The six teens encircling Norman Brown had been fantasizing about their freedom from the beige-walled youth incarceration center in Maryland. As their releases neared, Brown asked them to think about their homecomings. He didn’t ask them about what foods they’d eat first, the family they’d see or what they’d do to stay out of trouble.
“What does love look like?” Brown asked.
“It’s someone who’s going to give me money,” a boy in an orange jacket said.
“Love is my mother believing me this time when I come home and tell her I’m gonna do good,” one girl said, ankles crossed against a plastic blue chair.
For some of the teens, it would be their first time returning home after a period of confinement. But Brown’s answer would not be a hypothetical. He remembers vividly his first days of freedom after spending 22 years in federal prison — friends and family gathering outside the halfway house to greet him, bags full of food and clothes appearing at his door, his phone ringing.
“After being gone for so long, you think you’re forgotten,” Brown told the teens one afternoon as part of his work mentoring youth. “But I was like, ‘Wow! This is what love looks like.’ ”
Brown, who was sentenced at 24 to a mandatory life term in prison for selling crack cocaine, told the teens his story to offer hope. It’s something the 49-year-old has done often since receiving a commuted sentence under President Barack Obama’s historic — and sometimes controversial — clemency initiative.
Aimed at addressing harsh mandatory-minimum laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s during the nation’s “war on drugs,” Obama’s more than 1,700 clemency grants focused on giving nonviolent drug offenders with good prison records, such as Brown, another chance.
But with a Trump administration that has been critical of Obama’s use of clemency authority, many think that the freedom afforded to Brown will be unlikely for others.
As a senator, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the push to pardon drug offenders an “alarming abuse of power” and said it sent the message “that the United States government is not serious about combating drug crimes.” The Justice Department declined to comment on pending clemency applications.
Brown said he wants to prove that people can be better than the mistakes of their past.
“Many people deserve a second chance,” he said. “Give us a chance to give back.”
Brown in many ways was the face of the war on drugs. Crack cocaine was in the late 1980s and early ’90s what heroin is now, and Brown sold a lot.
But as far as drug dealers go, Brown was unusual. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father worked for Marriott, and he and his friends from Northeast Washington’s Woodridge neighborhood aspired to go to college. But Brown noticed people around him driving nice cars and sporting Fila shoes and Gucci clothes. He decided he wanted a little extra for himself.
“It was the lifestyle of being able to have maybe $100 or something in your pocket that you could maybe go shopping and go eat when you want to eat,” Brown said, “and maybe purchase a bike or your wheels for your bike without having to ask your parents.”
Brown had brushes with the law, although initially most were minor. He’d get busted for cocaine possession, spend some months in a halfway house and then go back to selling drugs.
In the late 1980s, however, federal officials launched a sting. Undercover agents supplied cellphones to Brown and other members of the “Woodridge Group” in exchange for crack so authorities could listen in on the calls.
In one recording, Brown is heard telling a friend to concoct an alibi about how a car found with drugs had been stolen as they were “shootin’ ball in a drug-infested area.”
About 30 people were arrested — including a man accused and ultimately acquitted in the drug overdose death of University of Maryland basketball star and Boston Celtics draft pick Len Bias.
The FBI said the group led by Brown and another man moved upward of 5 kilograms of crack cocaine a week.
In 1993, Brown was found guilty on six counts of distribution at age 24.
The law forced a judge to sentence Brown to die in prison, a punishment harsher than what some murderers and rapists were getting.
The nation was experiencing a politically charged and high-profile fight against the illegal drug trade, and legislators had determined that such sentences were necessary.
Brown fought his conviction and sentence, although he kept running into the same obstacle: The penalty he faced was the one that the law required.
Trapped in a hostile world surrounded by people who had committed heinous crimes, Brown decided he had to change in hopes that one day the law would, too.
“I saw people dying, getting killed, losing their minds in this environment,” Brown said. “I had to ask myself, ‘Is this what you want for the rest of your life, or do you want to be in a position where you could be birthed out of this environment?’ ”
In prison, he took classes to better himself. He and a friend started an empowerment group, getting young men to focus on improving their lives.
He also stayed in touch with his daughter, born after his arrest.
“Growing up, as a little girl, that meant a lot to me,” said Kyler Dessau, now in her mid-20s and working as a career specialist in Georgia. “Knowing that when he wasn’t physically present, he was always present in another type of way.”
Despite Brown’s self-improvement attempts, prison was difficult. He missed birthdays, weddings and funerals. His mother and father died.
With each rejected appeal, he said he felt like a “drowning man reaching for a spider web.”
Then in 2015, he got a cryptic message to report to a unit manager’s office. He feared another death notice. Instead, it was his lawyer.
“I want to inform you that the president of the United States has accepted your application for clemency,” Brown’s lawyer said.
“What does that mean?” Brown asked.
“What it means is you are going to get out of jail,” the lawyer said.
“Could you say that again?” Brown asked.
Fifteen days later, Brown went to a halfway house.
Brown became the last of the Woodridge group to leave prison, moving to a halfway house in 2015 before going to live with his sister, her husband and their two dogs in Prince George’s County.
Once painted as the face of the drug war, he now represented the Obama administration’s attempt at the war’s unwinding.
In the nearly two years that he has been home, Brown has had to learn how to drive, date and use a phone.
“I’m having big issues with the smartphone,” Brown likes to joke. “It’s smarter than I am.”
He is engaged and reconnecting with old friends who have started nonprofit groups to engage with troubled youth. He has also become one of the most vocal opponents of mandatory-minimum sentences, or as he calls it, “super punishments” that don’t offer meaningful rehabilitation. He works as an administrator at Washington-based Project New Opportunity, which helps clemency grantees reintegrate into society.
In a White House video the Obama administration created, Brown said that leaving people in prison longer than what their crimes deserve is like letting fruit wither on a tree.
“I have seen many people left in prison for when they are ripe for picking,” Brown said. “They’re rotting away. And in the process of them rotting away, society loses out on the gifts that we have to give them.”
Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has worked with Brown. Ring said Brown is smart, introspective, reflective and — incredibly — not bitter.
“You’re embarrassed for the law when you meet people like him,” Ring said. He said the historic number of clemency grants the Obama administration issued proves that “we have laws that send too many people away for too long.”
At the end of Obama’s presidency, Justice Department officials raced to review thousands of clemency petitions. On his last full day in office, the president granted a final 330 commutations.
In all, Obama issued 1,715 commutations — more than any other president and the past 12 presidents combined.
It’s not clear what will happen to those still waiting.
Sessions has vowed a crackdown on drug and gun crime, bringing into his inner circle a hard-line federal prosecutor who has long disputed the notion that the criminal justice system is unfairly harsh.
Ian Prior, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on action regarding pardons or clemencies except to say: “We are currently reviewing all department policies as directed by the attorney general and the president.”
At the offices of Project New Opportunity the day after Obama announced his final clemency grants, Brown flipped through the list of grantees and reflected on his first two years of freedom.
He had learned to start watching the Travel Channel with his fiancee because it is selfish to watch only sports. He and the other men of the Woodridge group served Thanksgiving dinner to homeless families. He mentored troubled teens at the incarceration center in Maryland, hoping they would avoid the path he took.
And he got a full-time job lending a hand to others like him — those granted clemency who will be thrust into the dizzying Technicolor of driver’s licenses, smartphones, jobs and relationships after decades in the black-and-white world of confinement.
All of his work — that is what love looks like to Brown.
“Love is a verb,” Brown said a few weeks after his meeting at the youth incarceration center. “It is an action word and action calls for duty. The president [Obama] has proven his love for justice with the commutation of these draconian sentences and acted on love. I’m a part of that. Now I want to share the love that was shared with me.”