Brandon Johnson, 26, grew up in Memphis, Tennessee in Midtown. He was raised by a single grandmother who worked two jobs to care for the three kids in his home. A month after his 18th birthday, he was charged with aggravated robbery. The judge denied his attorney’s request that he be treated as a juvenile, so he spent five and a half years in prison as an adult. In the two years since his release, he’s been working temp jobs (he currently works at a factory), and he enrolled in college, where he’s working towards a nursing degree. He is discouraged by the second-class citizenship that his felony status has given him, but he’s working hard to overcome his obstacles with a healthy sense of humor and a positive attitude. Listen or read to learn more about Brandon’s story.
Interview with Brandon Johnson, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on June 20, 2016.
Brandon Johnson: A lot of people, since you’re an outcast to society, they really don’t care about your opinion and they kind of just brush it off, “Oh, you know, you committed crimes, we don’t care what you have to say. We’ve got other issues we’d rather tend to.” Which that’s not fair because you have 2 million plus people. That’s a huge amount of people that have felonies. This is, you know, a small country. You have a small country of people to have felonies within this so called free country. But we’re cut off to virtually everything. What little that is available to us is not enough to sustain yourself, let alone a family. So if you have that many people that are in a perpetual cycle of, “Okay, I don’t have any opportunity, I’ve committed a crime—such and such whenever—because I’ve done this now all of a sudden now I’m discriminated against.” That just sets the stage for them to fall back into things you used to do a long time ago: get in trouble, and you go back through the system, which is not an accident. This all, it’s all planned out this way. Because the people that run this country aren’t dummies, you know. It’s all planned out this way because it all makes money, you know. It’s like, say like, you sell drugs. You sell drugs and your customers are coming through the door. You sell them drugs but then at the same time you’re saying, “Hey I want you to go in the back and I have this rehabilitation center in the back.” Why would you rehabilitate your users? Because if you did, then they wouldn’t come back, they wouldn’t spend money. So why would you really rehabilitate criminals? They wouldn’t come back, you wouldn’t make money. So you don’t do that. You don’t rehabilitate them while they’re in prison, and then when they get out, you make sure there is very little opportunity available so they can slip back into their old ways of life, and they can come back, and they can keep making this money, this cash cow. That’s…
The Juvenile Project: Yeah. Well you’ve been inside so you see what it’s… I want to find out a little bit more… So, to start out, just tell me your name and how old you are.
Brandon: My name is Brandon Johnson, and I'm twenty-six years old.
TJP: When were you born?
TJP: Alright. So, tell me a little bit about your background; like, where you grew up and went to school, and like, how you kind of began to get in trouble.
Brandon: Okay, well, I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in Midtown, and I was raised by a single grandmother. She worked two jobs to take care of three kids that a lot of times were bad as hell (laughter). And we didn’t have a lot of money; we were poor, which most people around our area were. You know, being in an environment where you don’t have, and you see people that do have, it makes you want to have, regardless of how you get it. And, you know, some people take the straight and narrow path. And some people don’t and it’s just how it goes. You know, I didn’t have any father figures in my life--I always looked up to gangsters. That’s just how it was. I started to emulate them and I started to do things that they would do. And I was about thirteen and I started robbing people. It wasn’t the coolest stuff I ever did, but that was just the way of life back then. And I thought I was doing it for a good cause because I would take some of the money and give it to my grandma and she’d, “Where’d you get this from?” “Aw you know…” and I’d make up some lie and everything would be peachy-keen. But my luck caught up with me and I was eighteen. And I, uh, I did some robberies. And the OCU came and, well, they saw that I matched the description of the suspect or whatever and they took me downtown…
TJP: What’s OCU stand for?
Brandon: Organized Crime Unit. And we were just walking down the street and they stopped us and said that we fit the description of the suspect. And they took us downtown. And they didn’t have anything on us and they said, “Look, the only way you can leave is if you let us take a picture of you.” And I said, “Uh, okay,” not knowing any better. So they snapped a picture of me and they let us go. And little did I know that picture that they snapped they went to each person that claimed they were robbed and they showed them my picture and, “Well, we just picked this guy up, did he rob you?” And all of them said, “Yes, yes, yes.” And I’m knowing…I’m not no angel. I know I did some crimes, but a lot of them people I did not rob. So I know that they were coerced into saying that I robbed them. But anyway, they came back and ended up arresting me, and I stayed in 201 for about three months. When it came time for my preliminary hearing, none of the victims could identify me. So they released me. And like three months later, they indicted me on the exact same charges again. I ended up getting convicted, and I end up going to prison for five and a half years, at the age of eighteen.
TJP: Were you always considered an adult because you were eighteen to begin with?
Brandon: Well, at the time, they were trying to say that because I had just … I was eighteen not even, I want to say, a month. Because I ended up turning nineteen while I was locked up for this charge. And they tried to put me in as a juvenile but the prosecutor fought against it and the judge ended up agreeing with them and I ended up staying as an adult the whole time. They ended up declining me as being tried as a juvenile. Because I had three other charge partners on my case with me and they were all considered adults and so they said, since I ran with adults I was going to be charged as an adult and that’s what they did. They sentenced me like an adult, so.
TJP: So, what were the details of that particular . . . I mean, when you say you had charge partners, did you run with them?
Brandon: Yeah, it was a crew of us. And I mean, I was the youngest but that’s what I did. I did robberies. And they really didn’t. But they ended up coming from the same place where I come from. When you’re down on your luck and you don’t have anything, you get desperate. You’re willing to do anything, you know, just to make it. And we all went out one night and we did what we did and, long story short, for whatever reason, the victims recanted their statements and said that they can’t really recall if they were robbed by these people right here, which were my charged partners. But they were 100% certain it was me. So I said, “Well if you’re not certain it’s them, then how are you so certain it’s me when you said, at a time, you were 100% certain it was all of us?” Well, they ended up releasing them but they kept me and they were saying, “Well, you know, you might get tried as a juvenile and you’re not going to get that much time.” Which I didn’t get tried as a juvenile, I got tried as an adult. Well, I was bound over as an adult. My public defender was telling me, “You better take the deal, you better take these eight years because if you go to trial you’re probably going to lose.” He wasn’t having any faith whatsoever in the case. Me being young and not knowing any better, you know, he was saying, “If you lose you could get thirty-six years in prison. Or you could take eight years and still have some of your life.” He never did put in the details of “No matter what you get, when you are released, no matter when … It’s going to be so hard for you that you may as well take a chance at trial. Because when you get released from prison, you’re not going to be eligible or able to do pretty much anything because you have this felony on your background.” But he failed to mention all that and I ended up signing for the eight years and I got sent to Northwest Penitentiary and then I went from Northwest Penitentiary to West High State Penitentiary and I ended up being released in 2014.
TJP: So you didn’t have to serve the full eight?
Brandon: No I didn’t have to serve the full eight. I ended up serving five and a half years on the eight and you know, when you’re in there you end up accumulating good time. So, it eats it up. So, I ended up serving five and a half years. But I was sentenced at eight years at 20%, you know. And I ended up doing over 50%. So, you know, (laughs) it was bogus from the get-go.
TJP: Well, Mahal was telling me you had some pretty rough times when you were inside. I don’t know if she mentioned 201 …
Brandon: Yeah, you know, it’s … Being in those environments where everyone is stressing over their lives, one can find an area where everyone is fighting for their life. It’s a given that it’s going to be rough and it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be brutal. And yeah, I witnessed my share and have been involved my share of some things that were, you know, that were awful. They weren’t anything that an 18, 19, 20, 30, 40, 50-year old should see or be involved. But being that what everyone’s going through and the actual environment that is set up inside the state prisons, because it’s not an environment that’s set up to where, you know, you do your time easy. No, everything is constructed to be depressing. As far as, even, everything so little as the color of the actual institution. With it being…I remember they said the color was “Battleship Gray.” It’s supposed to be something that when you just look around, it doesn’t make you feel good. And all of that plays a part in what goes on inside and it’s terrible. For them to say that it’s a place where they rehabilitate a juvenile or an adult--that’s ludicrous. Because none of that goes on in there. There are no kinds of institutions, there’s no type of … The programs they have in there, they are so bogus. They don’t really put you in a position to where you can leave with something that you can actually make a living for yourself. It’s all just a front to where they can receive money from the federal government. I was in a carpentry class. And when I tell you, literally, maybe one time when I put my hand on some wood, that was it. But you know, I was forced to go to this carpentry class every day or I would get in trouble. And I would have to go to the hole. The hole is a place where inmates that are considered rebellious or something, they send you to this confined area. You know, isolation—it’s supposed to break you down and the you’re supposed to act “correct.” It was … it was such a lie. That’s the best way that I can put it. It’s such a lie when you’re in there because they tell you that they teach you how to make your bed up, they teach you how to mop and buff and wax your floor, you know. And they put real heavy emphasis on this. And if you don’t do it correctly, you’ll get in trouble. But they don’t put emphasis on inmates getting a GED or inmates getting college degrees or certificates or inmates recovering from drug addiction. They don’t put emphasis on that. Because why would you? Because if they actually did and these people started turning their lives around, they wouldn’t come back to prison. They’d actually become something and we’d lose revenue. And then that goes all into something totally different.
TJP: What was the biggest difference between being in detention and being at a prison?
Brandon: Well, being in detention is like you kind of have some type of hope that okay although it’s still crazy, you still have some type of hope that I could get out of this or I could beat this or they could let it go. You’re not around people that have already had their lives taken away from them. Automatically, they have nothing to lose. They are already set in stone, “I’m going to die here.” Everyone still has a fighting chance in the detention. But when you’re in prison you’re around a lot of people that have been condemned by society. You’re never to leave, you know. And they have nothing to lose. So that type of mentality… And there’s lots of people with that mentality because there’s lots of people sentenced forever in prison. And being around that is totally different because you could bump into someone by mistake and since they have that mentality of “I have nothing to lose,” you could lose your life right then and there. I’ve seen it happen multiple times. I’ve seen eighteen-year-olds, just fresh out of the detention center come in with a charge—a little burglary charge or a little drug charge; something small--but they end up getting sentenced to prison. But they end up losing their lives in this prison over something small. Because of the mentality that’s inside these institutions: “Okay I already have life, I don’t care about anything, society’s already cast me away, so what? Why not? If you get on my nerves or if you rub me the wrong way, you’re going to die today.” And I’ve seen so many young guys, man, young. Actually, a lot of them smart! Gone, just like that. You know, just like that. Instead of there being some kind of plan implemented to where instead of sending these kids to prison, let’s try to reroute them and let’s try to fix them before we send them to this place where they could possibly lose their lives. Or actually become more hardened criminals. Because a lot of times that’s what happens. But I have yet to see a program where that happens. As far as I know so far there’s just funneling them through prison, counting money.
TJP: When you were inside what was the thing that you missed the most?
Brandon: The thing I missed the most is the camaraderie. I have to admit, you know, prison is not a friend of mine. It was designed and built to depress me and to destroy me and all of the above that’s bad. But at the same token, being in that environment, you know, you end up making friends. You end up making bonds with people going through the similar things you are or worse or not as worse. And then you wake up everyday and you try to cheer one another up because we’re in a situation that’s awful. And everyday we wake up I could be gone or you could be gone. So what I missed most was that bond and friendship. It’s kind of like the military—when guys are at war and battle the only thing they can do is forge friendships and bonds to make it out and survive. And you do the same thing in prison. Everyone wants to get out of prison. But at the same time it’s still bittersweet because you’ve got guys you know you’ll never see them again. It’s a lot of good guys, man. Guys that are smart, intelligent, charismatic, really mean well, just made a mistake, you know. You’ll never see them again and if you hear from them it will only be through letters and that’s a sad feeling. But that’s what I miss most. I think about them all the time, actually.
TJP: Have any of them gotten out since?
Brandon: Yeah, some of them have gotten out. Some of them have gotten out and went straight back. Some of them have gotten out and gotten killed. Some of them have gotten out and are just like me, struggling to make it by. You know, trying each and every nook and cranny just to get in somewhere where you can actually elevate and get some gainful employment and try to move up and try to stay away from jail or prison or things like that. So, some of them have gotten out and it’s just all of us have the same thing in common. It’s hard. It’s not like anybody coming out, and you have a million dollars buried in the ground or something like that, we’re all coming out to the same thing. Whether you went in as a juvenile or you went in as an adult, when you come out you are a second-class citizen. You don’t really mean anything, you know. You’re going to get looked over in almost every situation, because of your past, because of what you did. And that’s so unfair. You’ve got a lot of guys that get out and they really have it in them where they want to do better. And if somebody has that in them where they want to do better you should match it then. You should say, “Okay if this is what you want to do better, well I’m going to give you the avenue, I’m going to give you the platform and the stage to do it. Now if you mess up, that’s on you, but I’m going to actually provide this platform for you to actually make yourself out of something.” But instead the platform is absent. It’s not there. You got to kind of build your own and that’s a lot easier said than done.
TJP: You were talking about your personal experiences where you wanted to go back to school. Can you tell me a little bit specifically about what you were looking for and wanted to do?
Brandon: Well, I have to backtrack a little bit if that’s okay. I want to say about five or six months ago, I was shot. In the driveway of my own house. I was coming home and it was Christmas Eve and I got shot in the chest. And I went to the hospital and, luckily, I lived. While I was in there I just, I was thinking. Okay, I’ve been working, I’ve been staying out of trouble and I get shot. Why is this happening to me? I got the old pity trip or whatever. And I said, well, you know what? If I survive through this I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to become somebody, or I want to become somebody that actually helps people. And the first thing that went through my head was a nurse. My girlfriend, she’s also a nurse too. I have to credit her a lot with pushing me in that direction of wanting to be something that helps people. So I said, “Okay, when I get out of this hospital, I’m going to enroll in college, and that’s what I’m going to become.” Well, little did I know, it’s just not that easy. Although that’s what I want to become there’s lots of things that I have to go through because I’m a felon. And one of those things is I can take all the courses for the class, but when it comes time to get accepted into the program, since I have a felony, they actually have to submit it to different hospitals. And then the hospitals have to make a determination whether or not I can come on their premises and do clinicals, and you know, get the experience and knowledge to become a nurse. And if they say no, that means I’ll be dropped from the program and all my schooling will have been for nothing. And I was thinking about that and I was like, okay, so pretty much, you’re discriminating against me. That’s like saying if I wanted to come up and sign up for this program and I wanted to do clinicals and you guys said, “Well, no, because you’re black” or “No, because you’re white.” You would say, “That’s discrimination.” Or, “Well no, you can’t because you have HIV” or “No, you can’t because you’re handicapped.” Everyone would say, “That’s discrimination, you can’t do that!” But okay, why is it acceptable to do that to someone with a felony? And I can get lucky and maybe possibly do the clinicals. But at the same time, I have to go before the board. And the board, since I have a felony, they have to make a decision whether or not we want to give him his license. Okay, I’ve done the schooling, I’ve proven that I want to change my life around, they can still deny me. So, I can get lucky, they can grant me my license. But then I still have to find employment and they can deny me because I have a felony in my background. It’s a lot of risks that I’m going through trying to get this degree. Because there’s a strong possibility that I could get denied on one of those three corners, one of those three avenues. But I can’t live my life saying, “Well, since I have a felony and they say I can’t do it, I can’t do it.” If that’s the case, I can’t do anything. I might as well have stayed in prison. So, I’m determined. I go to school full-time, I work full-time. And I just have to keep in my head that if I want it bad enough, and I can make people see that I want it bad enough, then nothing can stop me. It doesn’t hurt to have people on your side as well. But I’m going to do what I have to do to get this degree. Because I want to be somebody, remembered as, “Okay, he spread more smiles than tears. He helped more than he hurt.” I’m confident that I can make it happen. It’s not going to be easy but I think I can do it.
TJP: I think you’re on the right track.
Brandon: I think so, too. If I can just get, you know, society to see that. It’s a lot harder convincing society as a whole that you’re on the right track because they always are going to say, “Well, yeah you did this and you could do it again.” Don’t judge me on where I’ve been and what I’ve done, judge me on what I’m doing now or where I’m trying to go. I’m trying to do something that is, in the eyes of humanity, society, God, whoever, is right. So, if I’m trying to do that, let me do it! Don’t tell me know because I have a felony. Don’t shoot me down, try to help me out, raise me up. So I can do that for the next person and the next person and maybe this country won’t have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. That’s just how I feel about it.
TJP: That was awesome, man, that was awesome. We could keep going on and I could ask you all kinds of questions but is there anything in particular you want to add to that before we stop?
Brandon: I think that . . . it’s already known that having a felony and background is hard. The things you have to go through to prove yourself to society. Okay, I’m not who I used to be, I’m rehabilitated, I’m a better person now. It’s astronomical what you have to go through just to get someone to recognize that. I think that convicted felons, people with felonies in their background, in some kind of way, should come together and make a plight and make an actual issue about this. Just like women had to do the same thing to be able to vote. Just like black people had to do the same thing in Civil Rights in order to get rights. Just like gays and homosexuals and whatever you want to be, they come together to actually fight for their rights. Convicted felons have to do the exact same thing because no one is going to give us anything. As long as we’re content with just being discriminated against and working temp jobs for the rest of our lives and not getting any gainful employment, then that’s how it’s going to stay unless we actually stand up and make a voice about it. That’s the only way it’s going to happen. Other than that, we’re going to continue to always come out of prison and come out of these detention centers and stay at the bottom of the barrel. But they had a plan for that. Anyone who has a convicted felony cannot associate with someone else that has a felony. So that automatically right there stops people with the same issues coming together to actually make a plight, an issue about discrimination and the unfairness the justice system imposes on people with backgrounds. They were real smart when they came up with that law. They knew better. But still, I still think there’s some kind of way that we could be able to come together and voice what we feel should be changed and what we feel should be done as far as regarding people that have felonies in their background. And it needs to start today. Right now.
TJP: As soon as people are listening to this, right?
Brandon: Yeah, of course, you know. Because if not, like I said, we’re going to always be kicked on, stepped on, and that’s just not right. It makes me angry, to be honest with you. It makes me very angry that you can have someone that gets out of prison or gets out of a detention center and decides to do the right thing but you make it extremely hard. You make it as hard as possible for them. Why? Why? I want to know your reason why. The only reason that could be, is because you already have a system in play that you want to keep perpetuating. That’s the only reason why. And we need to dismantle it. We got to crush it. But the only way is that we’ve got to have unity, we’ve got to come together, come up with a cohesive plan, make our voice hear, and keep going until legislation, law makers, politicians make a change about it. So.
TJP: It’s brilliant, man. That’s awesome, I think it’s great that we’ve recorded this, and now we can put it out and people can hear it...
Brandon: Well, you know. They know that change comes about when people come together. And they’re fed up and they decide, okay, we’re going to take action against it. So, you can’t have two million people with felonies, some violent, some not, come together. What if they try to take over the country or something? Oh, well, we can’t allow them to associate. Well, what if they actually come together and do something good? Did you ever think about that? Not everyone that has been in prison is on a mission to destroy the world. Some people actually want to get out and help or do right. You can’t even—literally, when you just look at the scope of things that you can’t do because of having a felony—you can’t join the military, you can’t get your license for over 100 different businesses and careers, you can’t work for UPS. I tried to work for UPS, I tried to work for FedEx, I tried to work for a car rental place and they all say the same thing, “Well, you know, you have a felony in your background.” Okay, yeah, I know. It will never go away. But, I’m not going to let it stop me though.
TJP: I think it’s awesome though... It’s all about individuals. It’s all about the power of the individual to overcome the stereotype of the group mentality... It’s like you can’t even say former [felon], it’s stays with you or whatever, unless you can get it purged, but like, that’s not something that’s open for everybody.
Brandon: Mine can’t. Most of them can’t. And they say, especially in like Memphis, they say, “Well, just get your felony expunged.” Well, this is a city where a lot of people that catch felonies, they happen to be violent felonies. And violent felonies, you know, nine times out of ten, can’t be expunged. And so legislation makes a change which, who knows when that will be. But, I see a lot of times where people get, I don’t know how they do it, but they get on CNN and they, “Aw well, we want to have the right to be married.” You know, gay people. Well, if that’s what you want to do, I don’t care what you want to do. Or they have people on there that get on CNN, and they’ve got different people that are saying their opinions on why they think this should be that or that should be this. And I would like to see somebody—I would even go on CNN as far as, you know, someone going on there and making a case for why convicted felons should have better opportunities or more of a chance in society when they get released. Because the people that are coming out, they’re still somebody’s son, they’re still somebody’s nephew, still somebody’s grandfather, still somebody’s father. So, we have to make some type of way for when they come back in and they can actually adjust some kind of way to where they can actually have a fighting chance to make it. And I don’t know how you go about getting on CNN and doing that and I’m sure it’s hard as hell, but …
TJP: Well, and too, there’s a ton of lip service that’s all about, “Oh yeah, you know, we’ve got these reentry programs,” and they’ve got tons and tons of federal money to go and help people get hooked back up with the right stuff …
Brandon: Well, I can tell you this. I’ve been in reentry programs and I’m not taking away from anybody that actually works there, because I’m sure that a lot of them have good intentions, whatever. But that stuff isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Because if it is, you’d actually see…it would show in statistics and numbers. And the recidivism rate hasn’t gone down and incarceration rates haven’t gone down, so obviously these reentry programs aren’t working. Something isn’t working. So if something isn’t working, we need some kind of change. Yeah, you all have this federal money or whatever. What is it actually going to? I haven’t seen a federal dollar yet except for school. But at the same time you’re giving me all this federal money for a degree you’re saying, possibly, I can’t get because I have a felony. So somewhere, somehow something’s broken. Because if it wasn’t, if it was actually working, you would see improvements. The recidivism rate wouldn’t be so high. Or the rate of crime wouldn’t be so high. Or you could see an actual increase in people getting out and gaining employment in places like UPS where you could get a career or becoming nurses or becoming licensed whatever they want to be. They can say that all they want, but when you pull these numbers up, and they’re still the same or worse, that just goes to prove that, no, these reentry programs aren’t working. No, this federal money you guys claim you guys have for convicted felons to do this, that, and the third, isn’t working. So, we need to come up with something else, something better. From the perspective of someone that’s actually a felon, because you guys have never been in the position we’ve been in before, you know. So, there’s no way you can actually really know what’s best. Because what you’re thinking is what’s best isn’t working. You know, I’ve been to the reentry programs. What they do is they give you a flyer, “Here, go to this job fair.” You go to the job fair and they’re looking for people that don’t have felonies. So you go there and, “Oh, nice seeing it…” and you don’t get a call back. That’s just how it goes.
TJP: What did you do when you first came out? How long have you been out now?
Brandon: I’ve been out for about a year and half now. Almost two years.
TJP: So, you’ve been out two years and you just had to do temp work?
Brandon: That’s the only work I’ve had since I’ve been out. Every other thing, everything else, I haven’t been able to get anything because of my felony. I’ve been told countless times. Like I said, UPS, I went through the entire interview process. I ended up, I had to go to three different locations and they made me all this, that, and the third, to finally tell me at the end, “No,” because I have a felony. No. I had the qualifications, I had everything. I was qualified to do the job but they told me no. Ace Car rental did the same thing to me. FedEx did the same thing. I had the qualifications, they all said no. The only way that you can get employment is through the temp service. You’re going to have to take a decrease in pay. To me, it’s really no different than close to being a slave. You work for this very low wage, you do very hard work, and that’s that. It’s set in stone. And we’re the go between for you. So if you don’t have us, you’re not going to get a job. So, in some ways it’s bad that you can only get a portion of your money working through a temp, but let’s just imagine if there were not temp services. Then there really wouldn’t be any employment for convicted felons. But I just got lucky and there was a guy in the penitentiary and—quick little story—I was going up for parole. And he was like, “Well, just in case you get it, man, you know, here’s this number.” And it was an actual number and it said “Temps” on it. It was on a yellow piece of paper. This was in 2010. And I said, “Alright, man,” and I took it and put it away somewhere. I never got parole. And actually the guy that gave me that number. He was convicted as a juvenile. His name’s OG Tippy. He’s a kitchen crip and one of the best guys I’ve ever met in my life, man. A real stand up guy. And he got convicted when he was a juvenile. He got convicted of a crime and they sentenced him illegally. They have him, like, fifty years for, I want to say, a second degree. They gave him an illegal sentence as a juvenile and he’s been there twenty-five years now. He’s spent, from the time he was sixteen up until I think, he about to be forty this year, in prison on an illegal sentence. You know, I just had to reference him but he gave me the number and it said “temps” on it. Well, fast forward from 2010 to like five years later, I get out, I can’t find a job. I just happen to find this little yellow piece of paper. And it said “temps.” I said, “Man, this was five years ago. There’s no way this number is still valid.” I dial the number up anyway and someone answered the phone and someone said, “A1 Staff, how can I help you?” And I said, “Are you guys hiring right now?” They were like, “Well, you’ve got to come in, do the orientation, all that.” So I’m like, Okay, it’s going to be another dead end. So I go down there, do the orientation, and that day I was sent out on a job. And I always thank Tippy for that. He gave me that little yellow piece of paper five years ago and it turned out that it was a job that I have kept for the last year and a half. And I didn’t get the job through someone out here in society with a suit or anything. I got it from a guy that has tattoos from the neck down, you know. Muscles everywhere. He’s a gang member. He got me that job. And I’ve been working through the temp service ever since. And that’s why I’m going to school so maybe one day I don’t have to work through a temp service and I can actually work for some place that can pay me some good money.
TJP: Did you ever tell him that?
Brandon: Oh yeah, I told him. And he just played it off like it wasn’t nothing. He said, “Dig that, dig that. Man, can you give me ten dollars for a phone card?” But yeah, he got me that and I’ve always been grateful that he just even thought about me enough to give me that. He didn’t have to just…he got fifty years in prison, you know. He could be one of those mean, ugliest person alive. And he gave me that and he said, “Man, just in case you get it, here you go. You get out, you call and try and get a job.” That’s how I ended up getting that job.
TJP: How did you end up getting shot, if you don’t mind me asking? What happened?
Brandon: I just came home one day and I got out my truck and I was going to walk into my house and something told me to look to my left and I looked to my left and there was a guy just standing there. And before I could do anything he just pow pow pow! He just shot me. I don’t know who it was to this day. I don’t know who it was, the police don’t know who it was. But you know, I’m a strong believer in karma. Although I wasn’t doing anything wrong at the time, I’ve done a lot of wrong things in my life. You got to pay for everything, whether you pay for it now, you pay for it thirty years down the line. Every little thing you do, whether it’s right or wrong, you’re going to get accommodated for it. I just chalked it up to someone finally catching up to me and paying me back for something that I did to them or someone that they loved. And just thank God that I survived. But that’s all that happened. They didn’t try to rob me or anything, they just shot me. That’s the only explanation I could think. Okay, it’s just retribution, you know. They finally got back at me. The bullet’s still in my back. Like I said, thank God I lived. And I got a really good girlfriend by my side. She stayed with me the whole time. If it wasn’t for her I probably wouldn’t have made it. That’s the story on that.
TJP: Well, maybe if she’s working in the hospital she can get you a good word...
Brandon: I know the crime that I did is not… You look at it and, you know, it’s bad. What I did was wrong. I ripped off some people that probably worked their ass off for the money that I took. I’m not debating that what I did was wrong. I know it was wrong. But I’m making an effort now to make it right. My way of making it up and making it right is going to school, going to work, trying to get a degree in something to where I can actually help people that are sick or they have ailments or something like that. That’s my way of paying back. That’s my way of getting redemption from society. I’d try to do the military but I’m a felon, they won’t take me. At times, I have to admit, it gets kind of discouraging. I’ll stop and think, “Okay, I’m doing all this school, man, and it’s going to be for nothing. It’s going to be years wasted out of my life and they’re going to tell me no.” I have to admit, it crosses my mind. But then I have to say, “Hey, there’s always that one story where this one person overcomes all that and then they open the door for other people to actually make it.” Maybe that could be me. So it makes me keep going forward.
I’m just… I’m not going to stop. And if for whatever reason they do deny me in the end, I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to make the whole world know what I tried to do and how I got denied and you want to understand why the recidivism rate and the incarceration rate is so high? Because of instances like this when people try their damnedest and their hardest when they get out to do right and they get shot down because of what they did in their past. So you can’t complain about it, you can’t say anything about it, unless you make a change about it.
TJP: Did you read The New Jim Crow?
Brandon: I read it in prison, I read it in prison. Alexander Corino. He got forty-five years at 85% when he was seventeen years old. His mom bought him that book and he let me read it. That’s where I read that book, in state penitentiary. It’s true. I mean, everything that that lady says . . . You can disagree all you want but facts are facts. And it’s true everything she’s saying. And of course, it’s unfairly perpetuated toward people of color. But at the same time, it’s just people that mainly are poor--blacks, whites, Latinos. It’s just one […] big way how they make money. The prison industry makes billions and if you look at the stocks … If you go to see who holds stock in prisons, you would see that Jim Brady over here, he’s a prosecutor, he has stock in prisons. Or Billy Bob, he’s a judge, he has stocks in prisons. So if you have stocks in prisons you’re going to be more inclined to send as many people to prison as you can so your stocks will elevate. You don’t want to keep them out because then your stocks would decline and you would lose money. So all of that is all intertwined and that should be illegal. There’s no way you should be a judge and have stocks in prison. Because you’re going to be more biased to sentence me and sentence me to a long periods of time!
TJP: I know it, man. That’s what’s so messed up. It’s true.
Brandon: You said there’s a movement going on?
TJP: Yeah. I think so, man. I mean the fact that, you know, I show up at a Starbucks one day, and Bryan Stevenson’s book is at the point of sale, at Starbucks. I was like, “Damn!” That’s like national, all of the Starbucks all over the country were helping him promote that book. Isn’t that amazing?
Brandon: Yeah, that’s amazing!
TJP: Yeah, I mean he’s done some amazing work with that and brought it way high up... Well, thank you, I know you’ve got to get back to work. But I’m excited about this!