Jamal Johnson

“My hands were a little shaky,” Jamal said. “I knew something wasn’t right.”

While playing basketball, he observed, “My jumping ability wasn’t the same.”

Jamal spent three months at reception (where intake processing is done before a convicted person is sent to a permanent facility). At first, his complaints of ailing health were waved off by prison staff nurses, who claimed they didn’t understand what was wrong. Jamal insisted he knew his body was changing. Since Jamal didn’t understand the root of his symptoms either, it was difficult to press for the attention he needed. It wasn’t until he arrived at Five Points Correctional that he was finally sent out for MRIs.

The diagnosis came back as multiple sclerosis.

Like anyone with this diagnosis, the initial news devastated Jamal. Aside from being locked up, surrounded by people who did not have his best interests at heart, he had to overcome the realization that life would never be the same. Prison is a dark place to begin with – but it got a whole lot darker for Jamal.

When he was younger, trouble followed Jamal. “Or maybe I’d been going towards it,” he muses Jamal was placed in foster care at a young age. He bounced from home to home and even ran away for a spell as a young teenager. He never celebrated a birthday. With little guidance from parental figures, he sought an identity elsewhere. The problem was that drugs, guns, and violence were endemic to his neighborhood, and he would inevitably run into them.

“If [my] house was strong, then maybe I wouldn’t have went to the streets looking for attention and stuff,” he reflects. When he ran away as a young teenager, he lived on his own for months until one day his uncle saw him from the street, pulled over his car, and forced him to come home. Without stability, he had to take care of himself from a young age.

“In the process of me trying to find myself, I ended up doing some messed up things that put me in a messed up position,” he says.

It is not uncommon for foster youth to eventually meet the criminal justice system. Nationally, nearly 25% of former foster youth spend time in jail in their early adulthood. Certainly, there is a connection between childhood trauma, instability, and disconnection from home, and Jamal stands as an example of what criminologists refer to as the foster-to-prison pipeline.

Jamal also shines light onto the truth that it is possible to move forward.

Today, he still has a hunger for guidance and identity. Jamal feels that prison stemmed his development. He expresses a desire to mature, but is not always sure how. He has experienced growing pains learning how to meet obligations, fulfill promises to himself, and rising to the expectations of others.

But he has grown more than he gives himself credit for. “My experiences made me throw away the whole thought of being a follower, because being a follower put me in prison. So I knew that was not the life I wanted to carry on.”

He learned to be his own leader, he says. He describes his dismay watching gang members warring with other gang members in prison. He saw his peers get pulled into this culture and take orders from gang leaders. He witnessed some men with only six months left before their return home, but if they were tapped by gang leaders to “cut” another prisoner, they had to obey, even if it meant more prison time.

Instead of following the group and submitting to old life choices, Jamal found a different outlook. He pulled out of his depression following his MS diagnosis. He concluded, “This is it. This is my life. I can’t sit around in sorrow all day because I ain’t going to get nothing done.”

Upon his release in 2015, he chose not to go back to family because he wanted to “make it happen on [his] own.” In part, he explains, this is because when he was in prison, “nobody did too much for me…so when I come out, they probably wouldn’t do too much for me. I didn’t really wait around to see. I just took action into my own hands.”

Instead, he went to a halfway house, where staff helped him find his own apartment within six months.  He continues to volunteer with Peaceprints Prison Ministries, a place that helped him through his transition.

With his MS, it has been difficult to find work that allows the flexibility he needs, but in spite of that, Jamal is able to find the positives in life. “I ain’t rich but I’m okay. I’m out here, I’m not in bondage…Coming from there to being out here, it’s just beautiful. I always told myself, I’d rather be dead broke out here than be in there and rich, you know?”

His freedom is paramount. He likes to take walks without a correctional officer’s permission and eat what he wants to eat. He doesn’t live in fear of gang members and others as he did in the prison environment.

“Every day I wake up, it’s like wow, I made it,” he says. He served a five and a half year sentence, but he reminds himself of the fragility of it all, how easily that could have been turned upside down for him. In prison, “you could be put in a [bad] position because you’ve got so many different types of personalities and characters in there…You could be a calm, humble dude but you’ve got hundreds of other people around you that’s not, and they all starting trouble. So a five-year sentence could turn into a life sentence. To be away from that is a blessing.”

He sings, writes R&B lyrics and poetry. “I just want to be secure and drama-free. I just want simple stuff,” he says. He wants to keep his head up, remain patient and strong, stay focused.

The battle is two-fold for Jamal. It has been ten years since his diagnosis. Months after coming home, three new lesions appeared on his brain, altering his ability to walk. He fought back with a prescribed steroid regiment. He is his own primary caregiver; his wellbeing rests heavily on him, as it so often did in childhood. He is determined to come out of his 20’s as a strong, self-possessed adult.  It will be a long road.