Brandon Harris turned an independent study project for college into a successful effort to help his close childhood friend be released early from prison.

How early, you wonder?

Twelve years before his sentence was over, Harris and a collection of other supported folks aided in Sura Sohna’s release from Patuxent Institution. The 23-year-old had been serving a 14-year prison sentence when he received a letter from Harris. The childhood friends grew up being close but their lives diverged when they went to separate high schools. 

Eventually Harris landed a scholarship to Davidson College, where is now a senior, while Sohna was sentenced to prison for first-degree burglary. The two reconnected through a letter which became an independent study project called “Telling Stories of the Ignored and Forgotten.” He interviewed six different people, including Sohna, whose story and elements therein led to more attention being paid to the issues with his incarceration.

Harris started a nonprofit mentoring group, where he continued as a student-athlete and became deeply involved with student government. Upon returning home from college due to the coronavirus, he learned about Sohna’s situation and wrote a letter of encouragement to his longtime friend.

“It was good to hear that someone cared for me — who I am and not what I did,” Sohna said. “It’s crazy how communication can change people.”

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The writing continued and since the pandemic prevented in-person visits, the two used Skype to facilitate calls and show how love and a different perspective were possible. “He showed me his college,” Sohna said. “I talked to all his roommates, his friends. He showed me his room. I was just happy for him. He was in a great situation and I was in a bad one, but it made me feel like one day it was possible for me to go to school too.”

Sohna also introduced Harris to his friends in the institution.

“I remember they were looking and saying, ‘Wow, he’s in college,’” Harris said. “It was foreign to them to have contact with someone in college.”

Harris presented his final project via Zoom, where 450 people from around the world attended the presentation which took place last April. A couple of Sohna’s former teachers attended and another childhood friend chimed in during the call to say, “I love you, Sura.” 

“It was shocking to see so many people there,” Sohna said. “When I went to the Zoom, they were encouraging me. It showed me how much love was there and how secluded I was from the world.” 

The strong showing of support prompted Keith Showstack, Sohna’s attorney, to file a motion to have his sentence reconsidered, to ask the judge for that hearing.

On Feb. 8, 12 years before his sentence was up, Harris was defending his friend in court before a judge.

“I talked about our connection and the growth I witnessed in Sura and what I think is possible, our project and the support network Sura has gained, our goals. The judge kept using the metaphor, ‘You can take a horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink.’ I told the judge, ‘Sura is ready to drink if given the chance.’”

The judge considered the ramifications about convictions and days served, finally sharing that Sohna would be released to leave Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland.

Harris was waiting for him outside. 

Just four days after his release, Sohna turned 23. 

Sohna has since returned to his mother’s house in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and is studying to take the GED test. He wants to intern with a friend who is a professional photographer and then plans to attend college.

Meanwhile Harris, who was planning to go to medical school, has switched his dreams to law school this fall. He graduates from Davidson in May.

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