Kareem Hasan and Jeffrey Kersey were released as a result of Unger v. State, a decision that found that flawed instructions to jurors created unfair trials in certain cases. Read more about Unger v. State here.
Kareem Hasan was a different person when he went to prison 37 years ago. As a teenager, Karl Brown (Hasan’s given name) was an example to other young people of how not to behave.
“I didn’t listen. I didn’t pay nobody no mind,” says Brown, who changed his name in prison after becoming a Muslim. “I thought I knew everything. That’s what led me to prison.”
At 17, Hasan was charged with first degree murder. He was given a sentence of life with the possibility of parole and, although Hasan was recommended for parole at least twice during his near-40- year stay, strict “life means life” policies kept him behind bars until May 21, 2013.
He is now 55 years old and is learning to adjust to a new world that has sprouted up around him over the course of his sentence.
“My niece is 13 years old. She’s helping me with my cell phone,” Hasan says, with a chuckle. “When I went into prison we still had rotary phones. Now I come out and they’ve got computer phones.”
But new technology is one of the few things that Hasan finds to laugh about, when considering nearly four decades spent in prison. When he isn’t working at a city wastewater treatment plant or spending time with family, Hasan takes time to impress upon other at-risk young men or those recently-released from prison the seriousness of what he did and what his responsibility is now.
“My main message for them is to be patient and let things work themselves out, no matter what it is they’re going through,” he says. “I tell them to remember, if you try to force things that’s when things go wrong. That’s what I did We made mistakes and now we have to be productive members of society. We still owe something to society for what we did.”
Hasan is candid when he says that he wasn’t truly remorseful about his role in a man’s death until 1979, three years into his prison sentence, when his own father died.
“It helped me understand that losing a family member is something hard,” he says. “It took that for me to see what I’ve done to hurt somebody else’s family. I’m definitely sorry—and I’m remorseful. I pray every day that God will forgive. And if there was anything I could do for [the victim’s] family so they could see I’m a better person, I want to do it. I was wrong. But showing them that I’m a changed man is better than telling them.”
To be sure, Hasan has regrets. He never married or had children, and he likely won’t have them now.
But he has found some peace.
Hasan’s mother died in December 2013, seven months after his release. “When I got out, that was the first time that all her children were together in 37 years,” says Hasan, the youngest of seven siblings. “She saw me come out of prison, she saw me get a job, she saw me get my driver’s permit and she saw me doing positive things. I’m so grateful for that.”
He’s also grateful for the assistance he received at the Living Classrooms Foundation—from support groups to computer lab access to job placement assistance. He’s grateful, mostly, that people didn’t give up on him.
“Being young, sometimes you don’t realize the seriousness or the severity of the situation you’re in until it’s too late,” Hasan says. “I was 17 years old and I realize what I’ve done. But I hope that people will judge me as I am now.”
When Jeffrey Kersey went to prison in 1973, he was 23 years old. Forty years later, this past June, Kersey was released. He is now 63. Much has changed in the world since Kersey was convicted of murder in an armed robbery that went bad. But even more has changed in Kersey.
“When I came in, I was a bad character, very bad,” he says now, from his home in Frederick. “I was very, very violent for most of my life. And then I had a drug addiction. I started using drugs in 1967.”
Today, Kersey is sober, clean and more mature. Prison was tough. Four decades have gone by. But Kersey is determined not to waste his sobriety and his hard-fought maturity on regrets. “I don’t want to start feeling sorry for myself. I made a lot of mistakes. I made those choices and I have to live with my life the way it is because of those choices,” he said. “Do I regret that I was involved in things that victimized a lot of people? Yes, I regret that. I don’t like the fact that I made the mistakes I did. But I have to try to live my life and go on.”
With the help of organizations such as AmeriCorps, Living Classrooms Foundation and the University of Maryland School of Social Work, Kersey is better able to live a stable, successful life.
He has a job, an apartment and just bought a car. He uses his own life experiences to guide his work as a case manager and mediator at Community Alternative Mediation (CALM).
“When you come from where I come from, as far down as I come from—I was really low-down—it’s hard to overcome those things. When you can look in the mirror and say, ‘You are messed up,’ you can start to change. If you don’t have courage and say what’s wrong and put in the hard work to make those changes, you’ll never make them.”
Kersey started working on bettering himself about 10 years into his sentence. He made a list of things he needed to change, from things as seemingly minute as his wardrobe to as important as his education level.
“The main reason I was so bad is because I was so uneducated,” he admits now. “I was not a smart person. I didn’t know how to make decisions.”
In prison, Kersey earned his GED, an associate’s degree, learned computer skills and worked to get his bachelor’s degree. He’s 12 credits short, but plans to go back to school to finish his degree in social work.
Kersey also worked in the prison furniture plant, avoided watching television and read instead. He planned fundraisers for groups he read about in the newspaper who were doing good things to help recently-released prisoners. After some time, he knew he needed to change the crowd around him, who only knew him by his street name and his old mentality. So he asked to be moved to a different prison. Moving away from a place where he was well known came with its own dangers; in prison, having a reputation—and a posse—can offer protection.
But Kersey said he wanted a different life, better than the one that landed him in prison in the first place. So he made the tough decision—one in a string of good decisions— to go to the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, where no one knew who he was. There he served the rest of his time until his release this year.
“I believe every living soul has the capacity to change,” he says. “Every individual can do it. You just have to have courage.”