At just 15 years old, Marlon began serving a life sentence. Now facing parole, he must unlearn four decades of prison life.
"All I really know is prison life," Marlon Branch shares. "I was literally raised in prison. I've not been one of those that got out and came back—I've [done] 38 straight years."
At 15 years old, Marlon was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for capital murder. It was his first and only interaction with law enforcement. Now in his mid-50s, he's a graduate of the Prison Fellowship Academy® at the Carol S. Vance Unit in Texas. He was released from prison in the spring of 2020.
The Academy gave Marlon confidence for the future. At select facilities, the Academy takes incarcerated men and women through a yearlong, transformational journey to lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison.
"To participate in Prison Fellowship Academy is a plus for me because it's given me an opportunity to become human again—to try and get all of this negativity out of me."
SURVIVING THE 'JUNGLE'
In the 1980s, prison "was a jungle," Marlon says. "My mindset when I got incarcerated was survival." Since then, the prison system has vastly improved—Marlon says it's not as violent as it once was—but prison can still be a difficult and dark place. "After being here 38 years, [darkness] seems to grow in you," Marlon says. "Prison is hard. That's the only word I can use to describe it."
As a young teenager with a bleak future behind bars, Marlon chose to actively pursue positive goals and experiences. "I applied myself, and I got my education," he says. "That really helped me stay rooted in doing something positive with the time that I was locked up."
Marlon also relied on his Christian faith. But his beliefs made him a target for ridicule in some prison environments. He became, in his words, a "closet Christian."
"Go to church on Sundays, but when you're in the dayroom, you're not practicing your faith—you're trying to fit in with the crowd," Marlon says. "I didn’t learn the freedom of practicing my religion and being open about it until I came here to the Carol Vance Unit and became part of Prison Fellowship Academy."
THE PRISON FELLOWSHIP ACADEMY
The Carol S. Vance Unit is a minimum-security facility that houses many prerelease prisoners. Using targeted curriculum, compassionate coaches, and restorative community engagement, Academy participants like Marlon develop and practice biblically based values of good citizenship.
Because his life sentence does not deny him the possibility of parole, Marlon will be eligible for release upon completion of the Academy. His experience in the program was like nothing else he found behind prison walls.
"I've always believed in God. But being able to practice it openly? Guys [here at the Academy] have really poured into me and encouraged me and held me accountable"—a drastic contrast to the typical prison culture, Marlon says. "The fellowship, the brotherly love that's shown, things like that … at other units, hugging a guy is just not heard of, whereas here, they're going to love on you. … It's a challenge when you come from a background where that’s nonexistent … overcoming those walls that we built up."
In the Academy, Marlon gained life skills and learned to identify criminal thinking and behavior developed over 38 years behind bars. "People need to go through this [program]," he says. "Everyone that's done a substantial amount of time should be required to go through this program. Everyone. Not some, but all."
FINDING RESTORATION IN A TEXAS PRISON
One of the Academy's six core values is restoration, an aspect of the program that Marlon has already begun to experience in real, life-changing ways.
"In the 38 years that I've been locked up, I'd say I've had 10 visits," Marlon says. Until recently, most of those visitors had been former prisoners he befriended behind bars. But all of that has changed.
While talking to Darryl Brooks, the Academy director at Carol Vance, Marlon mentioned that he hadn't seen one of his sisters since before his incarceration. Darryl, a former Carol Vance prisoner himself, understands how important family is for prisoners and for reentry.
Darryl "came back to me, and he said, 'You're going to hear from her. She's going to come see you. She's going to write you,'" Marlon recalls. He wasn't sure he could believe Darryl, but three weeks later, Marlon had a visitor—his sister.
Since then, the two siblings have seen each other twice, including a recent visit in which they got to spend almost eight hours together. "That's something that will live with me for the rest of my life," Marlon says. And "not only has Prison Fellowship restored that sister into my life; it's [also] opened doors for my other family members to be restored in my life … to be reunited with my family."
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Now, Marlon works as a manager at a clothing store. He is grateful for a second chance at life—a life he began envisioning during his time in the Academy:
The first thing I’m going to do is go find me a good church … then find me gainful employment, and just try to live a straight life. Returning to prison is not nowhere in my future. I’ve given the state of Texas enough of my life, and I’m just trying to get out. Not be Mr. Rich Guy—just get me a job and live.
“I really want to give back to this program. In my services and/or contributions, either way, I am going to give back to this program. Because the program is helping me.
“To the volunteers and donors, I would say, thank you very much because your contributions are making a great impact in a lot of lives. Not just mine. A lot of lives. I’m just the one on camera—there’s many more out there with the same story I have—[those who] came from nothing and [are] becoming something.
Article updated November 2020
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