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Former Prisoner Named Secretary of Pennsylvania Board of Pardons

by Matt Clarke

It may have seemed like an April Fool’s joke to many Pennsylvanians when, on April 1, 2019, former prisoner Brandon Flood became the new secretary of the state’s Board of Pardons (BOP). In fact, it was part of a multi-prong strategy by Lt. Governor John Fetterman, who is also chairman of the five-member BOP, to make pardons more accessible to ex-prisoners.

Fetterman called Flood “a singularly unique person to have in order help remake the process ... which is only the only remedy for anyone in Pennsylvania who wants to move forward with their lives in this way.”

“If they see this [a pardon] as a viable option, they will continue to be productive citizens,” Flood remarked. “They will see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Flood, 36, was raised along with two sisters by a single father who was a veteran and worked as a government accountant. Flood believes he turned to street crime to rebel against his straight-arrow upbringing. He also admits to “trying to take the easy route” to money and success by dealing drugs. 

His first arrest came at the age of 15 at John Harris High School in Harrisburg after he refused to remove his coat for then-police chief Charles Kellar. Flood ended up fighting Kellar and was sent to jail. He earned his high school diploma at an Abraxas youth detention program during four months in boot camp. 

Flood’s first prison stint – four years – came after he refused a plea bargain on drug charges he picked up at the age of 18 in 2001. In 2005, he returned to prison for another five years for selling crack and carrying a firearm.

But at the state prison in Chester County, he enrolled in college-level courses and found himself in the company of other prisoners who were advocating for prison and criminal justice reform. That combination was sufficient to steer him away from a criminal lifestyle. Instead, the formerly shy Flood moderated panels on criminal justice issues and edited the prison newsletter. When he was released in 2010, he applied for a prison teaching position but was rejected due to his firearms charge.

In 2011, Flood got a job as an aide in the state legislature with the assistance of two Philadelphia lawmakers at the time, the late Frank Oliver, Sr. and Vanessa Lowery Brown. Brown is currently serving 23 months of probation for a 2018 bribery conviction. Eventually Flood became the legislative director for the Pennsylvania House Black Caucus. That job, and his later work as a lobbyist for the NAACP and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), helped him make many friends in the state capitol in Harrisburg. One was former BOP secretary Mavis Nimoh, who pushed him to apply for a pardon. 

Flood said he botched his first application, a half-inch-thick stack of paper filled with nearly-indecipherable bureaucratic language. But at the end of a three-year process, Governor Tom Wolf granted his pardon in March 2019, a month before Flood became the BOP’s new secretary. The father of two young sons, he now has an annual salary of $89,000 and is responsible for the BOP’s staff of five and its daily operations. 

The number of pardons in Pennsylvania plummeted after convicted murderer Reginald McFadden was released on parole. When he was 16, McFadden murdered a 66-year-old woman in 1969. After turning in fellow prisoners who were plotting to attack guards, he was paroled in July 1994 and moved to New York. There, over the next two months, he raped a 55-year-old woman and murdered two other people – a 78-year-old woman and a 42-year-old man – before being arrested and sentenced to life. The resulting political fallout cost then-Lt. Governor – and BOP chairman – Mark Singel his bid for governor that year. It also cost many prisoners any chance of receiving a pardon since then. 

There is now bi-partisan agreement that the pardon system in Pennsylvania is in need of reform. Almost no commutations of life sentences are granted, and petitions to shorten lesser sentences face lengthy backlogs. Lt. Governor Fetterman, who pushed for Flood to be named BOP secretary, is leading reform efforts. A $63 BOP application fee for pardons was eliminated in March 2019. The board is also studying the idea of digitizing the application process, as well as opening satellite offices closer to the state’s large population centers in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. 

Pardons recommended by the BOP must be signed by the governor, and recipients have to file separate applications to get their criminal records expunged. Pardons restore legal rights lost due to convictions, such as jury service, firearm ownership and holding public office.

Lt. Governor Fetterman has also undertaken a tour of all 67 counties in Pennsylvania to discuss legalizing marijuana possession. He favors granting mass pardons for past marijuana-related convictions, which has been done in other states. 

“These are simple charges that are damning people’s career possibilities,” he said.

For his part, Flood hopes to create a pardon process that will lead to more success stories like his own for the state’s 47,000 prisoners.

“We need to be smarter on crime – on what works as opposed to what makes for a better sound bite,” he said. “The climate is certainly ripe for that.”

While the climate may be right for pardons, it is not for parole. On July 28, 2019, the Associated Press reported that PA DOC Secretary John Wetzel planned to review the Board of Probation and Parole’s practices after state parolees were accused of committing six homicides within a two-month period. The murders included an off-duty police officer and two children; most were related to domestic violence.

“[T]he question is, is there some test we can be doing, is there some indication, is there something in this case or in any of these cases that we knew or should have known that should have changed how we make decisions and creating that feedback loop to improve decision making?” Wetzel asked. 

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Sources: philly.com, inquirer.com, penncapital-star.com, wesa.fm, Associated Press