I am 61 years of age (birthed August 22, 1956) and on June 10, 2018, I have become eligible for consideration of executive clemency as recently proposed by the governor of the State of New York, having served 37.5 years of the minimum portion of my prison sentence of 75 years to life, imposed after a jury trial for the crimes of manslaughter, felony murder, attempted murder and robbery (3 counts). Throughout the years of my incarceration I have worked hard to better myself as a person. This change noticeably occurred as a result of my interaction with and the consideration of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). However, change is a funny thing: a person does not necessarily notice it until it is pointed out to them.
MY EARLY YEARS
I was birthed the third of four children and raised in Harlem, New York. Central Park, Morningside Park, Riverside Park and One Hundred Twenty Fifth Street was my playground; Lenox Avenue, Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue was my work area. When I wanted to experience the unusual, the Duce (42nd Street) was the place to go. My father was a housing police officer and my mother by choice selected to stay at home. I vaguely remember her having a job one time or another at one of the Horn & Hardardt (?) restaurants and our going to her job during the evening rush hour to pick her up. We would eat and then wait for my father to come pick us all up to take us home. Those were fun times because we did things as a family.
Around 1964 or so, my sister, the eldest child, left home to go out on her own. I was so transfixed by the "streets" that I "so-called" ran away from home only to end up at her house and stay with her. I do not, to this day, know what transpired between her and my parents, but they let her go. I do know she had disagreements over her being treated like a child. I remember an argument she had with my father over her being able to have a sweet sixteen party. She wanted to sponsor it at home but my father said that was not going to happen. She eventually was allowed to sponsor her party at the house of our father's brother. It was nice (yeah, I was allowed to go - hang out with the grown-ups!) I believe that is what helped to connect me so much to my sister. When I "ran away from home" I only ran to her. She would feed me and put me to bed and then call my mother and let her know I was with her. I believe they had that all planned out. She sent me to school and while I had my problems being disruptive and not doing my schoolwork (they said I would not apply myself) I graduated from elementary school to junior high school. I was so proud on that day because my mother and father were both there in the audience and I was so happy. That was a wonderful feeling, even up until today. But I messed that up because I still had an aversion to school and as I was enrolled in De Witt Clinton High School, I cut class so much, one time after my father drove me to school, when he left me I left there so fast I beat him back to Harlem. That was a sad moment.
GROWING UP ON THE STREETS
I was a drug dealer from about 1967 until 1971. My first drug sale found me sitting on an upside-down garbage can, reading a marvel comic and drinking a Canada Dry orange soda. My sister gave me a brown bag with a lot of small glassine bags and said when she told me a number that was how many little bags I was to give to people. She would steer customers to me and after she collected the money I would give out the number of bags she told me for each person. This was in the mid-to-late '60's. By 1969-1970 I was the man. I was able to buy my own clothes and get anything I wanted within the realm of possibility and the size of the bundle of money in my pockets. While I was living with my sister she had a crew of other young women as partners that she sold drugs with. There were five of them. Nothing big but enough that they did not need anything from anyone and maintained a certain status in their own right. I was the only male of the group and when they needed someone to go with them someplace, I was generally the one they wanted. And I wanted to go, too!
Sometime during late 1960's early 1970, my older brother (the second born, first son) was smashed (literally) between two buses during a freak accident while walking through a city bus depot. It is a miracle today that he still lives. At the time the doctors gave him little to no chance to live, but he pulled through. They called his situation a classic textbook example or something like that. He still suffers from complications but all his medical bills are paid. At the time I was going out of my mind blaming someone who was with him and it was fortunate that I never had the chance to get close enough to this person because I would have done some real harm to him. I carried this hurt with me until a few years ago along with some other heavy guilt. My brother convinced me that the guy was not at fault. And Quakers helped me to realize that "forgiveness" works both ways. But still, ...
A LIFE LOST
In the spring/summer of 1971, my sister went away for about six months to Long Island to kick her heroin habit. I did not know she had one, mainly because the drugs were so plentiful that a person would never have to show themselves as being in need of a "fix". And because she and her group were their own suppliers with a very strong connection, it is possible others in her group also had drug habits. After she came back, we partied. It was nice for her to be back and I was really overjoyed to see her because I was not allowed to see her during her treatment.
On December 16, 1971, sometime after 9:00 a.m. I was in the bar where we hung out in (when it was open for business when I was there I was always in the back out of sight but with a clear view of seeing everything) sweeping the sawdust around the floor while my sister and one of her partners were talking about one thing or another. Out of nowhere, the shadow of one of her old boyfriends filled the doorway. They hugged and he said hi to me and I to him, while giving one another a pound (hand slap.) About an hour or so later this guy asked me if I had any money, to which I replied I had a few dollars (truth be told, I had over seven hundred dollars in my pocket as we were going to go shopping for my mothers birthday which was the next day on the seventeenth.) He gave me $96 dollars (I will never forget that number) and told me to be cool and my sister told me that she would be back at around 3 :00 p.m. She reminded me that we had to go shopping for my mothers birthday so for me to be ready. She left with him.
I sold drugs throughout the day. In the afternoon around 3:00 or so I went to my sister's house, made a sandwich, changed clothes and went back out to stand on the corner in front of the bar and wait for my sister. After 5:00 or so I started to get worried, mainly because when my sister said she was going to be somewhere or do something, there was little that would cause her not to do what she had to do. I did not go anywhere to look for her because I didn't know where she might be. I did not see any of her partners either, which was kind of surprising, but that did not bother me because there were days when I never seen some of them. I did not ask anyone if they seen her. I just waited in front of the bar, or stood just in the small vestibule between the two doors.
After 7 :00 or so I was beginning to worry because she would not leave me like that. A little later, I watched as a police car cruised up the street. There were two police officers in the front and someone in the back. I didn't pay too much attention because I had no drugs on me. The car stopped double-parked right in front of me. The driver got out and then one of my sister's partners (Karen) jumped out of the back seat crying and ran up to me and held me in a bear hug saying something about my sister being dead. The police officer walked over to me and asked me if I was Yohannes Johnson? I told him yeah. He asked me if I had a sister named Linda Johnson? I told him yeah. He said, "She was found dead on 116th Street. If you want you can go down there to identify the body." I was numb. I asked him if he could take me down there and he said he couldn't because he had the sergeant in the car with him. But to let the girl go with me and show me where her body is. I was numb. I directed Karen to the curb and hailed a cab. I gave the driver five dollars to get me to 116th Street and Lenox Avenue as fast as he could. He did (it was only 13 blocks.) I walked with Karen into the lobby of a place called Hotel Kelly. A nurse was at the desk. I asked her if there was a dead body upstairs - didn't know how else to say it. She said yes. I asked her if I could go to see whether I knew the person. She told me yeah, go ahead, there is an officer outside the door. Karen said she didn't want to go upstairs and said she would wait there in the lobby. I walked up to the third floor. An officer was sitting back reading a newspaper. I asked him if there was a dead body in the room. He said yeah. I asked if I could view it to see whether it was my sister. He said, yeah, go ahead, just don't touch anything.
I opened the door and walked in. The ceiling light was dim and a lamp next to the bed was on. Directly in front of me was a large chair with my sister' purse lying open on it. The contents of her purse (change, tissue, wallet with identification and a few other small items) was scattered across the seat of the chair and on the floor between the door and chair" I looked over to my left towards the bed and saw a night table with a lamp that was on; and most notably a figure lying under a white sheet I crossed over to the side of the bed and pulled back the sheet. It was Linda. I was numb. I called to her to wake up and that we had to go shopping for our mother’s birthday. I gently shook her shoulder and said it again. The police officer looked in and told me not to touch anything and that I had to go. I went back downstairs with Karen and when I told her it was Linda, she just flipped. I stood there numb and let her cry for a while and then told her we had to go. I said I had to call my mother and father. We left.
Before I called, I knew I had to get my head together, but I was numb. I mean, I was empty inside - a complete void. I could not feel anything and my thoughts were blank. It was cold (December 16th) a few hours before midnight but while I felt the cold, I was not cold. I took Karen to the liquor store and got a pint of Mr. Boston Blackberry Brandy. We stood in front of the bank on the corner and we both guzzled it down, with Karen still crying. When we finished, my dilemma was who to call first. I decided to call my father first. I dialed and when he answered I told him where I was at and that I had just identified my sister's body. He asked me if I was alright and I said no. He asked if I was physically hurt and I told him no. I then told him where I was. He told me to call my mother and let her know and that he was on his way to pick her up. They were separated at the time because my father, as a police officer, was getting threats and someone had threatened my mother but they did not let us children know. So he traveled from Manhattan to the Bronx to get my mother. What was amazing was I do not remember how long I waited before I called my mother. My oldest brother answered. I told him to put mommy on the phone and for him to stay on it too. He wanted to know then and there what was wrong. I told him to just put mommy on the phone and to make sure she is sitting down. When both of them were on, I told her that Linda was dead and that I identified the body and called daddy and that he was coming to pick her up. She was silent for a brief moment and then said, “okay, your father is here, I got to get dressed.” (I will forever be amazed how fast my father got to my mothers house because she was in the Bronx and he was in Manhattan.) She asked me where I was and I told her and she too asked me if I was all right. I told her no. She said alright, they will be there in a few minutes. My brother asked me how she died. I told him I didn't know but she just looked like she was sleeping; there was no blood or nothing. He asked who she was with. I told him I would speak to him about that later and we hung up.
I met my mother and father on the corner of 116th street and Lenox Avenue in front of the bank on the northeast corner of Lenox Avenue. I pointed out the hotel and together my mother and father went to identify the body.
After making a more formal or proper identification, my mother and father returned to my father’s car. My father asked Karen if she wanted him to drop her off somewhere and she asked to be taken home, which was two blocks from where my sister lived. When we got there Karen asked me if I wanted to stay with her for the night. I told her no, I had to be with my family. I went to my mothers house. I told my father I needed to talk to him later and he said alright, for me to call him. I left him and my mother in the car to talk and went upstairs to my mother's apartment. My two brothers were there (Joseph [older] and Charles [younger]) and I just hugged them and then went in their room and fell on the bed, exhausted. When I called my father I asked him about Linda' death and he said he looked into it and that it appeared to be accidental. I let him know about her trip to Long Island and he told me he knew about it. While the "official" cause of death was said to have been caused by an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol, my hurt was with the guy that left her there and I blamed him for her death and carried this burden until just a few years ago.
OUT OF CONTROL
I entered into the life of crime with both feet. The next two years were a blur. I was out of control and remember only bits and pieces of events. I truly do not remember a very large portion of my life at this time. I do know I became withdrawn. My mother had me committed to the New York State Division for Youth in a place called "Camp Cass" because I became uncontrollable getting arrested. It was in an area around Rensselaer, N.Y. Believe it or not, I got kicked out of there with a few other young guys. I was also enrolled in a drug treatment program called "Harlem House of Confrontation", located in Manhattan, New York. It was not for me and I left twice the second time for good.
I stopped selling drugs and I started robbing drug dealers and people in that lifestyle. I was arrested a few times and all of this was associated with my attitude. All of my problems revolved around me striking out. Everyone was “fair game." Without my sister, I was lost. I picked up at least four cases that I ultimately plead guilty to in order for the sentences to run together. This came about after I was arrested in the fall of 1973 with my older brother and a close friend. We were arrested and charged with robbery and weapons possession. One of the victims was the brother of a federal court judge. We were going down, it was just a matter of how long.
I may have induced my brother to being involved with this incident. He was home from the hospital on passes a lot and I guess him seeing me with a pocket full of money most of the time may have made him want to get his own the way I was getting mine. However, this first time was the last time for him. I pleaded with my mother and father to get him out of jail because prison is no place for a person who has had a medical problem as serious as his, ... then or now. They bailed him out. I could not get a bail because I had too many cases. So, he went home and I was remanded. We went to trial and we were found guilty of attempted robbery and sentenced to four years. My brother got probation because it was his first (and only, thank God) arrest. Me and my other co-defendant went upstate.
In 1974, after trial and sentencing, I left Rikers Island and went to Elmira, then to Coxsackie, and from there to Fishkill Correctional Facility. It was an experience. While in Elmira, I learned my father passed from a heart attack. This cut me pretty deep. I cried and wished I could do more but what could I do but my prison time. I learned that my mother did not want me to know about his passing. She was afraid of how it would affect me, especially in response to my sister's death. But my brother informed me because I was writing my father letters and if I wrote and did not receive a response or received "the finger" (return to sender), that may cause problems. Him and I both agreed that, no matter where I was at, if one of us were away from the family and something happened to one of us, we would let the other know. This applied to immediate family.
Contrary to what many may say, in the aftermath of Attica (1971), there was a lot of tension throughout the prison system, mostly just below the surface, but if one were to honestly strip the layers of tension down to its bare minimum, you will find "race" as a glaring factor. In my opinion, anyway. But it was also a time when the prison system was changing. Educational classes, organizations and self-help programs began to spring to the forefront of activities. Prisoners were encouraged to participate in those projects which provided incentive to become better persons in preparation for and upon their release. There was a strengthening of family and community ties and it became a growing "in-thing" for prisoners to be involved in organizational activities.
Released in 1976 from Fishkill Corr. Fac., I was picked up by my mother and her brother, brought home and then I went shopping. I took the train to report to my parole officer and then began to explore midtown Manhattan. I walked around a lot and as I walked, I shopped. I explored but in the shadow of my being, I was still lost and alone. I missed my sister and now my father. This was a sad time for me as I was missing two significant persons in my life. My father used to take me fishing with him. That was his get-away from everything. Striped bass, flounders and porgies were our mainstay. Twice he took me fishing for shark. I never caught any, but he let me claim the baby ones he caught as mine. Those were good times that I will always long for but will never see again.
In October of 1976 I was arrested for robbery and criminal possession of stolen property. It was a petty drug sale gone bad. Instead of drugs, it was oregano. I was the victim of the scam, but because I took my money back, along with personal property of the seller, I was arrested. Arrested, I called home and let my mother know I was back in jail and what had happened. I stayed in the county jail until June of 1977, when I was released on bail after I won my parole revocation hearing. Back on the streets, I went to trial, and was found guilty of attempt criminal possession of stolen property. Allowed to remain on bail until sentencing, I was re-arrested in September for attempt criminal possession of a dangerous weapon. Ultimately I was sentenced to 1.5 to 3 years and 2 to 4 years running concurrent for both convictions and sent back to state prison.
During this time, I received my general equivalency diploma. I cannot truly say what was on my mind. I was tired of being in prison and felt lost and alone. I just drifted through my time and waited to be released.
April of 1980 I was released from Queensboro Corr. Fac. I called my mother first to let her know I was out and would be to see her soon. I then called a lady friend whom I became very close with since my release in 1976. I walked across the Queensboro bridge to report to my parole officer in midtown Manhattan. I then walked to my mothers house. It was good to be home again. She asked me what was I going to do. I told her probably get a job. She said that I was getting too old to be wandering the streets and that I needed to try to establish a life for myself. I told her she was right and I will work on that. But the streets had other plans for me.
Free once again, I found myself looking for something. What, I truly could not say. I felt empty. I dabbled in the drug culture to keep some money in my pockets. I got high to get high to try to feel good to no avail. When I got high, I became angry because I was lonely. I got an apartment with my lady friend and it felt comfortable but I was still missing something. I dabbled so much and was so successful that finally a person lost their life in a robbery and I was arrested for not only that, but two other robberies and looked upon as "the" prime suspect in other uncharged crimes. This was in 1980.
Due to on-going litigation with my current conviction, I must refrain from commenting on the issues in my case. However I can never, nor do I, take lightly the effect my arrest and conviction has had upon the victims in my case, their families, my family and I.
Over the many years since my 1980 arrest, I began to acknowledge more and more the negative choices I have made in my life. After my arrest and my placement in the county jail (Rikers Island) I have asked myself consistently how can I tum this situation around or make up for this situation I found myself in. Little did I understand that change began as I was thinking. Ironically, one of the first things I sought after arriving at Rikers Island was a job. Don't get me wrong, I had a job when I was on parole: working construction for a program called Neighborhood Work Project assisting in the refurbishment of buildings; three days per week and pay was $22.00 per day, daily. I first began volunteering my services as a suicide aide in my housing area during the day. I eventually got a job as a sanitation worker, sweeping and mopping the hallways and collecting and dumping the garbage from each block. While I never had an emergency situation to respond to as a suicide aid, I have had the opportunity to meet and sit with a good number of people just to allow them to talk and provide an opportunity to vent. While the majority of the people I spoke with did not have charges as severe as mine, psychologically, just being in a county jail can be a severe traumatic experience for many. In this way I have helped and assisted people in re-establishing contact with their family relations and structuring an independent program that would fill their idle time and help them along their way. To help them with their relations with family and/or friends, I identified and spoke of my own desires, hopes and dreams but substituted them for me. What I truly sought in my life I offered to them for their world.
Throughout this time in 1981 I met a number of people whom one could say I got pretty close to. One young man was known as Ronald (Rondu) Neely. He had just turned 21 and it was his first time in an adult jail for something serious, a loaded gun. He was very impressionable and appeared as if he thought he had to prove something to people. He acted kind of tough but was actually hiding his vulnerability as many have done under these circumstances. I learned of this when I overheard him ask a guy if he could borrow his shower shoes to take a shower. The guy told him it would cost a pack of cookies at the commissary. He told the guy he didn't have any commissary. The guy told him then he don't get a shower. I sat there and looked at this dude who was trying to squeeze water out of a rock and just shook my head. Rondu walked away. I got up, went and reached into my cell with a broomstick, got my shower slippers and brought them to Rondu. In so many words I told him to be careful who he ask for things because everyone in here (jail) does not have his best interest at heart. He thanked me and went to get his shower.
After that I kind of looked out for him, along with a number of other men who were there, making sure that extra food was given to those most in need. Because I seemed to bring that sense of spirit, I was welcomed among those who were kind of running things awaiting court dates and were down awhile. I had position and a pretty strong voice and was able to see that phone time was distributed more evenly as possible so those who mostly need extra time could obtain it; that toothpaste, toothbrushes and a washcloth and soap was provided to all those who sought it and that the watching of programs on the television was respected based on general consensus. Of course there were the racial tensions that always seems to rear its head in close environments but especially in those situations, I felt it was necessary to maintain a balanced relationship with everyone and that kept simmering attitudes to a comfortable if uneasy level. In those instances when I could not keep the peace, I just stepped back and sought my personal safe corner and those who sought the same safety net were invited to stay in that area. In a strong sense, I had changed from a predator to a protector. I learned a lot about Rondu: no father; his mother had a number of boyfriends and none of his siblings had the same father as he; his sisters and brothers lived on their own and he generally was left to fend for himself. They did not know he was in jail. I stressed to him that he needed to let them know he was in jail because they cannot be responsible if they do not know. So, I wrote a letter to his mother (he could barely read and write.) I explained to her the need for one to consider the strengthening of family ties and that her son was too young to be experiencing jail and facing a prison sentence. All during this time, I was thinking of my predicament and myself and what I needed to do for myself but it was too late. I was in jail for the big one and that train had already left the station.
We mailed the letter and the following week he got a visit from his mother and oldest sister who brought him money for commissary and clothes for court. They wanted to meet me but I was not comfortable with that. It was good enough for me to know that he was in touch with his family. A few weeks later he was released on parole. I never seen him again in all these years and I just hope that all turned out all right with him.
It was a bitter sweet experience because I began to look at my life and ask why did I have to mess-up like I did. I promised myself that if I ever got out from under this mess I would never come back. Famous last words.
Once I was found guilty after trial I was in a fog, a daze and just trying to make it one day at a time. The worst of days were when I thought of family, especially my mother. (Even today the impact of what I have put her through weighs heavy upon me like a dead weight sitting in my chest cavity.) She did not deserve to have to live and suffer with what I put her through and am responsible for. I began to feel the pain and sorrow of the victims and their families in my case and began to ask myself, "How would I feel if what I done to them someone did to me?" That was a turning point in my life. Whenever I thought of my family, I also began to think of the victims and their families, even unto this day. I realize that I cannot change what I have done, but I can surely work towards not doing it again and for it to not happen by others.
April 19, 1982 I was transferred from the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men to Sing-Sing state prison to be processed into the state prison system. It was bitter sweet: bitter because I was in prison, the "big house", for real and (sadly) sweet because I had seen a lot of people I knew which helped to take my mind off of the circumstances of being in prison. (Sad but true, most people look for familiar faces when they come to prison in an effort to offset the mixed feelings that develop upon being in prison and away from the comforts of home life.)
On my second day there, an old timer I knew who was in the Attica rebellion came to my cell and told me that when I come out to come with him because he wanted me to meet some people. I readily agreed because I knew he knew most of the kind of people a person needs to know to make their transition into the prison system an easy one. Like anywhere else, it is sometimes who you know that works the best. He took me to a program area, into a small room. He told me in so many words that I was sent here (to prison) to die and if these people had their way, that is what would happen. That I had a choice: I could become like some of these other cats here (he really said "cats!") or I could do something for myself. I was tempted to just hang out, but I took the high road and was given a copy of the By-Laws and Constitution for the Sing-Sing Prison Branch of the NAACP. I did not understand, but all he said was, "My man!" with feeling and appreciation. He then took me into another room and introduced me to one of the executive board members of the Sing-Sing branch and told him, "Here is the brother I was telling you about. Take care of him; he is my little man!" And then he left. I stayed in the office all morning eating fried egg sandwiches, donuts and drinking coffee and just talking about how things generally were in Sing-Sing. I was told that my case was all about politics and that I was, in effect, a political prisoner; that prisoners were talking about my case before I even went to trial; that I would more than likely be found guilty and sentenced to an asshole full of time if I did not cop out (plea guilty to a lesser charge for less time.) I was asked about what I knew about the prison system; what I knew about the NAACP and its prison program and generally what I wanted to do while I was in prison. Still in a heavy fog and dazed with so much being given to me in so little time, I said I didn't know what I wanted to do but that I wanted to go home. He said in so many words I would have to work on that but to be mindful that the weight of what happens lies upon my shoulders and that whatever happens, it is up to me to make things right. I did not understand that too much, but in so many words, he was telling me that how I do my time was up to me - that there was an easy way and there was a hard way. In hindsight, I recognize that I was already on a path that would continue to change my life and those brief episodes were building blocks in the development of my character, which was transforming.
In the following weeks I would spend all my free time (all my time was free, except for when I went to the law library, which was damn near every day) in the NAACP office meeting with other members and learning about the NAACP prison branches. I then found myself appointed as a vice president of community affairs (the former vice president was transferred) and this began my venture in being responsible for others in a big way. I met a number of community volunteers in my short stay at Sing-Sing (about 6 months total), welcoming community guest to prison organizational affairs and functions. I did not do anything to stand out (that I know of) and in this way I learned that there were people who were concerned and interested in what happens to a person while imprisoned and were willing to do what they could to assist in a person's "rehabilitation." I went to Downstate for "orientation" and returned to Sing Sing ready to learn more about the NAACP and become more involved in the prison branch. But before I knew it, I was told to pack it up, that I was on a draft to another prison.
Before I knew it, I was on a transfer to Auburn state prison. A new way of experiencing the same thing: imprisonment. I was told before I left Sing Sing to get with the people in the NAACP there, so after arriving and meeting with a few people I knew there, I asked about the NAACP and was led to this short brother with a big "Michael Jackson" afro. He was the president and said he had heard about me and was told to look for me when I came through. I was surprised he "heard about me" and wondered what that was all about because while I was selected as vice president for community affairs I was a novice and did not do anything to stand out (except maybe be stupid enough to get myself an "asshole full of time"). The president asked me what I wanted to do and I told him I had to get me a program that would allow me to get to the law library. He asked me if I wanted a job and I said yeah. He said good, because the job he had for me (and position) was as a clerk in the law library running the photocopy machine as a fundraiser for the Auburn Branch NAACP. Because the position was vacant at the time and needed to be filled and they (NAACP) needed someone in the law library for some research, he selected me (with executive board approval) as vice president for legal affairs.
To say I was frightened is an understatement. I was petrified over the fact that I seemed to be getting over my head in areas of responsibility with leadership positions given to me in one of the most recognized prison branch organizations in the state of New York. These guys were seasoned, convicted felons, not a bunch that one would find themselves joking around with. I guess what impacted me the most was the level of trust and responsibility placed in my hands and under my care. I never would have imagined that this is what my life would be like for the next 30 some odd years. So, while I was still in a fog and daze, I now had a sense of direction along with a vision to follow. From predator to protector. Who knew?
I arrived in Green Haven in December of 1983. Auburn was kind of a stepping-stone for me. I met a lot of good people there who would take the time to assist me in understanding the basics of what we were experiencing as prisoners. When I left I had no idea what was down the line. When I got to Green Haven I was in awe. Try to understand, Green Haven was known as the ‘prison of prisons’, especially after Attica. There were so many prisoner groups, organizations, and programs that many, including staff, were amazed at their ability to reach so many in the population and seek to identify and address issues which may lead to criminal thinking. In this way, the process of "rehabilitation" was the general focus - being identified, designed, developed, and addressed in an attempt to speak to the specific needs of the individual and help an individual convicted of crime to foster within themselves a sense of positive community.
At Green Haven, I met with the leadership of the Green Haven Prison Branch NAACP. I was fortunate in that the president at the time was someone who grew up and went to school with my sister. He had a pretty deep executive board. They appeared to be plugged into all the other groups. They, too, informed me they had heard about me and asked me what I wanted to do. I informed them I had to work on my case. They congratulated me on my sense of direction and asked me whether I wanted a job. Of course, I said yes and they told me that in order to be considered I must first enter the Black Studies program. I jumped at that opportunity because I have always felt, not empty, but incomplete as a person, even when I have been around others. It was my hope this would help to give me focus and would occupy my time while I worked on my case. After I completed the allotted program cycle, I was interviewed and hired/assigned as one of two clerks for the Green Haven Prison Branch NAACP. In this position, I was introduced to a new way of thinking and a new way of being. It was as if I needed to be culturally orientated before I started on this journey. It was a crash course with a number of aspects to cover but for now I will just say that it was an exposure to an educational experience that most younger people, especially those from urban areas, should experience but WITHOUT THE PRISON ASPECT ATTACHED.
Being about 5 to 7 years into my sentence, I was still in a fog - lost, lonely, and psychologically confused. In a daze, I sought to understand what motivated me to adopt a lifestyle of selfishness and disrespect for others, which ultimately led to the loss of life of an innocent person. My vision of the future was bleak. I had no one to speak to in an effort to try to cope and understand the burden I had to carry. I felt bad about the loss of life and the hurt and pain I had inflicted upon the victims, the hurt, pain and suffering I have caused both their family and my family, and the shame my family suffers from, knowing I am responsible for the loss of an innocent life. Most of all, the hurt, pain, sorrow and agony I caused to myself and would have to live with for the rest of my days. It was in this mindset that I began to take notice of a group of volunteers who entered the prison every Friday. I soon learned that they were Quakers, members of the New York Yearly Meeting Prisons Committee of the Religious Society of Friends.
I was curious to understand what motivated them to volunteer their services every week at Green Haven (or in any prison, for that matter.) I sensed their concern for people and they truly seemed to listen to what a person had to say. I attended the Quaker Worship Services to learn more about their faith and recognized that through non-judgment they helped me to see the good in myself and the value of such goodness towards others. When I learned that Quakers were the originators of the Alternatives to Violence Program, I immediately signed up and enjoyed the program immensely. I attended and completed both the basic and advanced training of their Alternative to Violence Program workshops twice (once in Green Haven in the late 80's, early 90's, and, once again in Auburn in 2013-14) and it has helped me to better understand, embrace and strengthen alternative ways of resolving conflict. When in Green Haven, it was suggested I take the Training for Trainers workshop, however, my work efforts with the NAACP precluded me from doing so. I have learned to utilize a good portion of my training skills in my daily activities and have thus far been successful in my endeavors, especially the interpersonal and internal conflict one can find themselves battling in their life struggle, The Quakers have always made me feel better than I have thought of myself and with them I have never felt as if I were a second-class citizen. Over the years, they have helped me to further understand that redemption comes in all kinds of ways and at all times. It is with their help, support and assistance I have come to value my sense of humanity.
In the early 1990's I was nominated as Clerk of the Quaker Prison Worship Group at Green Haven and accepted it because it gave me a chance to learn more about the Quakers and what it is that motivates them to be who they are. It was the humility in knowing others had faith in me that drove me to become a better person. I also began to understand that sympathy for others and myself was no substitute for action in helping and doing for others. My training as an inmate program associate facilitator helped me in clearing a path for service to others. When I was transferred from Green Haven in 1997 and sent to Great Meadows it was the Quakers who, ever present, persistently assisted me in keeping my head above the water line.
At Great Meadows, I acquired my legal research certificate; was a facilitator for the Volunteer Services Inmate Program Associates, and in-house coordinator for the Prisoners Education Program on AIDS & HIV (PEPAH), fashioned after the AIDS Counseling & Education project at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, with Reverend Joe Caron as staff advisor. I also became a co-facilitator for the Moorish Science Temple of America, Inc., teaching introduction to major world religions; alchemy and metaphysics, under the staff advisor-ship of Rev. Joe Caron and Rev. Eric V. Payne. During this time I also became chairman of the African Cultural organization under the staff advisor-ship of Rev. Eric V. Payne. Throughout this time, the Quakers did not let me forget that my life had meaning and worth. Even at those times when I slipped, they were there to help me not fall. The final step in my transition after years of deep introspection was to finally become a member of the Quakers in 2016 after I was returned to Green Haven. (See attached Program Participation & Positions Held Since 1981.) It was during this time that I learned my mother was very sick.
Upon my transfer to Elmira, I worked in the mess hall for a few weeks until I was asked whether I would be a facilitator in Transitional Services. As such, I facilitated Phase I, II and III; and Orientation to new arrivals. I also facilitated three Aggression Replacement Training sessions under the advisor-ship of Ms. Shirley Spaker. And I received certification by the New York State Department of Labor as a Counseling Aid I. During this time, I also had the honor to serve as advisor and facilitator for the Lifers organization.
Transferred to Shawangunk, I was a member of the Lifers organization for a few months before I was transferred again. Upon my arrival at Clinton, I worked in the industry during the day and served as chairman of the Lifers during my free time.
At Clinton, I worked in the prison industry as a quality control reviewer, inspecting articles of clothing manufactured before being shipped to a central warehouse in Albany. During my free time, I was honored to serve as Chairman of the Lifers Committee. See news article. While it was a struggle to get programs for the population off the ground, it served to help keep the members and participants focused.
I returned to Auburn in 2013. Upon my arrival, I worked in the law library and became involved in the Quakers, which was the first time I was able to be in a Quaker worship group or attend a service since Green Haven in 1997. A short while later, I was transferred back to Green Haven. Not once have the Quakers ever left my side during all these moves.
AN OCEAN OF DARKNESS
In 2004 when I was transferred to Elmira Corr. Fac. it was while I was there that my mother passed away. I had an opportunity to speak to her in her final days. Words cannot express what I have felt in those final days for her. I knew that I had caused her much pain and problems in life, but she never complained. Even now, it is hard to explain, for feelings are deep-seated emotions that cannot necessarily be expressed into words. We can express words of deep feelings, but some feelings cannot be put into words. A woman whom I have come to see as my "spiritual mother" and has strongly accepted the responsibility to guide me in my growth and development, has gifted me with words that helped to transform me into a better person than I can see for myself. She said, "Your mother would be proud of the man you turned out to be." At first I was confused because I really did not understand the sentiment. But as months and years came and went and we spoke of personal growth and development, maturity, maturing and mentoring, I began to see how I have transformed over the years.
I had begun to realize that we all have a role to play in life. My sister, father and mother all had their individual roles to play, roles from which I have benefited in the long term. I may not have realized what those roles were, but I began to notice that I have been punishing myself in self-destructive ways since the passing of my sister by striking out at others. In the meantime, I was being selfish: I left two brothers alone in the world, both of whom could use help, support and assistance in these later years in their lives. What was I thinking? I have come to accept that I have weaved a path of hurt, pain and destruction throughout my younger years and that only I could stop its continuation. The words of my "spiritual mother" told me I have changed for the better, recognizably and that it is on this road that I must continue to travel. There is still work to be done (always will be) but the blessing of it all is to know that the change is present in my life and there are others who have noticed and recognized it. Now I had to realize it for myself.
The first step for me was to understand and accept forgiveness. That step started with myself. I had to accept that everyone played a part in life, even if I did not understand their part. I was punishing myself in self-destructive ways, striking out at others in an attempt to make up for the lost of my sister, father and mother. I left two brothers alone in the world, both in need of help, support and assistance as one suffers from mental retardation and another from the aftereffects of a bus accident. In striking out, while I may have caused insurmountable pain to others, I have caused the pain I suffer from today and that only I can stop its continuation. Someone once said when you come to a fork in the road, take it. The passing of my mother was a fork in the road for me and I decided to direct my energies towards light instead of darkness. I learned in life everyone and thing has a purpose.
One day I was in deep thought in my cell, feeling sorry for myself and upset over what I have done with my life, in short, angry with being who I was and I watched two lines of ants crawl to some crumbs of bread and carry it away back to a little hole they came out of. At first I started to step on them, but something told me that they are only hungry, are not bothering anyone and is carrying the food to their home to feed others, something that some of us do above ground and in prison do for one another. As I thought these thoughts, I thought of how around the world most people are the same: they just want to sustain themselves with food clothing and shelter. to cover and protect themselves from inclement weather and the elements. The ants were not bothering anyone and I told myself there is no need to bother them, they are just living their lives as they know it to be. So I left the ants alone and just watched how they worked together in such an organized manner in their responsibilities. I told myself if ants can do it, then people can do it too. Afterwards, I began to crumble breadcrumbs or cookies just to feed them and watch how they collect the food. I said to myself, if they can do that, then why can't people. Then I thought of the record by Michael Jackson "Man In The Mirror", that "... if you want to make the world a better place take a look at yourself and make that change, ... " And I thought of the saying, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I realized that positive change started with me from within, almost immediately after my arrest. Don't really know where the saying came from (some would say the historical Jesus) but for me, it speaks loudly to one of the Quaker testimonies of Simplicity.
MY OCEAN OF LIGHT
As far back as 1990 I have formed a more solid community and personal relationship in my interactions with others within the environs of prison and through correspondence and visits throughout my stay in various prisons, which has transformed into a community of support that provides pastoral care. Its been said that sometimes a person needs to stop and take a look back at what they are doing, who they are and where they are headed. I have been told I am a good person by a number of people, being asked on a number of occasions: "What are you doing in jail?" Or, "Aren't you going home soon?" I used to selfishly think that if I were so good, then good things should happen to me. But not paying attention drew me down the wrong path and I hit a roadblock that has stifled my forward motion for a good many years. "Forward motion" in the sense that I have not really progressed in life as I could have. It took this "time out" for me to realize that the world does not revolve around me, but that I am but a bit player in the overall scheme of things. I owe it to myself and all those who I have let down and who see my potential to be better and to do better in life. In life we all have a role to play and I am grateful that the goodness others see in me has helped me to realize I can do more to help others. It is time I stop just being alive and start living.
I am confident the Bulls Head-Oswego Monthly Meeting (of which I am a member) of the New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) will be there to support me upon my release and all the time thereafter. I have a deep sense of responsibility to live up to the principles of the Quakers and to the Meeting of which I am a member, which I have come to realize as my spiritual home. I also recognize a debt I have to pay to society for the wrong I have committed throughout my short life. Happily, the Quakers have helped me to recognize the humanity in others and how all people have a moral right to life, liberty and their individual pursuit to happiness while not becoming a victim of someone else's selfishness. Their continued faith in me has motivated me to be the better person than I were. Such faith was a challenge, which I hesitantly accepted at first because I knew in myself I could be a better person - and others were counting on me to be so. Such responsibility - being responsible to others - was practically a complete turn around as it forced me to do better to be better. It is humbling to know others thinks more of and about you than you may do of yourself
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have helped me to focus for a better understanding of what means the most to me and can have a beneficial impact upon others. When I think of the saying: "To do no harm!", I think of them. This first step guided me towards recognizing that if I wanted forgiveness that first I must be willing to forgive myself. I had to realize that my family was those who were with me then and those who are with me now. My spiritual mother is a blessing. Interested in what has sustained her faith, I felt it would be to my benefit to adopt the same faith that has nourished and nurtured her for at least all of the 30+ years I have known her. My becoming a member is greatly because of her expressions of the spirit as it has moved her to be the woman she is. It is in this way I was moved to accept Quaker testimonies (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship) as my life's calling, for as it has worked so well for her and others like her, then it would do wonders for me, or so I shall strive for it to do.
As of this writing I work in the academic library at Green Haven and during my off-time I volunteer my services compiling and filing inter-library-loan book requests and providing a general service to those prisoners who either are assigned through their class scheduling or are on callout. I help to catalog and stock shelves and receive instruction from our civilian supervisor, who is a blessing to her profession. My only other activities are callouts for the law library and for the Quakers of which, at the time of this writing, I have the honor of serving as Clerk of the Meeting. I feel I am a better person because of my relationship with the Quakers and I feel my actions over the years tend to reflect this as I have thus far provided helpful and beneficial support and assistance in whichever way I possibly could. I believe I can be an asset and help others upon my release rather than being the liability I once was which led to my incarceration.
I know I am not perfect but know that what helps to define who I truly am is my ability to keep moving forward, progressively, to better myself.
I have learned that for me one does not often have the luxury to recognize moments that potentially alter or change ones' course in life until long after the results are in place. I believed I lived the best life I knew how, in spite of the hurt, pain and suffering caused and because I used to think I had no regrets. I now know that to be a falsity. I have conducted my life with no sense of direction. Crash and burn comes to mind. The senselessness I wrought in my life and brought into other peoples lives only brought me to this point in life, a point of shame and dishonor.
Now what is past is past for me and I am happy to leave all of my past mistakes behind. I know I cannot go back and change any part of my life where I feel I made a bad decision and am comfortable with the good decisions I have made. I cannot and do not pretend to know or have the answer to the age old questions, “what is the meaning of life?” and “what is my purpose in life?”. What I have come to accept of this life is whatever meaning and purpose I can give to it.
It seems somewhat pointless now to be looking back and evaluating my legacy as either good or bad. All I can do now is look at how many lives I have touched in a beneficial way and the positive and constructive difference I have helped to make. In that way I can take pride in what little I have been able to accomplish and achieve and with the little life I have left adopt this perspective and give everything I do meaning and purpose. I’ve read somewhere that there are those who found meaning in what they go through and have healed faster if they don’t know the meaning of it at the time. So whether one believes in a creator or higher power, one is likely to heal better and maybe faster if they were to view their life’s purpose within a context of meaningfulness.
I know I have persevered holding onto the thought that there is hope for tomorrow. In the context of my life, it may mean that my experiences were a way to make my spirit stronger to provide compassion towards others who may (have) need(ed) it more or were worst off than I. All I can do now is be proud of what little I have achieved and be prepared to give strength and provide support to those less fortunate than me tomorrow.
POSITIONS HELD SINCE 1980 INCARCERATION
1981 - Rikers Island House of Detention for Men (HDM)
* Suicide Aide
1982 - Sing Sing Corr. Fac.
* Vice President Community Affairs
Sing Sing Prison Branch NAACP
1983 - Auburn Corr. Fac.
* Vice President Legal Affairs
Auburn Prison Branch NAACP
1984 - Green Haven Corr. Fac.
* Clerk & Executive Secretary
Green Haven Prison Branch NAACP
* Executive Director
Prisoners Alliance w/ Community (P.A.C.)
Green Haven Prison Worship Group
Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
* Community Service Liaison
PinPoint Lifers Organization
DOC Inmate Program Associate training
Universal Church of Metaphysics
1997 - Great Meadow Corr. Fac.
* Legal Research Certification (DOC)
* Transitional Services I.P.A. facilitator
* Prisoners Education Program on HIV/AIDS facilitator
* Moorish Science Temple of America, Inc. facilitator
* General Civilization Class facilitator
- Intro to Major World Religions - co-facilitator
- Intro to Alchemy - co-facilitator
- Intro to Metaphysics - co-facilitator
* Chairman - African Cultural Organization
2004 - Elmira Corr. Fac.
* Transitional Services
(Phase I-II-III & Orientation) - facilitator
Aggression Replacement Training - facilitator
* N.Y.S.D.O.L Counseling Aid certification
*Advisor - Lifers Organization
2008 - Shawangunk Corr. Fac.
* Lifers Organization (member)
2008 - Clinton Corr. Fac.
2013 - Auburn Corr. Fac.
* Auburn Prison Worship Group (member)
Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
2014 - Green Haven Corr. Fac.
Green Haven Prison Worship Group
Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)