A Middletown man and former convict is sharing his unconventional story of success in hopes of inspiring others, after earning his college and paralegal degree behind bars – and winning his own appeal.
Derek Brown was 18 years old when a prison sentence for burglary changed his life forever.
“Psychologically, it was shocking, shocking to my conscience,” he says.
At the time, Brown was in ninth grade and working toward his GED after several setbacks, including the death of his grandmother who raised him as a child.
“That’s when the downward spiral started,” he says. “The eventual outcome was a 16-year prison sentence, unfortunately.”
Brown says he pleaded guilty in 2011 in Sullivan County to what he thought would be a 12-year sentence, which instead turned out to be 16 years behind bars.
He ended up at Coxsackie Correctional Facility where a flyer for the Bard Prison Initiative gave the teen an unexpected new direction.
“Everything happens for a reason. Honestly, I don’t think I would have ever gone to college if I didn’t go to prison,” he says.
Brown went on to finish his associate degree, while studying law and earning a paralegal certificate.
In 2020, he filed for an appeal in his own case and won.
“I was able to re-argue my appeal saying my guilty plea wasn’t under proper information from the court, challenging the conflict of interest between the judge and victim in my case,” he says.
Brown is now 29 years old and was released last year after serving 10 years in prison.
He’s taking classes toward his bachelor’s degree at Bard in Brooklyn and hopes to continue studying law at Columbia University.
He’s sharing his story as a message of hope for anyone in need of a second chance.
“It’s never too late to change a mindset. If you truly want something and you strive for it and you believe in what you’re working towards, anything is possible,” he says.
Studies show college prison programs have high success rates nationwide when it comes to lowering re-offense rates and helping incarcerated individuals find jobs when they’re released.