Sheldon Johnson, Contributing Writer

In April of 2008, my son was arrested for accidentally killing a Columbia graduate student while trying to impress a group of shallow friends who taunted, egged and dared him to attack the Asian man. Fast forward, my son eventual pled guilty to his recklessness – ignorance; however, the media had a field day on all the popular news channels, for my son was only 14-years old at the time of the incident.

I was incarcerated at the time – as I still am – convicted of a violent crime and sentenced to a fifty (50) year determinate sentence for two 1st degree robberies and attempted murder in the second degree. Sadly, my father – my son’s grandfather – had just completed a lengthy prison stint at a notorious prison in New Jersey.

To express that I was mentally and emotionally devastated is an understatement. I was forced to reflect into the part that I played in the whole fiasco as my son’s father. “You should have been there to guide and raise him,” the voice repeated over and over.

Like many others, I fell temporarily into a state of denial and attempted to make my father, myself and my son all victims of capitalism and colonialism. The grand conspiracy. I could not fathom why or how we all seemed to clash with the criminal justice system. Was it by grand design? This I contemplated for the millionth time, tossing and turning in restless wander … 4 a.m. on a rainy Saturday night.

I recognized the clear pattern … the evident revolving door in which three generations of men in my family had been entrapped, ensnared and baited. What could change this twisted fate of destiny? Ironically, my grandfather and great-grandfather had been bonded in slavery. Who was I kidding, never have I felt so POWERLESS.

As much as I wished, wanted and yearned to comfort and console my son in this time of desperation … I couldn’t! I could not visit him, bail him out, bring him any clothes, a package, speak to him over the phone, empathize and extend words of wisdom. I was supposed to protect him, I am his father, yet, I was POWERLESS.

Adding insult to injury, the Daily News gave a brief description of me, his father, as a reckless gunslinger. It was as if my genealogical line had spawned a blood type of savage humans who were prone toward violence or stupidity, depending on one’s perception.

The New York Times contacted me to conduct an interview, and although I was eager to provide my opinion – to express my pain and regret — I respectfully declined for fear of villainizing both of us. I had done enough as an absent father, I surely did not need my words twisted in stone.

To compound the whole tragedy, my sister, who had temporary custody of my son at the time of the incident, initiated a custody proceeding with the Family Court. My sister, who felt that my son’s mother wasn’t fit to have custody of my son, now wanted me to take sides in the custody battle. Pure pandemonium … through it all I was still POWERLESS.

In hindsight, it became a pivotal point in my life where I harnessed the power of introspect. I was forced to conscientiously take a deep look at who I had become, what was I doing? What wasn’t I doing? What direction was my life truly heading?

Okay, I had made some serious headway: I stopped and denounced ‘gang-bangin & recruitment’, I quit smoking cigarettes and bud (marijuana), I was going on conjugal visits with my wife, I was not only participating in college correspondence courses, I was facilitating and teaching the curriculum. Yet, was it enough? No, at that moment it meant nothing! In the blink of an eye, I shut down, I shut everyone out, I felt overwhelmed and POWERLESS.

Weeks later, while standing in the eye of the hurricane, at the peak of the wave when the tsunami threatens to destroy everything in its path … I had an epiphany. I crawled to a stance and dusted myself off. “How could you give up now? Huh?” the voice whispered into my ear. “He needs you,” my conscience shouted! “There has to be something I could do, right?” I repeated as if it were an affirmation.

The following day I contacted my correctional counselor, with whom I already had a slight rapport. Although she was aware of the situation (in fact, who wasn’t?), I explained to her how it was affecting me emotionally and mentally. I expressed my frustration, no my rage, at being unable to do anything of significance. Till this day I don’t know if she pitied, sympathized or related to me, but she helped me.

We first contacted his attorney and found out where he was being held and what he was being charged with. Then, we called the juvenile facility where he was being housed, and purely by miracle, the counselor had my son called down to his office so we could speak. He told me that he was breaking the rules, because in his 20-years as a counselor, never, ever had a father who was incarcerated gone through so many procedural hurdles to speak with his child.

To hear [my son] Sheldon’s’ voice was music to my ears, and although we only had a few precious moments, we accomplished a connection. A few days later, my counselor called me to her office and, although I had anticipated bad news when I walked through the door, she handed me the phone.

We were allowed to talk a few times a week for a few minutes a call. Have you any idea how much those few minutes a day transformed me? They became the thread that sewed the torn fabric of my spirit back together. All the wounds that reopened and bled, slowly began to crust and heal.

Surely I was still depressed at the totality of the circumstances. Yet, I began to see the impact that I could have on Sheldon’s thought processes, his attitude. I began to understand that I could influence his behavior and his future. At one point in time I would ask myself, have you really changed or have you just gotten smarter, more polished? No, through the purging fire of tribulation, I had emerged a changed man. I no longer thought like a criminal. For once in my life I knew that I had options. I holistically embraced my change from criminal to activist-humanitarian as permanent.

I systematically began reaching out to different youth-at-risk organizations. I made a commitment to myself and Sheldon, that I was going to give back to the community I had taken so much from. It’s funny, but I received no responses from any of these organizations; however, I was content with my efforts. They were probably thinking, “This guy is crazy! He wants to help us?”

Shortly thereafter, I was transferred to another facility that had an active Youth Assistance Program (YAP). I immediately provided my facilitator credentials, explained my current dilemma and was embraced as a YAP facilitator. YAP became my support group, where I found other brothers who related, supported and encouraged my continued evolution.

It was during this time that I discovered my passion for writing, the means to release my frustrations through poetic verse and short stories. The therapeutic means to eloquently express my emotions, my shortcomings and regrets. Through the creative use of words, metaphors and allegory, I could reach a different audience to illustrate and paint a portrait contrary to the one society has painted of me.

During Sheldon’s incarceration we were granted permission to correspond. We wrote to each other regularly and I was even able to speak with his counselors and school teachers. It was absolutely amazing! The staff at his facility were elated that his father, who was also imprisoned, reached out to his son. Sadly, they said it was a first. I was openly distressed at the fact that the fathers of these young men made virtually no attempts to write their sons.

While writing to my son, I apologized to him for failing to be a part of his life. I sought his forgiveness for abandoning him, for being ignorant and for my criminal ways. It proved to be a cultivating period for both of us, where we nurtured, watered and cared for the garden we grew in concrete. We provided each other with sustenance through our combined photosynthesis and continued to grow together. We turned tragedy into triumph.

After about 18 months, Sheldon was released and I am honored to say that he is doing well. It is through his adversity, the youth assistance program and various other programs … I have found the means to be heard, to be seen and felt, without ever actually being present.

It is said that ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, when faced with the insurmountable odds of 40 foot grey gloomy prison walls … an ever hostile, pessimistic and unpredictable environment … I fell, scrapped my knees and chin, but got back up. Although this industrialized prison complex has a way of defeating and withering our means to respond and counter the never-ending flurry of punches … despite the lack of meaningful programming that prepares prisoners to effectively compete in a dwindling job market, true rehabilitation begins with and within one’s self.

Viktor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning” said: “To weave these slender threads of a broken life into a firm pattern of meaning and responsibility is the object and challenge …”

And all along I assumed I was POWERLESS?

I can only believe that knows it has the potential to make a difference in prisoners’ lives by being our voice. Prison reform is the rent we pay to the Earth as fellow human beings. With you, we can face the monolithic structures entitled courts, corporations and institutions. Change is possible, everything that is alive must evolve or die.

Sheldon Johnson is serving 50 years in New York for 1st and 2nd degree robbery.

Sheldon P. Johnson #99A3011

Sing Sing C. F. 

354 Hunter Street

Ossining, NY 10562