I spoke to my 19 year-old nephew, Cordell, for the first time today. I found myself emotionally torn between realizing that not only have I not been a part of his life, but that I have roughly 20 nieces and nephews, and a grandson, whose lives I have not had the opportunity to be a part of. Coupled with the realization of this generational separation, I have grappled with trying to prepare myself mentally and emotionally to possibly be released on clemency. After spending almost a quarter-century in prison, I wonder if such preparation is even possible.
Prison creates this distance of space between two points, like Staten Island and Manhattan before the advent of the Ferry; between family and emotional connection, a sense of satisfaction that is felt when one feels as though they belong to family.. After more than two decades in prison I have noticed that a lot of the men seem disconnected from their families. For some, like myself, it has been an intentional separation: the emotional-psychological barricades that I created and told myself were necessary for survival to protect myself from the abandonment, disappointment and heartache I knew were all but inevitable in prison. However, there is also a systematic disconnection from family that by design further serves to dehumanize and morally erode one’s character when living in this concrete jungle.
Last night I had to jump through a hurdle to get a haircut. The barbershop here has not only been running off-and-on, but I am also not afforded a shower afterwards. So I cut a corner and got caught getting a haircut in the prison’s black market. Spoiler alert: I talked my way into being allowed to have my haircut finished. But the C.O. asked me an interestingly odd question:’why I wanted a haircut so bad—who I was trying to impress.’ I evaded this line of questioning with the skill of a professional politician, but afterwards I thought about my ‘Bucket Theory’ piece (an essay I wrote about why my 3 1/2 gallon bucket was so important to me).
First, I wanted a haircut because I have an interview with two journalists from John Jay College on November 23 who are doing a montage DVD which will be attached to my clemency application. My appearance in this recorded piece of history is important to me because it speaks volumes to the people who are watching and potentially deciding my fate—deciding whether I will spend the next 20 years and die in prison or be granted a commutation and be released.
Second, I wanted a haircut because my appearance is attached to my pride, dignity and sense of self-worth and self-love. When I look into the mirror everyday, not only do I see every action that brought me to where I am today, but I see what other people potentially see: someone who is presentable, approachable; someone who has self-worth, who was taught the values of grooming, hygiene and cleanliness. It speaks to how my family raised me.
What disturbed me most was that the thought process of the average Correctional Officer is probably, why does, or why would, an INMATE (a term that was originally coined to identify people committed to mental health institutions), want a haircut? Why would an inmate care about his or her appearance, about their dignity; why would an Inmate (prisoner) want to have a sense of pride in themselves? The culture and subconscious belief (inherent bias), of most C.O.’s is that ‘Mental Health Patients’ (inmates, prisoners), should not care about their dignity, appearance, self-worth, or value grooming standards and traditions. Whoa, you might say. You’re reading way too deep into this. But am I?
As a human being, as an American, convicted of crimes and seeking redemption and the means for rehabilitation, I am first confronted by this person, a Correctional Officer, usually a white rural male for whom there is already a ‘Cultural Disconnect,’ a gang of individuals who have been conditioned to believe ([in]advertently) that I have no right to dignity; that I have no right to humanity, that I have no right to hold my head up high and believe that despite my conviction (mistakes in life), I can love and value myself. (I call them a gang because they operate under the same pretext as gang members, they break the law and stand by a code of silence, refusing to snitch and/or cooperate—that is what gang members do.). I am not saying that all Correctional Officers hold this view, because I have met a few (very few) C.O.’s who weren’t afraid to treat me like a human being in the presence of their coworkers. They weren’t afraid to be called an ‘Inmate Lover’ because they treated me with dignity and respect. However, in my experience 90% of Correctional Officers treat the men like animals. And it pains me to say this, but objectively, 70% of the men conduct themselves either like domesticated animals or children stuck in a time warp. Abraham Maslow in his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ theory speaks to individuals who, when unable to address a specific emotional need (usually stemming from trauma), they become stuck in this time-space capsule. Maslow states ”we sometimes regress toward a lower level—especially under stressful conditions … if the disruption is extreme, we may fixate on a particular level for the rest of our lives.”
So between the criminals, children (stuck in time), mental health patients, wanna-be gang bangers, and Correctional Officers, there are the guys like me: the watchers, the writers, the educators, the rehabilitated, the men who are struggling to hold onto the dangling strings of moral fiber that are ever eroding. These values and principles of pride, self-love and self-worth, and courage are what speak truth to power that I hope to pass along to my 19 year old Nephew Cordell, to my grandson Jace, in the hopes that their lives will have meaning and take a different trajectory. In the hopes that they will know that their uncle and grandfather, despite being in prison, stood for something, so they don’t just fall for anything.
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