Sometimes you make a home where you can.
For Daniel Johnson, 66, that place is the Eastham Unit in Lovelady, where he has been incarcerated for 33 years. Daniel has worked harder than most prisoners to make amends for his crime. He’s struggled to regain his humanity in a brutal environment, and even to foster familial love behind prison bars. In doing so, he has created one of the most unconventional families in America.
It was a long time coming. Johnson has spent most of his life behind bars and it shows. He’s pale, gaunt and has lost most of his teeth. Before he was incarcerated, he’d fathered four children and built a successful insurance business in Illinois. In 1970, he went through a bitter divorce and moved to Houston to sell chemical products. He remarried and had another son. Below the professional façade, Daniel harbored a violent, dark side. In 1977, he raped a woman in Houston and was sent to prison. “I had a terrible ego problem,” he says. “I used to be a debonair character. I thought women were in love with me. It was a very self-centered life. I was a very successful businessman, I was married and had a mistress on the side—one of those types of guys.” Daniel says he was arrogant back then, and the night of rape, he “ had something to drink, and when she threw up rejection, I wouldn’t accept it. My ego wouldn’t accept it.”
Daniel was sentenced to life with parole for the crime. When he got to prison, he started to grapple with the damage he’d done to his victim and his family. He says his real breakthrough came in 2003, when his victim contacted him through the state’s victim-offender mediation program. She wanted to visit. “I said, yes, I’d do it,” he remembers. “The crime weighs heavily on my mind. I’d never had a chance to apologize to her. When we met, I could see the pain and suffering in her eyes. And that helped me realize the full extent of the criminality of the act. But during the mediation, her words brought closure. You can’t forgive the act, but you can forgive the person, and her forgiveness lifted a tremendous burden. I felt we could now both go ahead easier with our lives.”
Daniel found a measure of peace after the mediation, but he is still waiting to hear from other people. His four children cut him off after he went to prison. He hasn’t received a letter from any of them in 33 years. “I lost them because of my own criminal acts,” he says. “That’s left a huge void in my heart.” He’s been eligible for parole since 1985, and hopes to reconnect with them some day—but it turns out he didn’t have to wait that long to be a dad again.
Jessie Johnson, 33, is not the first person you would expect Daniel to befriend. Daniel came from a well-off Midwestern family. Jessie grew up in rural poverty in Cleveland, Texas. Daniel is white, elderly and hollow-cheeked. Jessie is young and black with a weightlifter’s physique. Jessie came to the Eastham Unit in 2005, sentenced to 60 years for aggravated sexual assault. Even before arriving, he was prone to severe depression, episodes of delusions and blackouts. He says he was having a mental health episode the night of the rape. “When I got to the unit I was still in a dysfunctional state,” Jessie says. “I was still trying to recall a lot of memories of how I got incarcerated in the first place.”
When Jessie was young, his mother lost custody of him, and his father wasn’t even listed on his birth certificate. His grandmother reluctantly took him in so he wouldn’t end up in foster care. “My grandmother didn’t take to me very well,” Jessie says. “She had some kind of hatred toward me it seemed. I had a problem when I was young of peeing in the bed, something I couldn’t stop. She would take me and make me put my head in the urine, and have my cousin whoop me while my face is in the urine, while I was butt naked. I use to have thoughts, just wanted to hurt her.”
Jessie remembers meeting his birth father once, when he was 15. His mother took him to Lufkin to meet him. “My dad stayed in a trailer and worked on fences,” he says. “One night he and my mother had their little time. Later on that night, at about 10 or 11, he woke me up, and he said, ‘Come on with me, come ride with me.’ He just kept driving around the neighborhood. Then he had this prostitute get in the car and give me sex favors. He stayed at this man’s house for a while, and I was sitting in the car, so I kept blowing the horn. Finally he came out. We started driving away and he just pulled out this crack rock and started smoking in front of me, told me not to tell my mother.”
Jessie recalls family life as one insult after another, until he couldn’t take it anymore. “I had a habit of running away,” he says. “Dropped out of school in the ninth grade, then I’m just out running the streets. Then I’m doing drugs, hanging around the wrong crowds. Getting into violence, breaking the laws. Going in and out of jail, county jail to state jail, now to here.”
Ironically, Daniel and Jessie met because they kept to themselves. “We were out in the yard in 2006,” Daniel says, “and I always stay by myself. And he was by himself reading, as I often would do. And I noticed what he was reading. They were all motivational books. He had something on his mind other than what I saw the norm was here. So we started talking one day, we developed a common interest in what we were studying.”
Jessie had recently arrived at the prison and was struggling to find meaning in life. “At that time I was practicing Islam. He was practicing Christianity,” Jessie says. “We would never argue about it. We would both be able to sit down and talk about it and share each other’s beliefs. That’s how it really started. I was really trying to find the Lord at the time. He would tell me about his family, and that’s what really made me get close to him. I wanted to know how it felt to grow up and feel loved. He grew up in a loving home, with a mother and a father, in a good environment, good neighborhood, community. I was envious. I always wanted that kind of life.”
The two lived in different blocks but they saw each other in the yard almost every day. “And so we got into a routine,” says Daniel. “We would start working out together for an hour. I had a terrible arthritic tendonitis problem in my left shoulder. It’s a chronic thing. He showed me how to work with that. He has a sharp mind, and he has goals in life—he wants to be successful in business. I think he can. So he tapped my background, found out I’d been in business myself. Sales. Marketing strategies. I saw sparkles in his eyes. The only business experience that I think he ever had was working in a place like Home Depot or Office Depot as a part-time sales person. But his vision is there.”
This routine continued for the next several years. They would meet on the yard during the prison’s daily recreational time. Daniel mentored Jessie in business and helped him prepare an appeal of his case. Jessie kept Daniel motivated to stay in shape. “He fulfilled that spot that I always wanted,” says Jessie. “I always wanted a male figure in my life, someone to look up to who has achieved something. He said, ‘I know you had a tough background, but you can’t expect your life to change overnight. Take it one day at a time.’ He started to make me feel good about myself for once in my life.”
One day in May 2009, it slipped out. Jessie was talking to Daniel, and called him Dad. “I started thinking of him as my dad at that point,” says Jessie. “When I had told him about me not having a dad and he told me about not having children that he could raise. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, isn’t this a coincidence right here. I wonder would he want to be my dad, I his son.’ ”
Listen to an audio account of Daniel and Jessie’s story.
photos by Alan Pogue
Not long afterward, Daniel agreed to adopt Jessie. In Texas, it’s fairly uncomplicated to adopt another adult. It can go forward as long as both parties agree and a judge approves the adoption. “The law requires you to file the petition in the county where you live,” Daniel says. “That meant right here. In conservative Crockett, Texas. I said, ‘Oh boy. Son, we’ve got a lot of faith, and we’re going to make this go.’”
Daniel wrote up the adoption application and sent it to the judge in September 2009, but the judge initially ignored their request. After all, it was an unusual case—perhaps the first time a prisoner had requested to adopt another prisoner. So Daniel filed a motion with a higher court to force the judge to approve the adoption. Finally, he received a letter from the judge asking them to explain their reasons. “I wrote about the tremendous void in my heart from losing my own children,” says Daniel. “There’s a lot of love of a father in me. This love has found a child. It’s found a home. He’s not perfect, and I’m not perfect. But it’s a young man that I relate to well, and we’re going to do just fine. Because I’ve accepted him in my heart as my son.”
Jessie wrote as well. “I told the judge that I grew up not having a family,” he says. “I have a blood family, but not a family in my life. I’ve been by the wayside for a long time. Now a person has come into my life that has given me inspiration, who wants to see me make it. The relationship we have is like any child would love to have. When I was young I never got a chance to grow. I believe my growth was stagnated. Now I feel like I’m growing, and I want to grow with him as my father, not just somebody I know.”
On March 5, the judge responded. “Dear Mr. Johnson, Thank you for your response regarding your application for adoption. Your reasons are sound and I accept them. … I will sign the adoption papers when I receive them. Good luck to both of you. Sincerely, Mark Calhoon.”
Daniel and Jessie Johnson officially became father and son. “It gave us a formal bond, a bond that was formed and recognized by law,” says Daniel, “something people could not legally disparage. It’s something that society and the prisons have to recognize. It put a feeling of comfort on us—this is a done deal.”
Daniel says early reaction on the unit was mostly positive. “They knew it set a precedent,” he says. “Some of the officers were pretty pleased. One of the officers asks me every week, how is your son doing? So overall, the people we knew had a favorable response.”
Not everyone was pleased, though. Some spread rumors that Daniel and Jessie were sexually involved. Jessie started to clash with another prisoner with whom he’d had trouble before. On April 14, the conflict turned violent. “I went inside my cell,” says Jessie. “He stood on the outside stooped down and hidden, waiting for the cell doors to close. Then he entered and tried to jump me. A fight broke out. He really couldn’t handle me how he thought he could, but he grabbed me and bit off a piece of my ear.”
Jessie didn’t report the incident, because they would both be locked in solitary confinement while an investigation took place. But guards noticed the bandage on his ear, and the story came out. Jessie told an administrator, Major Craig Fisher, that he wanted to move dormitories, but they were full. “So he recommended that I be transferred,” he says. “I didn’t want that. And he said, ‘Why, you want to stay on the unit with your lover?’ And I told him, ‘Why do y’all keep on calling him my lover? Daniel is my dad, not my lover.’ They put me back in the cell and got it OK’d and shipped me out.” Jessie left the unit on May 5, barely a month after the adoption was approved.
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice wrote that “keeping our inmates safe is a responsibility we take seriously. Jessie was not transferred because he was adopted by another offender, but rather because he had been involved in at least one altercation and we had information that he would be targeted again.”
Daniel is on a mission to reunite with Jessie. “I talked to Major Fisher here the day after they shifted Jessie,” says Daniel. “He told me, ‘That’s a lesson—you don’t let a white man adopt you.’ Their intent is to split us up. Who would you rather keep on your unit—the guy who was innocent, or the guy who jumps into a cell to beat another inmate up? All the signs point to racial discrimination and an attack on our father/son bond.
“We hoped our interracial bond would give other inmates an example,” he says, “and reduce tensions in these penitentiaries. It could have made people come together to bridge this racial gap. But I don’t think the prison administration wants that. They’d rather have the tension so it’s not all on them.”
Daniel has sought a transfer to where Jessie is, to no avail. He has filed a suit in federal court, arguing the prison violated their civil rights and discriminated against them. “I stay to myself now, like I did before I met Jessie,” he says. “It’s caused such a void in my life. It’s even caused me some depression. Even though I was his mentor, he did a lot for me. A love of a child means a lot to you. A son is a son at any age. There’s the saying life begins at 40. Well, life begins when it begins.”
Jessie is at the Polunsky Unit, a maximum-security prison in Livingston that also houses death row. “I’ve been depressed a lot,” says Jessie. “I haven’t been eating. I’ve lost weight. I find it impossible to pick myself up on my own. I don’t want to live no more. I’d rather just die. I feel like I done lost the only best friend I ever had, the only person I could ever trust. They just took it away.”
Additional reporting on this story was done by Alan Pogue.