Last week, Part I of The Scarlet Letter: Maxwell Brown [Part I] was published. If you missed it, I encourage you to click here before reading this second installment of his story. You’ve missed a hell of a lot and trust me, it was good. I know it, because I wrote it. Haha! I kid. 😉
No really, don’t spoil it. Stop now and go read it [please] by click here.
This time around, you’ll be schooled on some of the inner workings of prison life, at the least. You’ll probably learn just enough to be a hair shy away from being able to proclaim yourself a gangster. 😉
Back to his story…
“Then he says, ‘I’m going to run everything concurrent’,” Maxwell’s eyes begin to bulge as his voice becomes louder and more pitched. It has a hint of the most airless chuckle I’ve ever heard.
I can only describe it as a laugh of disbelief.
“I said, ‘NOW WAIT A MINUTE, YA HONOR!’,” he shakes his head vehemently and then quickly mellows some, “so my lawyer leaned over to me and said, ‘that means that you’ll be eligible for parole in 10 years’.”
His shoulders drop a tad as he straightens up in his seat, “I said: OKAY, okay…I feel better,” he glances back at me, “but I’m still mad!”
Maxwell was still mad…still angry.
He was tired of being in the county jail sitting in what he describes as “obligatory”.
Little did he know, that was just the beginning.
Just a short while later he his anger would serve as admission onto a carousel ride of facility transfers within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. For example, not long after starting the “ride”, he was housed at the Camphill facility in Lower Allen, PA. While there he was asked where he wanted to ultimately be assigned to. He chose the Rockview facility located in Bellefonte, PA, (more than three hours away from Philadelphia) to which the guards declined due to overcrowding.
“I said: listen, y’all just gave me all this time to do, if I’ma do time somewhere I’m going to do it somewhere where I can get an education,” he says in what I imagine to be the same manner as he did back then.
A “mexican standoff” ensued causing the guard’s superior to intervene and agree to Maxwell’s request IF he promised not tell anyone about where he was going during his stay at their prison. If he told, he’d be sent to Pittsburgh. On a good day with the right conditions, Pittsburgh is a minimum of four hours away (I drive it often). Needless to say, Maxwell agreed.
His anger apparently didn’t give a damn, though.
Two days later, he fought a guard and was thrown in the hole for nine months. This happened yet again when he was finally shipped to Pittsburgh after being kicked out of all places: Rockview.
Now, Rockview was one of the better prisons in the system. At Rockview–which Maxwell describes as being run like a college campus–he was afforded the opportunity to obtain his associates degree in Liberal Arts thanks to the Pell Grant (no longer given to prisoners). He was also an avid boxer which enabled him to be able to travel from jail to jail to fight.
Unfortunately, while at Rockview he “got into it” with the “Muslim community”, which ultimately resulted in him stabbing a man.
Cue the transfer to Pittsburgh.
When he arrived, Maxwell unknowingly stumbled into an experience that captured a reality most prisoners from Philadelphia are faced with when sent west: Pittsburgh and Philly DO NOT get along.
“Pittsburgh dudes couldn’t stand Philly dudes because Philly dudes was taking all of Pittsburgh’s girls,” he turns and looks me square in my eye with a smug look and smirk, “that’s probably why you can’t go back to Pittsburgh because if you go back to Pittsburgh and tell them you was living in Philly…” he laughs as he says this to me.
When he attempts to go on I interject and dismiss his lame ass joke.
I forgot to mention that Maxwell can have the most sarcastic sense of humor–which I can appreciate because it keeps you on your toes.
Three hours of shadowing him showed me that.
Anywho, he also apparently didn’t know about the difference in fighting styles between the two cities either.
“Pittsburgh dudes have a reputation for taking you to the twelfth floor, right: they’ll slam you. The ‘Pittsburgh Jack’…I DON’T KNOW THIS,” he explains.
One day during a Pittsburgh vs. Philly basketball game, a huge fight erupted. That incident ended with Maxwell stabbing a man in the shoulder after being “jack hammered”.
He was sentenced to two years in the hole for it.
“The turning point for me was when I was standing in front of the hearing examiner and the hearing examiner said, ‘do you have anything to say?’ I said, ‘yea if this dude would of never had opened his mouth…’ and I stopped because when I got found guilty for my homicide and I was getting sentenced on my homicide, I was saying the same thing. It was at that point that I realized the issue wasn’t with anybody but myself,” he says with a look as if the light bulb went off all over again.
When he reached his cell in the hole, he took a long stare in the plastic mirror.
“I asked myself, who are you? And I didn’t have an answer. I was embarrassed to keep my face in the mirror,” he says with a piercing stare.
From that point on Maxwell began to change his life.
During his time in the hole he finally faced his demons. He began using writing as a form of therapy and healing. He vented all of his feelings into a seven page letter to his mom. Although he never sent it, he revisisted the letter days after writing it and when he felt no emotion as he read it, he accepted the healing that had come. He also released his emotions physically; he cried until he couldn’t anymore (he says he was in his own cell so he was “good”). He began to analyze his life based off of experiences that were both controllable and uncontrollable, and his subsequent reactions to them. He stripped himself to his most vulnerable state in an attempt to “figure himself out”. By the end of it all, he finally got to the root of his issues: he was suffering from insecurity and low-self esteem.
The time and transformation in the hole resulted in him emerging from it more focused than ever before in life. He also emerged with the hand written blueprint for what would become his five-step self awareness program, “It Works for Me“.
In 1999, at the age of 28, he set a new goal in life: he wanted to be a motivational speaker. In order to do this, he knew that he needed to better understand people and human interaction. He decided to become a peer counselor so that he could “learn how to deal with folks”.
He turns in his seat and asks me if I’ve ever heard of Nathan McCall. It sounds vaguely familiar. He explains that McCall is a man who was once in prison and eventually went on to become an award-winning author, professor, and [former] Washington Post newspaper reporter. After reading his book, Make Me Want to Holler, Maxwell felt that he could “do this”–that change was possible.
His change in attitude enabled him to make the most of his time as a peer counselor. His time in that position caused him to reexamine the
educational system, specifically the classroom setting. It taught him how to identify roles within group dynamics–the same roles that can be identified in the classrooms. You have: (a) people who want to be there (b) people who are there because they have to be (c) people who don’t want to be there at all and (d) people who are there just to laugh at others. If at any moment you start to lose control of anyone of these roles/personalities within the group [class], you lose the message [lesson].
“Even the folks who are trying to get something, you’ve lost them because they see that you can’t even handle these other parts. [Their thought is] So why should I listen to you? Once the kid sees a teacher doesn’t have control of the room…”he explains with a shake of the head as his voice trails off.
With his new-found purpose and attitude, Maxwell eventually went before the parole board and was denied. He wasn’t surprised; he knew he wasn’t going home because he had 38 misconducts. On top of that, he was a violent offender who’d been kicked out of two jails. However, he thought it’d be more like 6-9 months, not two years. But instead of using that as an opportunity to respond out of anger, he took it and used it to “go harder”.
When he went before them a second time, he took yet another hit: one more year.
“Now I’m mad,” he says. His noes flares some as he relives the frustration.
He had smartened up though; yet again, he went harder. The third time, he went before the panel, he finally saw his homicide in a different light:
“I said: well listen, I don’t mean to be rude or anything but I’ma tell you straight up, once I made the decision that one of us had to go, it did not make sense to shoot him in the leg. I had to kill him because it felt as though my life was in jeopardy, so it had to be either me or him. That’s what it came down to. Now fast forward to today- if you were to ask me if that was the right thing to do: No. I didn’t trust the system and now I understand why I’m standing here being punished’,” he looks at me almost if we’re back in that room, as if he’s back in the moment of fighting for his freedom.
He wasn’t asked to leave the room when the time came for them to make their decision. He was addressed on the spot:
“Either you really have changed, or you just pulled the biggest wool over our eyes that we’ve ever seen. You’re going home.”
Maxwell was finally granted parole. Six months later, in 2003, at 34 years-old, he was released. As he sat in a Grey Hound bus station waiting for his brother to come pick him up he began to grow impatient with how long his brother was taking. He attempted to call him on the pay phone but the call wouldn’t go through. He kept trying, and kept trying, and kept trying. A young woman noticed and attempted to help by dialing it for him, subsequently asking for the area code.
“I was like, it’s a local call, you don’t need the area code. She was like, yes you do,” he says.
At the time that Maxwell had gotten “locked” up, area codes weren’t needed to dial locally. Damn. When his brother finally arrived, the young woman stopped him and asked him how he didn’t know that he needed an area code.
“I told her I was locked up for 14 years. This girl didn’t know my name or anything…she looked at me and said, I bet you got some good dick. I hauled ass away from her,” he says with a look of honest ignorance and fear.
The entire car erupts into a barrage of responses and laughter. He continues on with his stories of readjusting to a new world. A few days after that incident he was at a store with his sister when a woman approached the two.
“She said: damn you look good, I’m tryna holla at you. Now by this time, I’m shook; I don’t want to talk to NOBODY. I say to her, I’m chillin’ with my sister, I ain’t trying to holla at anybody. She said: I’m talking to your sister. I was like…WOOOOWWW,” he says with his brows raised and eyes bulged.
As time went on, Maxwell went through a rub down [my terminology]–the period that he identifies as the one to two years that it takes for the “jailhouse residue” to “rub off of you”. Professionals would describe it as part of the critical readjustment phase that prisoners go through when re-entering society.
“Even though I [was] free, I [was] still thinking from a jail perspective. I use to get up at six o’clock in the morning even though I didn’t have to…it was hard,” he explains.
“I knew I wasn’t going back to jail. Did I know that I’d be the things that I’m doing on the scale that I’m doing them? No. I’m living a dream…I’m humbled,” he says with a raw honesty.
We pull up to the school as he finishes his sentence.
I watch the man, who I have now gained a completely new perspective of within the last 45 minutes, prepare the giveaway items for the kids and usher us briskly to the school. His excitement to see them oozes into his feet, giving him a pep in his step.
He greets the security staff as we go through our checks, and then proceeds to walk around it as if he’s at home…like he’s right where he belongs. When we near the classroom, he stops and glances at me as if to ask if I’m ready, and then turns the knob.
“Maaannnnn, where you been?” a student asks him with a playful attitude as we enter the room.
He’s been missed.
Stop by next week to check out the third and final part [Part III] of Maxwell’s story:
He discusses the impact of his work with youth; rebuilding his life post-incarceration; the moment his “scarlet letter“, C for Convict, was permanently removed; and what’s up next for Maxwell Brown.
– Sincerely Syreeta