as the staff, teaching physical fitness, nutrition, yoga, and so much more. An outside group, Transformation Yoga, asked him to help create a manual for the DOC to use in their yoga and meditation programs throughout the state. John can help keep people in a good head-space, for their mental as well as their physical being.”
John also received a diploma from Penn State College of Horticulture, and is the chairman of the NAACP Health & Wellness Committee. He has completed more than 100 courses. For 30 years, John has remained infraction-free, practically unheard of behind bars.
COVID has made John’s confinement suddenly very dangerous. He suffers from leukopenia, an immunodeficiency disorder in which people have a very low white blood cell count. John, already vulnerable to potentially deadly infections and viruses, is a walking target for COVID. He has grave concerns about the conditions at prison, from the way that food in handled to hygiene issues. “Everyone wants to make it on the other side of this pandemic,” John says, yet the staff is not being held accountable.
“As long as I’ve been here, I prayed for two things. Of course, that God would grant me my freedom, and secondly, that I would see you one more time before I die.”
In addition to potentially life-threatening leukopenia, John has high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease, and numerous other ailments. Compassionate release (called medical or geriatric parole in Pennsylvania) would offer the kind of justice and safety that his case seems to require, and Karen and John are beginning the difficult process of applying, even as they continue to hope and work for his clemency.
If John finally gets relief and is released by clemency or compassionate release, he’ll be in good shape upon reentry. He’s already received multiple job offers, and his home with Karen will be safe and healthy, offering him a place to rest, heal, and be a productive member of his community.
Over the years, John has honed his vision for freedom. “My goals are small but important. I want to continue the fight for those left behind in prison, the fight for justice reform. I want to go back to prisons across Pennsylvania and help develop better stress-management programs.
“When I am released, first I want to carry my beautiful wife over the threshold to forever bless our home and our life together. The next morning, I want to awaken as husband and wife, then pinch each other to feel the reality of the nightmares is over. I am looking forward to growing with our grandchildren, helping them to learn and teaching them about life issues. Growing a butterfly garden for my wife, with a fish pond, a small bridge, and a nice comfortable seat for us to take in the gentle softness of the butterflies as they glide to each flower.”
Their story isn’t over, not by any means. At the end of that first visit, Karen explains, he told her, “‘Karen, I need you to know something.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘I know I’m coming home,’ and he had tears in his eyes. I said, ‘How do you know? Why do you say that?’ He said, ‘Because as long as I’ve been here, I prayed for two things. Of course, that God would grant me my freedom, and secondly, that I would see you one more time before I die.’”
John Brookins deserves to come home. He deserves a second chance, whether it’s through clemency or compassionate release. Please read here for more information about FAMM’s work around Second Chances and how you can help.
Additionally, John has the support of Marc Howard and Marty Tankleff at Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative, the New York Innocence Project, and attorney Craig Cooley. His case was featured in the podcasts Undisclosed and Unjust and Unsolved.