GILEAD, Maine — For 35-year-old Brandon Brown, the rolling hills and rushing Androscoggin River in Gilead are a new home. For people who grew up in this rural, small town, it might be easy to overlook its simple beauty — but that's something Brown has been soaking in every day since mid-October.
For 12 years, Brown was in prison, after being convicted of Class A attempted murder and Class A elevated aggravated assault. In 2008, when he was 21 years old, he was involved in an altercation in the Old Port in which he shot a former U.S. Marine, partially paralyzing him.
Brown was sentenced to 27 years with all but 17 suspended, as well as four years of probation, $10,000 in restitution, and 200 hours of community service.
Brown still has about two years to serve (his sentence was shortened because he earned "good time") — but now, he's doing so in the community.
"Getting out at 35 [years old], hugging my dad and my sister — you know, it didn't feel real at first. It didn't feel real when we were driving away. I think each day it's felt a little bit more real," said Brown.
Brown will serve the rest of his sentence through the updated Supervised Community Confinement Program, made possible when LD 1593 ("An Act To Provide Pathways to Rehabilitation, Reentry and Reintegration") was enacted and took effect on October 18, despite not receiving Gov. Janet Mills' signature.
Before, Maine prisoners could only qualify for SCCP if they had 18 or fewer months remaining on their sentence. Now, prisoners with sentences of five years or more must serve at least 2/3 of their sentence before qualifying, and prisoners with sentences of five years or less must serve at least half of their sentence.
The standard protocol is that prisoners can only have 24 months left on their term to qualify, but if the commissioner determines the statewide probation caseload isn't overwhelming, that number can go up to 30 months.
Qualifying for SCCP isn't necessarily an easy process. Residents of Maine's prisons must come up with a personal statement, taking accountability for their actions, providing a plan about what they want to do when released, and showing what they've done during their time on the inside. Probation officers also must know where they are at all times once they're out in the community. For Brown, his work included getting his associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees while in prison. Now, he's working on his doctorate. He was also involved in a number of other programs while behind bars.
"You work with probation to slowly start normalizing back into the community — to slowly doing tasks that everybody needs to know how to do, like grocery shopping, driving, interacting with people, reconnecting with your family [and] your friends in your community," said Brown, noting he doesn't know how to cook.
Wendy Smith, 43, of Milford, is another Maine prison resident who is also out on SCCP after she was arrested for Class A drug trafficking in 2018. The experience of getting out has also been somewhat overwhelming to her.
"I'm well-known up here, so I had mixed feelings about it and the stigma around my name," she said. "'Are they going to look at me the way I used to be, rather than who I am today?"
"Basically, what it comes down to is I have to rebuild my trust in the community that I harmed and heal the damage that I've done," she added.
Like Brown, Smith has taken steps to "better" herself while behind bars. She has been in recovery for years now, was an organizer for the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, and is a full-time college student through Washington County Community College. She said having an incentive was helpful in wanting to turn her life around, especially during her second run in prison.
"The last time I got out, I did my whole sentence, and I was just released. I didn't have a solid plan. I didn't have anything. I didn't have supports," Smith said.
Randall Liberty, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections, said a big focus of this program is to try to make sure people in prison are successful when they re-enter society.
"Say there's a reduction in recidivism. What that means to me is a reduction in the possibility of future victims," Liberty explained, noting that many prison residents have other factors that contribute to their crime, like mental health issues, substance use disorders, educational needs, and trauma backgrounds. He said quite a process goes into deciding whether or not someone can be released on SCCP.
"We use the unit team where they actually resided to make those decisions — their caseworker, the leadership team, and their clinicians," said Liberty. "It's a group decision, whether or not they should be released into the community."
Some people, like Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship, who serves on the state's judiciary committee, believe SCCP isn't enough. He said 35 other states have parole — but Maine abolished it in 1976.
"It's nowhere near enough," Evangelos said about SCCP, later noting, "The problem is every time we get to substantial reform in Maine, we're never ready for it. We never change."
In the 130th Legislature, Evangelos presented LD 842, "An Act to Reestablish Parole." The bill passed in the House but failed in the Senate, so it became a study commission. He said Mills ended up holding it, and he worries the commission won't be able to report out the bill by the set date of Jan. 15, 2022. He said he's working with House leadership to try to get an extension.
In April of 2021, Mills' office released a statement in opposition to reestablishing parole. It read in part:
"... the judge who sits through a trial and hears all the evidence is in the best position to decide the appropriate sentence. The Legislature heard concerns of both victims and inmates that parole created uncertainty about sentences that was problematic ..."
Evangelos met Brown in 2012 when Brown gave a speech during his graduation for his associate degree.
Part of Evangelos' mission stems from a letter he said he received from Brown's victim in 2019. It described the issues the former Marine had dealt with since the 2008 altercation — an amputation, drug addiction, and thoughts of suicide — but it also supported Brown's request for executive clemency at the time with the words: "I hope your growth continues and that I let go of anger and pain. Forgiveness and bettering ourselves is the way to be. So, with that said, I hope this helps towards an early release for you. Take care my dude."
Mills denied Brown's request in July of 2020.
Brown isn't allowed to talk to his victim, but said he hopes someday he'll be able to do so, as long as his victim is willing.
"I can rest at night knowing that he's found some peace and forgiveness in his life — because that's what I've been looking for all these years," said Brown. "It's a really powerful thing to finally kind of be at peace with the past so that you can move forward with your future."