Terry Johnson, Storyteller

Terry Johnson — T.J. to his friends — calls his story “simple, but complex.” And that’s about right for a man whose life has been a bundle of contradictions:

As a child, he was a straight-A student who managed to get kicked out of high school for being — in his words — incorrigible.

He dreamed of being a lawyer and learning to fly only to clip his own wings by getting involved with drugs and alcohol.

And now, he’s a certified recovery coach who formerly spent 22 years in prison on robbery-related charges.

But rather than being defined by all those labels and experiences, T.J. would rather have people to get to know him for who he is today than then man he used to be.

“People’s opinions of me don’t define me,” he says. “My action and my character today define me. It motivates me and keeps me going.”

T.J. is a former director of transitional housing for Fresh Coast Alliance, a support and re-entry organization for people who have a history of incarceration of substance use. He’s also become the owner of a rental properties in his own right. In fact, his current tenant previously hired him as a sobriety coach.

T.J.’s story began in Detroit, where he was raised by his mother along with his two older brothers. He describes himself as a driven child who wanted to be the one who excelled in class. And he did. He got the best grades in school, and he set his sights on a career in law.

But the world around him made it difficult to reach his goals.

“My father wasn’t present in my life,” he said. “We were changing schools every six months. I thought this is what every kid went through.”

His life began to slide out of control when he was 15. That’s when his 19-year-old brother was shot and killed. T.J. didn’t know how to cope with such a great loss, and he covered up the pain with drugs and alcohol.

T.J.’s school grades remained high, but his behavior became a problem. He was eventually kicked out, but he got a GED from an alternative school. He earned a scholarship to Wayne County Community College, where he enrolled as a pre-law student with a minor in diesel technology. He even managed to take flight lessons and begin pursuing his dream of becoming a pilot.

At the same time, however, he had also begun using. One awful night, it all caught up with him. Though he had never incurred anything worse that civil infractions before, T.J. found himself before a judge who told him he’d be spending the next 25-50 years in prison.

He was only 25 then. He would spend as much time as he had ever been alive incarcerated — maybe twice that. It was barely comprehensible.

“I found myself in quarantine (the first place newly incarcerated people are sent to) asking myself, ‘How in the world did I get here? What have I done with my life? What happened to me?’” T.J. recalled.

He got serious about finding the answers to those questions. That included talking about what led him to prison with the other people he met there.

“I didn’t realize how dysfunctional I was,” he said. “I realized that not having a father, not seeing what love is — all that affected me. I’d been looking for that.”

T.J. made an important resolution: “I decided I wanted to come out of prison better and not bitter.”

That meant keeping his mind active. He continued his legal studies, becoming a certified paralegal. He learned to play three musical instruments and American Sign Language. He even read the dictionary page-by-page just to expand his vocabulary.

People started to notice. The West Michigan Chapter of the Jaycees made him a vice chairman, and the prison’s psychological services asked him to run a self-help group for cognitive awareness and parenting skills.

All these things, along with his good behavior, helped T.J. earn what is known as “good time” — credits toward a reduced sentence. Good Time is no longer available to people incarcerated in Michigan because of a voter referendum in 1982 that eliminated it. It was replaced with an “earned credits” system that allowed people to earn time off for completing educational and vocational programs — but that was eliminated in 1998 as part of the harsh Truth in Sentencing law.

Since T.J. was sentence to prison in 1989, when the earned credits program was in place, he was able to earn three years off his sentence ((CORRECT???)). That enabled him to have an earlier parole hearing than he could have had otherwise, and ultimately led to him being released to go home in 2011.

Coming home wasn’t easy, though. Even with his paralegal certification, record of good behavior and other skills he learned during incarceration, employers were reluctant to give him a chance. Most of the time it came down to one line on a job application: Have you ever been convicted of a felony?

“The worst thing to hear was, ‘I believe you deserve a second chance, but I’m not going to give you one,’ and that happened a lot,” T.J. said. “But you know? It motivates me. For every door that closes, there’s another one that opens.”

He got his chance at Sintel, a Spring Lake company that at the time was making components for Caterpillar. When he applied for a job, T.J. was told that they didn’t hire people with a criminal record. He wanted to make sure they got a chance to know him firsts before they made that decision.

“Once they got to know me, they gave me a chance,” he said. After a while on the job, one of his supervisors told him that if prisons were full of people like him, that factory could be filled with workers just like T.J. And by the time T.J. left for his next job, he was working alongside others that had just left prison.

“Everything I went through – I didn’t go through that for me but for the people coming out behind me,” T.J. says.

But helping formerly incarcerated people succeed when they return home should interest everyone, he suggested.

“When folks come home, they have to live somewhere,” he said. “When we make the decision to live right, that needs to be supported. When we don’t get that chance to live right — when we don’t get to have a job, a place to live — not only does it ostracize us, but it pushes us back into a life we don’t want to go into. We deserve that chance. We deserve that support. We deserve that opportunity that the Constitution talks about.”

These days, he says, people who meet him have no idea that he spent 22 of his 57 years inside Michigan prisons. They only see a grandfather of nine who is bursting with pride for his daughter who recently received a master’s degree in human resources from Pennsylvania State University and who is still mourning his son, who died in an auto accident eight years ago. They see a happy newlywed who married his wife, Christine, just one year ago. They see a certified recovery coach and certified personal trainer who is fully active in his community.

And that’s the way it should be, T.J. says.

“I want people to understand the ideology of once a criminal always a criminal is not true,” he said. “There are people like me who turned their lives around. They need an opportunity. Please don’t define a person by something they did in their past that led them to person.”

Listen to Terry Johnson’s story here: