Unsealed: An Open Letter from No More Victims Road
Of the hundreds of addresses I come across on the envelopes from incarcerated people around the country, there is one street name in particular that has never left my mind: No More Victims Road. The “L” shape road that runs beside the Missouri River is the address of both Jefferson City Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison, and the Algoa Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison, each with nearly 2,000 incarcerated individuals behind the walls.
“No More Victims Road” catalyzes a necessary conversation about what prisons and jails actually do in our society. The name itself functions as a tactic that continuously punishes the people confined within the facilities themselves: each time they write those words next to their name on outgoing envelopes, each time their families address mail to their loved ones on the inside, and each time people merely drive past the prisons on that road, it is a reminder of the persona of criminality that incarcerated people are trapped within. The four words also suggest that locking criminalized individuals behind bars will eliminate crime and harm would cease to exist, thereby implying that prisons prevent further victimization. But does incarceration actually decrease crime? Does caging millions of people nationwide actually reduce violence and contribute to community safety?
Although carceral facilities are housed within “Departments of Corrections,” the inhumane conditions, routine state-sanctioned violence, and institutional obstacles that incarcerated people endure daily makes it difficult to believe that the system functions as a space of “correction” or rehabilitation. Many people on the inside have experienced hardship of some kind before their incarceration, and the dehumanizing environment that they are subjected to behind the barbed wire often only exacerbates their trauma. “No More Victims Road,” then, is a paradox––prisons and jails not only prevent pathways for transformative justice, which addresses root-causes of crime as an approach to harm reduction, but they also create more victims of violence: the people confined within them.
Antwann Johnson, who has been incarcerated for over two decades serving a life without parole sentence, sent a letter to PEN America detailing his own experience on No More Victims Road. Within his piece, Antwann sheds light on the crushing reality of life behind the walls: severed connections to the outside world, lack of medical attention, unhealthy food, prison labor, mail bans and exploitative practices, outdated and insufficient educational resources, and the hopelessness that comes with serving time with no end in sight. His letter asks us to consider if the Department of Corrections actually contributes to harm reduction, and compels us to imagine cultivating a more liberated and just world where there truly are no more victims.
Program Assistant, Prison and Justice Writing
To Whom This May Concern,
First and foremost, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read this open letter. Just that within itself is appreciated immensely, because there are many others who perhaps may feel it wouldn’t be worth their time and effort to do so. This letter is my form of honest expression with the intention of conveying, in any way possible, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness an individual feels when confined for a significant length of time with no end or relief in sight. I am writing this not just to represent myself, but all of those who are caught in the web of the judicial system. Having been incarcerated for over 20 years, I have seen that true “justice” usually belongs to those who can financially afford freedom and to those who can tell the most believable story, regardless of if it is true or not. This is a quote from a television show 61st St:
“The justice system is not broken,
it works the way it was intended to work by those who create it”
For those not familiar with this television series, during the first season, a Black track athlete who is in school, goes to jail and is put on trial for accidentally killing a police officer he was fleeing from out of fear because the cops assumed he was part of a situation involving a cop shooting another individual that had nothing to do with him. Although the show is a work of fiction, there are elements to it that only show the tip of the iceberg of issues when it comes to African-Americans, law enforcement, and the justice system as a whole.
For the person who has participated in every program available and taken as many steps as they could to rehabilitate and mature themselves under these conditions, what is the next step? What type of filtering system is in place within the Missouri Department of Corrections to separate those who are truly dedicated to becoming productive members of society to those who just don’t care when it comes to deciding who is deserving of a second chance? It is easy for one on the outside looking in to say “Keep the faith,” or to find reasons to justify ignoring the issues of injustice and prison overcrowding all together; but for the one who is constantly faced with the day-to-day struggle of finding a purpose and something to live for that keeps them putting one foot in front of the other, it is a constant battle within our minds and hearts. Remaining positive is a fight all in itself while enduring constant heartache, regrets, loneliness, depression, thoughts of suicide and regression back into old addictions, etc. People change… people die… friendships and relationships fade… we lose hair… lose teeth… lose sleep… lose peace. E-mails, pictures, videos, and visits offer brief bursts of happiness that soon wither away once the realization sinks in that we cannot enjoy these moments of life with the loved ones on the other end. Not to mention, each available form of connecting with those we care about has a price-tag attached to it; even e-mail, which one does not have to pay for in the free world. Many of the lost souls warehoused within these facilities have no vision, no faith, no support from the free world, and are just living day to day going through the motions…all searching for some form of happiness, however temporary it may be. Some turn to God, while others use drugs, food, sleep, sex, gambling, or a number of other things as their escape from the constant stress, depression, frustration, and overall sense of being broken… unlovable… and less than human. The perpetual Groundhog’s Day effect causes many to spiral downwards further and further into despair while days turn into weeks, then months, then years. For many, death is the only thing they feel that they have to look forward to that will end the agony of being trapped in the darkness with no light at the end of the tunnel.
Imagine being called in from your job one day to find out that your mother or father has passed on. Combine that with not being able to attend the funeral or even having the ability to get physical copies of pictures of your loved one or an actual obituary due to all incoming personal mail being scanned to view digitally on provided tablets. Imagine finally being able to talk to your hospitalized grandmother over the phone for the first time in over 10 years and having to constantly be interrupted by the pre-recorded messages and cut the conversation short because the phone cuts off after 20 minutes. Imagine waiting on an important piece of mail from the courts and missing a deadline because the C.O. wasn’t paying attention and gave your mail to the wrong person. Imagine being forced to choose between buying enough food or enough hygiene from commissary to last the month because your regular paycheck for your prison job isn’t enough to pay for a good amount of both and the food in the chow hall often makes you sick because sometimes it is expired or isn’t cooked properly. Imagine getting your first visit since being locked up for 20 years, and not being able to actually go to the visiting room and see the person because a group of individuals started fighting in a different housing unit and they locked the camp down. Imagine doing the best you can to show good behavior and not get into trouble for the entire time that you’ve been incarcerated only to get a 5-year setback when you go up to see the parole board. These are all very real situations that we have to endure while continuing to fight for our freedom.
I am not taking away from the fact that those who commit crimes deserve to be punished, but to what degree? As a whole, more emphasis is placed on how much money can be made off of us than on actually rehabilitating and preparing individuals for re-release back into society. Many of the materials used for teaching purposes in classes and programs are vastly outdated (some programs actually still use VHS tapes and VCRs). To those with significant amounts of time on their sentence, there is no real incentive to sign up for these programs because of the fact that regardless of how exemplary our record is while in prison, we are still held under the same harsh sentencing because our level of rehabilitation does not currently affect the amount of time we have to do regardless of how far removed we show that we are from the state of mind we were in when we committed our crimes. It is even worse for those who are actually innocent, because while incarcerated, they are still subjected to these inhumane conditions coupled with having to deal with the forced integration with those who are determined to continue on their paths of chaos and destruction. In a world where we are often either left to police ourselves or grouped with the whole (in terms of punishment) regardless of if we have any involvement or not, little to no effort is made by the judicial system to highlight and assist those who stand out from the crowd in terms of positive accomplishments and behavior to regain their freedom. At best, they are heralded as “model inmates.” This leads to “killing two birds with one stone” financially; because the ones who do no work to rehabilitate themselves and are the most likely to reoffend are released and eventually end up back in prison, and the ones who are the least likely to come back are kept behind bars so that the system can continue to make money off of them. In a system where the parole board places more energy and emphasis on keeping score while playing literal word games to get incarcerated individuals to say certain words or phrases while we are desperately trying to regain our freedom (a real situation that was exposed amongst certain individuals on the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole), it is clear that giving people a second chance that truly deserve it is not of much concern to some of those placed in positions of power and have the ability to promote real change as far as the justice system is concerned.
The system is called the “Department of Corrections,” but what is it actually correcting? At the long-closed Missouri State Penitentiary facility (also known as “the Old Walls”), there was a sign above where prisoners first came in that said “Leave your hopes and dreams behind.” For those who have had to survive this ordeal, many have taken that phrase to heart; it is apparent in heads hung low…the slumped shoulders…the lifeless shuffle of boots on unpolished floors going to and from work and medical appointments…the dull pallor on the expressionless faces of those who are lost in thought…perhaps thinking back to better times in their lives when life was full of beauty and wonder, or of experiences with loved ones who are long gone. I use the word “survive,” because those who have “Life,” “Life Without Parole,” and other harsh sentences with the 85% stipulation attached to it are, in essence, being given extended death sentences. The justice system has committed us to hospice care, because we are dying slow deaths. Many of those who actually live long enough to see freedom have little to no real life, job, or social skills that are transferable to society because many of the beneficial job training sites and reintegration classes are allotted to the lower-level camps for guys who are considered “short-timers.” The vast majority of the lost souls here are simply living, but are not alive; they have no hope, no faith, and are just enduring the perpetual Groundhog’s Day effect of participating in the same mundane day-to-day activities for days…weeks…months…years on end.
WE NEED YOUR HELP!
In order to change the system, it takes real action and an honest effort from those who truly care about giving chances to incarcerated individuals who really deserve it. Attention has to be brought to the fact that there are a number of individuals behind bars who are doing everything in their power to show that they can and will be assets and productive members of society if released; but many of them feel invisible because they are often lost in the crowd and do not have the right people behind them, and/or the financial resources to afford post-conviction lawyers. There also has to be a major push towards introducing bills into legislation that will affect those with violent felonies and not just those with lesser crimes that are contingent upon individuals showing high levels of personal growth and rehabilitation during their incarceration. There would be a tremendous change in the morale amongst prisoners if they knew for a fact that their institutional record could affect their sentencing. There must also be more emphasis placed on using current technology to exonerate individuals who have been wrongly convicted. We are in desperate need of aid and assistance on all fronts. We refuse to give up or be broken because we strongly believe that enduring trials and tribulations increases spiritual faith and strengthens character. An individual’s sight and vision will not always be in alignment. One’s sight includes the things that stand before them such as the obstacles, challenges, barriers, etc… but their vision is the thing that motivates them to push forward and keep moving even when they are in their darkest hour because they know deep down inside that there is something on the other side worth fighting for even, even if they cannot see it yet, that will make all of the blood, sweat, and tears worth it.
As stated before, I am pushing not just for my own freedom, but to show that within these dwellings there are individuals who are worth fighting for. The only limits a person has are the ones that they place on themselves, and I am striving to continue to pace my faith in God that He will guide my steps as I venture into the unknown and place the right people and tools in my path that will aid me at this difficult point of my life journey.
I would like to thank you in advance, again, for taking the time to read this letter, and also for any assistance you may be able to offer…even if it is no more than simply taking the time to respond and offering words of positivity and wisdom. The smallest gesture is much appreciated, and the more people are on board with moving things in the right direction, the closer we will get to actually changing the Department of Corrections for the better. Thank you for your time and consideration. My contact information is located below:
Antwann Johnson #524659
℅ Digital Mail Center–– Missouri DOC
P.O. Box 25678
Tampa, FL 33622-5678
Antwann Lamont Johnson, Sr. was born on May 19th, 1976 and is the oldest of 9 children. He was 21 years old when he was arrested, questioned, and charged for 1st degree murder. 17 months later, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for a murder he did not commit. During his incarceration, he became very angry concerning several injustices he experienced. Eventually, he found a sense of peace and freedom as he allowed his “Pain and Soul” to flow freely from a pen onto paper. He was determined to be heard.
Jess Abolafia is the Prison and Justice Writing Program Assistant at PEN America. She graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English and African-American Studies from The College of New Jersey, where she also received an MA in English. Abolafia has instructed a writing-workshop at the only women’s maximum-security prison in New Jersey, empowering incarcerated women to use writing as a tool of healing and liberation. She is also working on several book projects with system-impacted individuals, including co-editing the memoir of an incarcerated woman sentenced to life in prison as a teenager, and compiling the paintings, drawings, and poems of an artist who found freedom through his artwork during nearly four decades of incarceration, including eight years on Death Row.