“I was 22 years old, but, really, I was a boy”
I was indicted in 1990 for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. I had two prior powder cocaine charges, in which I served an undercover police officer maybe $75 of powder cocaine on two different days. I went to trial on those charges. I had a hung jury the first time, and the second time I was found guilty and sentenced to six months in a halfway house. Two years after that is when I picked up this new conspiracy charge. When I went for sentencing, it was because of those two powder cocaine charges I got when I was 18 that I was found guilty on six counts of distribution.
I was sentenced to mandatory life without parole for those nonviolent drug offenses.
My first institution was Lewisburg in Pennsylvania. I stayed there for three and a half years. While there, I began to question myself. I was 22 years old in a crazy environment that I had no idea how to function in. I was 22 years old, but, really, I was a boy with a twisted idea of manhood. So I began to work on myself.
First, I took courses for my own self help. As I began to grow and develop, I started to notice that the population started to get younger and younger. At that age, you can come in with only one year to go, but if prison culture grabs you and you don’t make the right improvements, then that one year can turn into fifty. And I’ve seen that. So I developed several courses and I ran a class called Young Men’s Empowerment Group.
I was inspired to create different curriculum that can help younger inmates understand the value of turning prison into school, instead of them trying to come in and make a name for themselves.
I started to see young men of every ethnic group begin to fall in love with being educated. When they would go home, they would write back and say how much they appreciated me spending time with them.
Was it overwhelming? Yes, because I still had to deal with me, carrying this life sentence. But it was also inspiring because of the fact that my mother was a schoolteacher — I think I inherited that from her. And my father was very good with people. So when they would call back and say I made a difference in their life, well, it kept me wanting to improve myself because I knew that saying something was one thing but being an example of what you’re saying is even better.
“Like a drowning man reaching for a spider web”
I think my sentence and many other sentences like mine for nonviolent offenses like mine is what you call “overkill.”
For those of us who know anything about a vegetable or a fruit, you know that there’s a season when the fruit or the vegetable is ripe. If you pick it then, it’s at its best, but we also know that the next stage is rotten. What happens here is if you leave us in prison when we’re ripe for picking and if you leave us in there too long we can become rotten.
And as I see many people left in prison when they were ripe for the picking, I know these draconian sentences have left them in there and they are rotting away. And while they’re rotting away, society loses out on the gifts they have to give them.
Throughout prison, I lost my mother in ’07, my father in ’08, my brother and my grandmother in 2009. These were heavy blows. It’s only by the grace of God that I didn’t lose my mind.
I filed for clemency in 2010 on my own, really like a drowning man reaching for a spider web. I really didn’t believe in the process, but as time went on I was fortunate enough to get some attorneys to accept my case. They supported me and believed in me and in the clemency process.
I was going through my email one day and my unit manager called me on the loudspeaker with a real emergency: “Norman Brown, return to the unit manager’s office immediately!” So I went to the unit manager’s office. This was kind of rare. She was asking me, “What have you done? You have a very important phone call coming in.” I’m looking at her because I haven’t had an incident report in 24 years.
She wanted me to come back to her office in half hour. So I go back to my room and I’m nervous. I don’t know what’s going on. I really thought it was death again, and I’m like, oh man, I can’t take another one.
So I go back, and I get on the phone and it’s my attorney:
“Dave, how you doing?
“Norman, how are you feeling?”
“I’m not feeling so good. What’s going on?”
“Well, I have some good news for you.”
“What’s going on?”
“Well, I’d like to tell you that President Obama has granted your clemency.”
So I’m speechless. “What does that mean?”
He’s laughing and he said, “That means you’ll be getting out on November the 10th.”
I paused again and I said, “November the 10th of what year?
So all my attorneys in the background are laughing and now my unit manager, she’s laughing.
Imagine going from knowing I had life without parole, which means I would never go home, to my life changing in a twinkle of the eye, where I have a new date now four months down the road. How do you process that?
“Everything is 3-D to me”
I’ve only been out seven months, but I immediately started volunteering at different boys clubs and police stations and some schools trying to connect with the youth so that I can share my experience with them.
I work part time for one of my buddies who’s an attorney. It’s enough to make ends meet, but I need the space and the time to be able to give back because I want to prevent people from going through what I had to go through. So that’s motivating in itself. I love it, and it doesn’t seem like work. So what I’m trying to do is eventually make a career out it.
I’m still trying to transition because after being inside for 24 and a half years, and only being out 7 months, of course you can imagine everything is 3-D to me. I’m having issues with the smart phone. It’s smarter than I am, and when I went in, cellphones were the size of the camera. I’m learning the Metro. I’m learning how to drive again. I had to learn different prices because the fact that my whole life has been around prison prices.
Everything has been a journey. I’m still learning and I still have a long way to go.
I keep the President’s clemency letter in my bedroom as a reminder that when I roll over, I’m not rolling over in a bunk, I’m rolling over in a big old bed now … where I can change the TV whenever I want! So I keep the letters there as a reminder and a joy that I have a second chance on life.
In the early 1990s, Norman was tried and convicted of possession and distribution of crack cocaine and given a mandatory life sentence. He was 22 years old. Norman’s sentencing judge lamented that the sentence he was obligated to impose was strikingly out of proportion to his non-violent drug offenses. Norman served his sentence in the Federal Correctional Institute Petersburg in Hopewell, Virginia, where he focused on mentoring other inmates. He did not have a single disciplinary violation during the 20 years he served. He filed his petition for commutation in 2010 and was granted commutation on November 10, 2015.
“Because it just doesn’t make sense to require a nonviolent drug offender to serve 20 years, or in some cases, life, in prison. An excessive punishment like that doesn’t fit the crime. It’s not serving taxpayers, and it’s not making us safer.”— President Obama on criminal justice reform