“Forty” – A Profile of Otis Johnson by Sophie Paci

After serving forty years in NY State Prisons, Otis Johnson was extradited to New Jersey for an outstanding warrant from 1960. Five months later, Otis was released and dropped off in Times Square in the late summer of 2014. Among his possessions were his release papers (with his conditions of release), a bus ticket, $40, and wide eyes. Otis spent the first two hours of his freedom mesmerized by the colorful advertisements and towering buildings, and trying to understand why people walking around him appeared to be talking to themselves (not yet familiar with the phenomenon of Bluetooth technology). After the initial shock and excitement subsided, he made his way to the Bellevue Men’s shelter on 30th and 1st Avenue, where he would reside for the next six months.
From the metal detector to the medical-sealed food, Otis explains that Bellevue didn’t serve as a very comfortable or relaxing environment for him, and consequently, he spent most of his time walking around the neighborhood. His parole officer helped him transfer from Bellevue to Fortune Society’s “The Castle,” where he has lived since December 2014. Fortune Society is a social organization that provides housing for homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as education, employment, and family services. Otis describes Fortune as a calm environment, where the staff are supportive and kind, which he emphasized by the constant availability of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the residents.
Otis’ parole officer played a vital role in supporting him through reentry and helping him navigate the “new world.” Otis’ PO helped him adjust to new technologies and learn about public transportation. She advised that until he could feel confident in his abilities to travel alone and be on time to engagements, that he should postpone seeking employment. As the ambitious and hard-working individual that he is, Otis devoted his time to educating himself about the 21st century, going to the library, and finding ways to give back to the community. He also became actively involved in Exodus Transitional Community, an organization in Harlem that provides supportive services to formerly incarcerated individuals, where he speaks to people about reentry.
One of the biggest challenges Otis faced during the process of reentry was trying to receive a non-driver’s state identification card. Critical to the process of securing identification for Otis was Glen Bracken, a case manager at the Harlem Community Justice Center. Glen worked closely with Otis to gather the required materials for his ID, including an original birth certificate from Georgia. Six long months after Otis and Glen began working on this process, Otis received his very own glossy New York state ID.
Otis has felt very supported in the months after his release, and is extremely grateful for the attention and care he received from his parole officer, Glen at HCJC, and Barbara at Exodus; these individuals have helped him adjust to society, and he strongly believes that there should be more time in prison devoted to learning about how to adjust and be accepted. He suggests that integrating programs that allow people to engage with formerly incarcerated individuals who have re-entered society could have positive implications.
Otis is devoted to giving back to his community and supporting others through the process of reentry. He spends his days speaking with people at churches and volunteering at shelters and soup kitchens. He is working to start a non-profit organization dedicated to helping formerly incarcerated and homeless people find affordable housing. He is a participant in the Raising My Voice program, an initiative run by Circles of Support that is designed to help formerly incarcerated individuals share their personal narrative and develop critical leadership skills. Otis has found this program to be both challenging and rewarding, and feels as though integrating programs such as this into prisons would be a powerful tool to help individuals gain the confidence and skills to prepare them for reentry.
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