A Prison Sentence Cut Short, and Renewed Hope for the Future
On the day 12-year-old Sura Sohna stole a bike, a police officer and the victim of the crime told him he should spend the rest of his life in jail.
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, Sura Sohna was released from prison. Sohna’s friend and champion, Brandon Reid (Harris) ’22, was seated in the Annapolis, Maryland courtroom when the decision was read aloud. The incredible advocacy of Harris, through his independent study project at Davidson, “Telling Stories of the Ignored and Forgotten,” played a significant role in the court’s decision to re-evaluate Sohna’s sentence. Sohna faced another 12 years in prison. Without this focused effort, he likely would have had to wait until 2034 to be reunited with his family. Reid’s project was completed with guidance and mentorship from James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy Ike Bailey ’95.
Nearly a decade later, Sohna is serving a 14-year prison sentence for several convictions of first-degree burglary. Sohna grew up with Brandon Harris, Davidson College class of 2022, Belk Scholar, and two-time Student Government Association president.
The friends were raised in Annapolis, Maryland, attending the same elementary and middle schools, living with families who love them. But Sohna and Harris traveled divergent paths; one had access to learning experiences and opportunities for mentorship, the other did not. An offer of a scholarship to a prestigious high school, for example, changed Harris’s social circles and trajectory.
They have come together again, however, for Harris’ independent study project, titled “Telling Stories of the Ignored and Forgotten.”
The public is invited to attend a Zoom presentation of Sura’s life story at 2 p.m., Monday, April 26. Sohna will participate from Patuxent Institution as Harris leads the presentation.
“Originally, I planned to research different stories and write an essay every two weeks,” Harris said, “but I quickly realized that in order to do this well, I needed to dive deeper into a single story, instead.”
The semester-long project evolved into much more than a grade on Harris’ transcript—it shifted Harris’s thinking, and now the pre-med student plans to attend law school after Davidson.
“I am amazed at the lack of understanding so many people have about people and their situations,” he said. “We’re so quick to judge a person based on one action or one decision. I believe everyone is a product of their own experiences, and we’ve moved away from trying to understand where people are coming from. Sura has great potential in his life; he just needs people who believe in him.”
Harris worked alongside James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy and renowned journalist Ike Bailey ’95, whose own life draws many parallels to Harris’ experience. Bailey lent professional and personal experience to the project.
“I was a Black man attending Davidson while a loved one was in prison, and I know the shame that can come with that experience,” Bailey said. “The similarities were too great. If I could help a student deal with this burden he is going through and guide him through this process of investigation and journalism, I knew I had to help.”
Bailey writes on topics ranging from crime and justice to politics and racism for publications across the country. His memoir, My Brother Moochie, offers Bailey’s heartfelt account of his family’s struggles in the aftermath of his brother’s conviction for murder and subsequent life sentence.
“I know what it can mean for a person [in prison] to have someone outside those bars,” he said. “It can keep them sane, frankly. It can give them a reason to try to get better in a place where it is really, really difficult to get better.”
Pandemic-related measures have added to the difficulty of life behind bars, expanding restrictions and further limiting access to the outside world. Harris sees himself as a bridge between Sohna and the world, and he hopes Sohna’s story will open the minds of those who hear it.
“The whole thing is amazing,” Sohna said. “I had a rough time growing up, and I will never forget my trials, but everything is a learning experience. Now, I want to be a lifelong learner and lift others up as I lift myself up. I know greatness is in me. Brandon and Dr. Bailey and this whole experience have helped me look at life differently.”
When Harris approached Bailey with his idea for the project, the professor warned his student of the enormity of the commitment it would require.
“I was trying to test Brandon,” he said. “Even when you’re talking with somebody you love and respect and are rooting for, you have to be true to the project and to truth. You have to commit to seeing the full story, which means going to people who don’t like your friend. He has done all that and more.”
Harris sent personal letters to every one of Sohna’s 12 victims. He interviewed the prosecutor. He reached out to police officers. He interviewed members of Sohna’s family. He connected with Maryland’s governor to get Sohna permission to be a part of the public presentation.
Sohna calls Harris at least three times a week, and the calls motivate him to stay positive and focus on the future. The first time they spoke, Sohna’s fellow inmates expressed disbelief that he knew someone in college.
“Sura told the people in the room that I was in college, and they all gathered closer to the phone where we were on a Skype call,” he said. “It’s easy to forget how different my life is from theirs, and it struck me what a big deal this is for him.”
The friends’ calls are not only about the project; they focus on Sohna’s aspirations and mental health, too.
“We review quotes that he likes and that make him see what’s possible,” Harris said. “One of them is from Muhammad Ali: ‘If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.’ That’s been huge for Sura, as he knows he can and should dream about what life looks like when he is out. I tell him to work on improving himself by one percent every day. We say these things to each other over and over, and it’s definitely making a difference in his mindset.”
Harris has taken this project to a level beyond anything Bailey—or Harris himself—could have expected at the start of the semester.
“This project does not end after the presentation,” Harris said. “No matter what, I’m going to be working with Sura to make sure he’s able to stay on the right path and accomplish whatever he wants to accomplish for himself. This connection is lifelong.”
“Brandon’s willingness to do the hard work showed me that his goal really is to get as close to truth as possible and build from there,” Bailey said. “He understood what was necessary to make this excellent. I am always hoping for that for all my students.”