ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Two friends grew up in Annapolis, but by high school, their paths diverged.
One received a scholarship to a prestigious school. The other did not finish high school.
Now Brandon Harris is a junior at Davidson College in North Carolina. Sura Sohna is incarcerated in the youth program at Patuxent Institute for burglary charges.
The story is similar to that of Baltimore-raised Wes Moore’s “The Other Wes Moore,” the 2010 book in which Moore looks at how his life differed from another Baltimore man with the same name.
But for Harris, his story and the paths that he and Sohna followed highlights how society forgets people, especially those who are incarcerated.
As part of his schoolwork at Davidson, Harris developed a project telling the stories of people who were forgotten. He initially wanted to tell multiple stories but realized the work involved would be larger than his project allowed.
Instead, he decided to focus on one story; the one which he had a personal connection — Sohna’s story.
Harris’ project culminated in a 90-minute presentation Monday. He spent 30 minutes discussing his project, then 30 minutes conducting a one-on-one interview with Sohna, who was allowed to video conference into the presentation. The last 30 minutes was a question and answer session.
“I want people to not see Sura for the charges on a sheet of paper,” Harris said. “I want them to see him for the human being and the heart that he had.”
Harris and Sohna were friends growing up in Annapolis, Harris said. Harris received a scholarship to Indian Creek High School, a private school in Crownsville. He believes that set him on a path of academic achievement and varsity sports. Harris started a nonprofit when he was 16.
Sohna was arrested when he was 17 and charged as an adult with 25 counts of burglary and gun charges, an incident that was reported in The Capital on Nov. 15, 2016. Police tried to connect him to a string of burglaries in the area that year. Most of the charges were dropped as part of a plea agreement, according to court records. Over the next two years, more charges for other incidents would follow.
The two friends lost touch as they drifted apart, Harris said.
“It’s disappointing looking back because I do think that I might have been able to help him in some ways if we were closer during that time, but we were able to reconnect, which is great,” Harris said.
In June 2020, Harris wrote Sohna a letter. It was one of the first Sohna had received during incarceration, Harris said.
He told Sohna about the project but also wanted to check in on him, especially as he heard about COVID-19 in prisons. Sohna responded with an update, saying he was struggling mentally and with a lack of motivation.
The letters became phone calls, and Sohna agreed to be featured in the project. It allowed the two friends to reconnect, and they talk multiple times a week on the phone.
Sohna is trying to better himself, he said in an interview with The Capital on April 24. Working with Harris was one way he could do that.
In order to tell Sohna’s story, Harris needed to reach out to everyone involved. The victims. The police officers. The prosecutors.
“This whole project is tough because I’m trying to be as objective as possible, speaking about someone who I truly care about,” Harris said. “So it’s an emotionally charged project.”
Most of the victims and police officers did not respond to his requests. One victim sent Harris a letter that was negative and aggressive, Harris said.
But the prosecutor was willing to talk.
Harris said he learned that the prosecutor had Sohna’s interest at heart even while arguing to convict him. That was a turning point for him because people often see the prosecutor as someone who is against the person accused of a crime. That is not necessarily the case, Harris said.
The project has been a learning experience for Harris, who said he realized there was a much deeper divide between his and Sohna’s realities. He also learned it can be powerful to have someone who believes in them.
Sohna and Harris check in on each other. Sohna asks about Harris’ grades. Harris asks Sohna how he is doing in prison.
Harris worked with journalist Ike Bailey, the James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson, according to an article on the college website. He said his life draws many parallels to Harris’ experience.
“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 in the college story. “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.”
Despite his professor’s experience, most people at Davidson do not have a connection to someone who is incarcerated, Harris said. Similarly, many people who are incarcerated with Sohna do not know someone pursuing a college degree.
For Harris, the project and reconnecting with Sohna helped him determine he wants to pursue a career in law.
For Sohna, the project has helped him focus on bettering himself. When he is finished his sentence, he wants to go to school for film production and photography.
“I love cameras,” Sohna said. “That’s my passion. Anything with cameras. I love that.”
Sohna said he hopes people learn from his experience and recognize it could always be worse. People also need to hold themselves accountable when they are wrong, a lesson he had to learn.
“I want people to recognize that everything is a learning experience,” he said.