“To be a criminal is a disgrace - to remain a criminal is disgraceful.” -Malcom X
By Sheldon Johnson
I am a human being. I am an American. I am a humanitarian. I am a Father, a husband, a Brother, an Uncle, an Intellectual… I am also unfortunately—a convicted felon paying an infinite debt to society for a crime I committed when I was twenty-one years old
In 1998, after being convicted before a jury of my peers for two separate armed robberies, I was sentenced to a 50-year determinate term of incarceration… In essence I was handed a death sentence for non-homicidal offenses. The American Criminal Justice System has not given me an option for a second chance nor toward rehabilitation. It then denied me my basic constitutional rights as a United States citizen on appeal.
I do not dispute that I deserve to be punished for my crimes against society. I blame no one and take full responsibility for the ignored I perpetuated within my community. I had choices-choices that were clouded by rage, hate, drugs, anger, alcohol, fear, womanizing, stupidity, selfishness and carelessness-but choices nonetheless… I repeat I deserve to be punished, but to what degree, forever?
I beg you to take a few minutes to read this Bio. I know that we live in an age of advanced technology-Society is moving at a rapid pace. So I humbly thank you if you have read this far.
My name is Sheldon Preston Johnson. I was born on May 6, 1975, in Manhattan at Mount Sinai Hospital. My mother is an immigrant from Sicily and my father is African and Native American. Both my parents are deaf mutes they cannot hear or talk. My parents separated after continuous violent domestic disputes. During my childhood my father violently assaulted my mother on many occasions until they separated. Many of these memories still haunt me to this day with a crystal clear clarity. Thereafter, for most of my life I hated my father and believed in my heart that he hated me.
I grew up on 112th Street and 5th Avenue, alongside the bother that divides the East Side from the West side of Harlem. I grew up confused and angry. My peers constantly ridiculed me because my parents were deaf and my mother and grandmother were White. Because of this, I believed that I was adopted and suffered through an identity crisis until my teenage years, where other pains superseded any identity crisis. I did many stupid things to be accepted by my peers and mostly to be paid attention by my Mother. I could not express to my mother my concerns, because she could not hear me.
At this age I did not understand these emotions or resentments. My mother’s method for responding to my outlandish behaviors: AN IRON FIST. They say violence begets violence, although I do not blame my mother for my behavior, through my mother’s method of punishment and harsh realities that my environment portrayed… Through learned behavior I adopted violence as a way of life.
Like a brewing volcano with no positive outlet for my lava to spew forth: I exploded. The spiral began: when my 5th grade math teacher for months abused me by placing salt in my palm and then hitting it with a stack of rulers held in place by rubber bands. After being fed up with this elementary corporal punishment, I in turn, pulled out a kitchen knife that I brought to school with me and attempted to stab him, but instead ran away. He in turn, chased me and once I was cornered I grabbed a fire extinguisher off the wall and sprayed him with it.
Untamable and out of control I was placed in a mental institution at Mount Sinai hospital and then Metropolitan Hospital; transferred from elementary school in a straight jacket and injected with various psychotropic medications. For the next year or so, I was sedated with various psychotic medications and subject to primitive means of rehabilitation, in what I considered to be an uncaring, foreign, hostile, and unnatural environment (a psychiatric in-house hospital unit). I continuously rebelled. Just imagine the Jack Nicholson movie, ‘One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest,’ it was similar to that- but much worse.
I was shortly thereafter sent to Pleasantville then Hawthorne Cedar Knolls (group homes) where the circumstances escalated. My downward spiral continued, the various guinea pig medications continued and circumstances snowballed. At Hawthorne I was molested by a counselor and raped by an older peer in the group home. Coupled with the staff being mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive. After this episode I was arrested for assaulting the MONSTER (who raped me) with a knife. When I informed the departmental administration at Hawthorne of my reasoning and motive for the stabbing, I was never charged. I was however, discharged from Hawthorne and subsequently told to never return to the facility grounds.
After returning home, dazed from the various medications I had been sedated with for the past three years, trying to fit back into school, home, and unable to function, I was lost! I was too embarrassed to tell my friends or family what really happened, for fear of being ostracized and ridiculed. Because of these incidents I was mentally and emotionally distraught. I viewed every male with suspicion and for a very long time, until recently, I was unable to develop a healthy relationship with any male peers/figures whatsoever.
With nightmares of being hunted (by hospital employees, doctors, MONSTERS and group home staff) and raped, my lingering anger and resentments, my emotional and mental dysfunctions (I was classified as being a Manic Depressant,), the fact that I hated my father for leaving and abandoning ME, despising my mother for the illogical beatings, her inability to understand ME, to effectively communicate with ME, for allowing the counselors to place ME into the hands of the hospital staff… I turned to the streets, to drugs, to alcohol, to nicotine, to violence, sex: anything that would mask my pain- my anguish and give ME a sense of instant gratification.
Because of the atrocities I suffered at the hands of staff and peers at Hawthorne Cedar Knolls, I hated any man that attempted to embrace me, any man that opposed or challenged me! I dealt with all men violently because of my insecurities and the emasculation of my manhood. My role models became drug dealers, thieves, killers, pimps and hoodlums. They appeared to have no cares in the world- or so it seemed. They appeared to be materially successful from their criminal activities. They had jewelry, women, cars, and money. Everything I needed to be accepted and mask my insecurities.
So I embraced this way of life. These illusions. I’ve been shot, stabbed, cut, but my anger, hate, lust, greed and vengeance prevented me from having the clarity I so desperately needed. I was a horse with blinds, I knew very little about Martin Luther King or Malcolm X— besides being boulevards where crimes were committed–or that they were assassinated. I knew nothing of Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Franklin, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, Viktor Frankl, Sigmund Freud, Sojourner Truth, or Edgar Allen Poe… let alone Shakespeare. I was oblivious to the real world and all the options available to me.
I have escaped many near death situations and can only believe that I am destined to be more than just a model prisoner. In 1991 I was shot twice and temporarily paralyzed. In 1994 I was brutally stabbed and almost lost my lung. In 1995 I became a member of the Bloods in New York State (I now denounce gang recruitment). In 1996 I was cut with a straight razor at Riker’s Island County jail and because of it I have a huge scar from my temple to my chin, which required 167 stiches. In 1997 I was arrested for the charges that currently hold me—it seems indefinitely. I proceeded to trial base don misinformation provided by my defense attorney who told me if I was convicted at trial my maximum sentence could not exceed 25 years. After trial, I was sentenced to 50 years. My earliest release date is 2041. Sadly, it took the reality of the death sentence I received to have an epiphany that, either I change or I’ll die in prison—a reality I have yet to escape.
In 1993 the greatest thing to happen in my life: my son was born. I witnessed him escape from his mother’s womb to breathe his first breath of life. Thirteen years later, in 2008, my son, at the ripe age of 13 years old was arrested, and later convicted, for the accidental killing of a Doctoral Columbian Law Student. The case was highly publicized. The case had a serious impact on my continuing development as a man and reaffirmed my ambition and purpose to help youth at risk. My condolences go to the family of that law student.. Please forgive us both.
I felt remorse for his death, I felt guilty for not being able to be there to guide my son in a positive direction. As a father he was my son and I felt a sense of responsibility. I felt Powerless and wrote an article for the Osbourne Association’s HIV/AIDS newsletter the ‘Rainbow Gazette’ called POWERLESS. I vowed from that day forth to make every effort to speak and interact with Youth at Risk. By the Grace of the Creator, my son is well, has learned a priceless lesson in life and is thriving to help other kids who need the guidance that I was unable to provide at that time in his life.
Prison does one of two things to its subjects: it brings out the best or the worst in them. I have chosen the former. Prison also provides its subject with a vast amount of time to analyze, to consider and to reconsider. I began studying, reading, writing, and discovered my passion as a humanitarian. I made a conscious decision to stop using substances that altered my reality (drugs, nicotine) and turned my life to spirituality, redemption, forgiveness and the pursuit of Liberty.
I have been gifted with the ability to understand and apply, what some consider complicated-complex concepts. I have taken voluntary courses in behavioral modification, taught college courses-study groups under the PACE (Prisoners for AIDS Counseling and Education) program. Became qualified as a pretest-post test HIV counselor, went to Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous, facilitated college courses in psychology, counseling and health wellness, facilitated substance abuse classes, facilitated HIV/AIDS prevention and transmission, denounced gangs and promoted non-violence, created two cognitive behavioral programs, coordinated and facilitated Youth Assistance Programs, and acted in ‘Shakespeare on Lock’ a program for inmates coordinated by a Professor from Vermont college.
I obtained my paralegal certification and have been working at various law libraries as a clerk for over a decade. I have learned that I have a passion for writing, whether it’s short stories, poetry, law or philosophy. I am a humanitarian by nature and live—love to help and assist my fellow human.
I wrote a story about prison marriages and relationships that was published by Resilience Multimedia, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, in a book called ‘Thinkin Outside the Cell’, entitled ‘Fighting Temptations.’ I have also written three fiction novels (2 Urban/1 Poetry) that I hope will be published sometime in 2013 under the publishing company Raw Potential.
I have expressed this shortened concise his-tory, not for sympathy, nor empathy-but to paint a vivid and RAW illustration of the circumstances that drowned me in an environment which in turn bred not only criminal behavior, but mental, emotional and physical abuses that I, as a child was not prepared to handle or comprehend.
Change has not been easy, but I know that I have changed. Especially in light of the fact I am enclosed in an environment, classified as one of the worst prisons in N.Y.S. and the second worst prison in the U.S.A., where drugs, violence and brutality are not only ever present, but prevalent. Nonetheless, I strive to be an example to my peers, my son, my family, youth at risk and society that change is possible. I am proof that people can change if the right set of circumstances is presented and they are ready for change.