Michael Austin spent 26 years in the now defunct Maryland State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit.

By the time he walked out of prison on Dec. 28, 2001, Michael Austin had lost over 26 years of his life. Now a musician and entrepreneur, Austin has found a measure of peace and success, but his recovery from the psychological scars of imprisonment remains a work in progress.

On April 29, 1974, security guard Roy Kellam was murdered during a robbery at the Crown Food Market in East Baltimore. The initial suspect description was that of a light-skinned African-American man between the ages of 22 and 25, 5’8″ to 5’10”, and weighing between 130-150 pounds.

Austin – dark skinned, a smidgen under 6’5″, and well over 200 pounds – would spend 26 years in the now defunct Maryland State Penitentiary, despite matching the suspect description only with respect to relative age. Austin was 25.

In an interview with the {AFRO}, Austin described the sort of environment he had to navigate while in prison. “You don’t know what a guy might do, you don’t know what a guy is thinking because everybody is on a different trip,” Austin said about the ever-present tension in the maximum-security facility he called home for over a quarter century.

“You might have a guy who went up for parole and they denied him, you’ll be walking down the tier, you bump into him, that’s all he needs to explode. So your sense of thinking is you make an assessment of where you’re at and you just weave through the madness. Every day.”

Yvonne Rahman, a Maryland State Department of Education pre-release teacher in the Maryland prison system, said she met Austin while volunteering with a trauma group at the penitentiary. Austin had asked Rahman to look at his trial transcript, an offer she accepted out of curiosity, having never read one before.

This is a facsimile of the initial police sketch of the suspect in the murder of security guard Roy Kellam.

After reading it, Rahman came away convinced of Austin’s innocence. “It was very apparent, it didn’t take a lot of thought,” said Rahman. “I think it was the transcript that it was so apparent from the trial, and what came out in the trial. It just left too many questions.”Rahman suggested Austin contact Centurion Ministries (CM), a non-profit whose mission is to vindicate people sentenced to life or death with factual innocence, determined by CM after a thorough vetting process. Jim McCloskey, founder and executive director of CM, said this process averages five years. .

Austin initially ignored her advice, confusing CM, which has secured the release of 53 persons, for your standard prison ministry. Austin would eventually write, and, after vetting him, CM agreed to take his case in 1995, spending the next six years working for his release.

On Dec. 28, 2001, Austin left the Maryland State Penitentiary. Accustomed to moving around in shackles, he walked as though still fettered until McCloskey pointed it out to him.

Austin says that among the adjustments he had to make were relearning mundane habits, like speaking without the need to yell over the din of a prison; or eating meals at a leisurely pace, no longer at risk of having his mealtime cut short by a guard who needed to get over 1,000 prisoners through the cafeteria in a set amount of time and had decided Austin’s was up.

The adjustments continue to this day. “I’ve been home 14 years in December, now my reintegration back into the community has reached 85, 90 percent psychologically,” said Austin. “I’m able to communicate with people, and I’m able to interact with people without being paranoid, and without having that fear of being used or taken advantage of.”

This continuing process of overcoming the psychological trauma of prison may have proved even more difficult had Austin not had the opportunity to learn music while incarcerated from a cellmate with a bachelor’s degree in music. Music became Austin’s escape from the pressures of prison life, and he learned to sing, play the trumpet and keyboard, as well as read and write music. “With music, I was able to do a lot of different things. We would put on shows, we gotta practice, and I’m hanging out with my buddies, good atmosphere. So music was a vehicle that really enhanced all the things I was trying to get done.”

Austin currently has an album, available on iTunes, entitled I Just Want to Love You, which he says is doing well. He sings locally with his band and started his own food truck business this past January. Named Rena’s Corner Kitchen, the truck currently serves breakfast and lunch items, but Austin says he is still working with his chef to establish a signature menu.

Much like his nascent food truck endeavor, Austin’s path of reintegration remains a work in progress. He said, “It will always be ongoing.”

Roberto Alejandro

Special to the AFRO