By Reginald Williams
Special to the AFRO
For Kenard Johnson, his appointment as incoming director for alumni engagement for Goucher College’s Prison Education Partnership (GPEP) was a full-circle moment.
The 2019 Goucher alumnus took the long route to graduation. Still, in five years, the native Washingtonian elevated from an ex-offender to a college graduate to a director at the tertiary education level.
The GPEP partnership, established in 2012, is a division of the Towson, Md. college operating in the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and the Maryland Correctional Institution – Jessup.
“It is my goal to set up a holistic approach to re-entry, given the fact that there is a myriad of services needed for those men and women,” said GPEP’s newly named director.
Johnson has first-hand knowledge of what those services should be. By his admission, he spent most of his adult life locked behind federal penitentiary walls from New York to Mississippi, including Lorton Reformatory and Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. Collectively, Johnson spent 27 years behind bars.
“I’ve done a lot of time in prison–not like the guys who do 25-year stretches or big bits. I’ve done an installment plan of prison time. My life on installment was five here, seven here, 12 here and nine there, and before you know it, I’m 58 years old,” said Johnson, the author and publisher of “Below D.C. Black Poverty Line,” a poetry book highlighting the intersectionality of poverty, race, and history in the Shaw and Columbia Heights section of Washington, D.C.
Despite his persistent imprisonment, Johnson has risen from incarceration and homelessness, living in transitional housing to now living in his own home and working as a paralegal for the District’s Office of the Attorney General.
Johnson’s incarcerated life began in 1983 when he was arrested and charged with stealing $57 while on a high school field trip. The Cardozo High School senior was sentenced to serve six years at the now-defunct Lorton, also known as Lorton Correctional Complex.
“In the beginning of 1984, the judge sentenced me to six years under the Federal Youth Corrections Act (FYCA),” said Johnson, who earned his paralegal certification from Georgetown University. “He felt that I would benefit from the Youth Corrections Act because on the pre-sentencing report, it stated that I was mildly mentally retarded and had cognitive issues.”
Being confronted by the pre-sentencing report was disheartening for Johnson.
“I took it personal,” Johnson said. “It hurt my feelings.”
The FYCA, established in 1950, was designed to allow youth to be charged as juveniles rather than adults. It emphasized rehabilitative treatment rather than retributive punishment.
A District of Columbia Board of Parole representative reported that Johnson, raised in the District’s Shaw community, did not appear mentally challenged, however, being classified was significant in his being sentenced under FYCA. While at Lorton, rehabilitative services presented more like retributive punishment. Johnson never received any therapeutic services, nor did he ever see a psychologist or social worker for his supposed intellectual and cognitive impairment. And prison officials either failed to realize or ignored that he had a substance abuse disorder.
“I had a severe PCP habit that they never considered,” said Johnson, who grew up in what he described as a drug haven. “They never considered the environment and the circumstances of my PCP use and how it played a huge role in my low-test scores.”
In addition to not having access to psychological care, Lorton did not sponsor a sustainable drug treatment program. “Back then, they didn’t have drug programs in prison,” he said. “They had a two-day seminar. I attended a workshop in the auditorium, where I was given a certificate.”
Despite the institution’s shortcomings, Lorton was where Johnson began his education journey, spurred on by his dismay at being diagnosed with an intellectual disability. When Johnson entered Lorton, he read on a third-grade level. But the high school senior dedicated himself to learning—spending days and evenings raising his reading and math proficiencies so he could sit the GED examination. He would eventually earn his bachelor’s degree in American studies. However, that achievement came after many instances of recidivism, rooted in either new charges or violations of old ones.
Released in 1987 on the Youth Act Parole, 22-year-old Johnson returned to his grandmother’s home on 10th and W streets northwest. But, in less than a year, he violated his parole and returned to Lorton.
“I didn’t take my stint in Lorton seriously,” Johnson said. “I didn’t do anything to reform myself other than make some improvement with learning how to read. But upon release, I went right back to the same environment and ended right back down at Lorton Youth Center 1 for a violation.”
After Johnson’s second release from Lorton, he was again charged with burglary. Sentenced to five to 15 years, Judge Ricardo Urbina suspended the sentence and mandated that he successfully complete Stout Street Foundation, a long-term drug treatment facility based in Commerce City, Colo.
About a year into his stint, Johnson abandoned the program and refused to return to the District, where he could be remanded to prison to complete his sentence. Eventually, he was arrested and charged with burglary and sentenced to 12 years at Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP); he served eight.
Despite his repeated criminal offenses, Johnson had an enduring passion for learning. While at CSP, Johnson took college courses offered by Regents University Denver. After completing two semesters, a stroke of the pen erased his opportunity to continue his education. President Bill Clinton, attempting to prove that he was tough on crime, signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Clinton’s decision discontinued inmates’ ability to use the Pell Grant to finance their education.
Paroled in 1997, Johnson returned to the DMV (District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia) and reverted to his criminal behavior soon after. Eventually, Jessup’s Correctional became his home for 10 years, and that’s where he matriculated at Goucher College.
The former Goucher student now sees his appointment at his alma mater as one beyond his wildest dream.
“It is surreal that I am the first director of alumni engagement for the Goucher College prison partnership,” he said. “I am excited to head up the effort to provide traditional services to students attending classes at the men and women’s facilities in Jessup, Md., once they are released.”
For Johnson, life truly has come full-circle.
Reginald Williams, the author of “A Marginalized Voice: Devalued, Dismissed, Disenfranchised &Demonized” writes on Black men and Holistic Health concerns. Please email@example.com or visit amvonlinestore.com for more information.