What began as an independent study project for college student Brandon Harris turned into a successful effort to help his close childhood friend be released from prison 12 years before his sentence was over.
Sura Sohna, 23, had been serving a 14-year prison sentence when he received a letter from Harris. The two grew up playing video games and eating lunch together in elementary school and middle school. But Sohna’s and Harris’ lives began to diverge when they went to separate high schools. Eventually Harris landed a scholarship to Davidson College, where he is now a senior, while Sohna had a few brushes with the law until he was sentenced to prison for first-degree burglary.
The two reconnected when Harris, 22, found himself back at home when the pandemic shut down his campus two years ago. When he learned that Sohna was incarcerated, he reached out.
Meanwhile, Harris had taken on an independent study project called “Telling Stories of the Ignored and Forgotten” in which he aimed to interview six different people. But the project pivoted and he focused his work on telling Sohna’s story and the elements that led to his incarceration.
Sohna’s was the tale of a boy who grew up in poverty, experienced housing instability and hunger, wore the same clothes to school for days and often lived without electricity. While the children’s homes were 2 miles apart in Annapolis, Maryland, they lived in different worlds. Harris used to invite Sohna over to spend the night at his house in a middle-class neighborhood, where they would eat pizza, and watch television. When Sohna would visit Harris’ house, Sohna left behind a housing project where, even as a child, he said he remembers watching a man die after being shot and beaten.
“I remember when we went to Sura’s place, there would be a lot of police around and a lot of people out,” Harris said. “My neighborhood was quiet.”
When Harris went to a private high school, the two remained friends but their lives were changing. Harris started a nonprofit mentoring group, he was a varsity athlete and he became deeply involved with student government. When Harris tried to get Sohna involved in his nonprofit group, he attended a few meetings, but “I was 17 and already too deep in the streets,” Sohna said.
Shortly after that, he was incarcerated for the first time.
“I had pretty much given up,” Sohna said. “I lived for the moment. I didn’t think about the future.”
When Harris returned home from college during the pandemic, he learned where Sohna was. He decided to write that first letter to Sohna.
“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.”
They kept writing to each other. Because the pandemic prevented in-person visits, Patuxent Institution, where Sohna was serving time, allowed Skype calls. Sohna describes the first such call with Harris as “joyful.”
“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.”
A pivotal experience was when a correctional officer told Sohna his time on the call was up.
“Sura asked, ‘Can I say goodbye?’” Harris recalled. “I remember the CO reaching and hitting the button to end the call.” Harris called the officer’s actions “inhumane.”
Around then, Harris was considering changing the theme of his independent study project. That moment, he said, became one factor that pushed him toward focusing on telling his friend's story. His research involved reaching out to Sohna’s victims, arresting officers and the prosecutor.
When it was time for Harris to present his final project via Zoom, 450 people from around the world attended the presentation in April 2021. 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 support also prompted Sohna’s attorney, Keith Showstack, who had already filed 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.’”
Sohna wasn’t there, but he was on the speakerphone. After the judge went through some legal jargon about convictions and days served, he finally asked, “Mr. Sohna, do you know what this means?”
“No,” Sohna replied.
“You are being released,” the judge responded.
“I was so shocked,” Sohna recalls. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Harris thought the moment was “surreal. We faced so many obstacles and they all popped into my head,” he said.
Within hours, Sohna walked out of Patuxent Institution in Jessup, Maryland. Harris was waiting for him outside. Just four days after his release, Sohna turned 23.
Sohna has since been living at his mother’s house in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He 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.
Showstack, Sohna’s lawyer, said he knows Harris’ project influenced the judge but that the decision is dependent on other circumstances, as well. What is most important to Showstack is the transformation he witnessed in Sohna.
“I think Brandon — more than anyone or anything else in his life — opened Sura’s eyes and Sura finally realized he could be the person he wanted to be.”