They attended the same elementary and middle schools, hung out together at recess and played football and basketball. Then, their paths diverged.
Brandon Harris and Sura Sohna grew up together in Annapolis, Maryland. They attended the same elementary and middle schools, hung out together at recess and played sports like football and basketball. However, in high school, their paths diverged in opposite directions. After graduating from a private high school, Harris went on to Davidson College in North Carolina with a full-tuition scholarship as a Belk Scholar, which recognizes academic achievement and leadership. He was elected student body president twice and is expected to graduate with a bachelor's degree in philosophy this year.
As part of a semester-long study project last year at Davidson College, Brandon Harris focused on Sura Sohna’s life and the stiff judgement levied against him. @wsoctv https://t.co/vt7T0IMbUN— Anthony Kustura (@AnthonyWSOC9) February 10, 2022
Sohna, on the other hand, began to have run-ins with law enforcement from the age of 12 when he was arrested for stealing a bike. According to Good Morning America, he still remembers how a police officer and the victim of the crime told him at the time that he should spend the rest of his life in jail for stealing that bike. By 2018, Sohna faced 15 years in prison after being charged as an adult with first-degree burglary for breaking into a home along with an additional burglary. He would've spent the better part of his youth behind bars if not for Harris reconnecting with him in 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ben Finholt of @WilsonCSJ_ says COVID-19 has had an outsized effect on prisoners, both in health outcomes and increased isolation. He says that even if they didn’t get sick, the pandemic “absolutely makes it worse in terms of just the trauma of prison.” https://t.co/nV9qhFVT3a— Duke Law (@DukeLaw) February 10, 2022
The two childhood friends started exchanging letters after Harris heard that people in prisons were having a hard time staying safe during the global health crisis. Their conversations inspired Harris to embark on an independent study project looking into the structural challenges and generational struggles that led to their different situations. "I said I want to do a project called 'Telling the Stories of the Ignored or Forgotten,'" the college student revealed. "And Sura was someone who I consider to be ignored and forgotten by society." He set out to research Sohna's life in the "most objective way possible," Harris explained. Working with a professor at Davidson College, he interviewed Sohna and his family, the victims of Sohna's crimes, arresting officers and prosecutors.
We cannot have one rule for one group and a different rule for another. The same crime deserves the same time. https://t.co/UBQ3Q3b4L2— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) July 30, 2018
Sohna revealed that he experienced homelessness and unstable housing at a young age. He and his family later moved to a public housing community in Annapolis, where he was exposed to violence, police brutality and drugs. "Growing up, I didn't really have anything. I didn't have much. I would be picked on for not having things and I felt like instead of being a victim of things, I should become a victimizer and start to do negative things," Sohna said. "I feel like I was dealt a bad hand, but I knew right from wrong, and I made bad decisions."
This Youth Justice Action month learn more about the over-policing of Black youth: https://t.co/jcx9hMt1kp #YJAM #YJAM2021 pic.twitter.com/vct560hFUo— Louisiana Center for Children's Rights (@LAKidsRights) October 7, 2021
Harris' research soon turned the project into advocacy. "I had known before that Sura is a victim of a system that has been against him for a long time," he said. "The situations that he's had to go through are just unjust and unfair and nobody should ever have to go through what he's had to go through growing up. When I was able to get the objective research together and be able to present that and get people to recognize that, that's when we had the momentum. And knowing Sura's fate--he was supposed to get out in 15 years, we were thinking that we really want to get this in court and get that sentence reconsidered."
"Research has shown that when police are present, teachers and school officials will contact them for increasingly minor behavior, and security measures do not make schools safer." @DrSubini on the criminalization of Black youth in schools https://t.co/uVCP18L7vi— Poverty & Inequality (@CenterPovIneq) June 19, 2020
A few months after Harris compiled his findings in a presentation and after it was shared on Davidson College's YouTube channel in April 2021, Sohna's attorneys filed a motion requesting a hearing to reconsider his sentence in December 2021. At the hearing to reconsider Sohna's sentence last week, Harris spoke about their friendship and his friend's progress throughout working on the independent study project together. "The judge sort of pushed back on some of the points I was making," Harris said. "There's a metaphor that got used a lot in court that day, and that was 'you can take a horse to water, but you can't force them to drink.' So we told the judge that Sura has drank over the past year and a half working with me, and he's ready to drink for the judge if given the opportunity."
Sohna, who participated in the hearing by phone, also made his case to the judge. "I told the judge that I've never been to a place so surreal as that and I told him that I don't want that place to be my life," he revealed. "I know how serious things can be for me if I keep these things--these past behaviors up. I realized how selfish I was. The person that I used to be was selfish, a liar. I just had to own up to that guilt." At 10 a.m. on February 8, 2022, Sohna was released from prison—12 years early. "I'm thankful and blessed. And I'm glad to have this opportunity," he said. "It's like my mind can't really comprehend everything, but I know it's go-time now."
Sohna now plans to complete his GED, which he began in prison and hopes to go to college for film production, photography and acting. Meanwhile, Harris—who was originally a pre-med student at Davidson College—now plans to go to law school to continue this kind of advocacy work. "There's this quote we've been following this since the first time we reconnected in 2020 and that is 'if you're walking in the right direction, and you're willing to just keep on taking steps, you're eventually going to make progress,'" he said. "So we're going to continue to take those steps. We want other people who see this to continue to take those steps."