Mwalimu Johnson (USA)

“Forgiveness is not a matter of doing anything heroic”

Photography by Alan Pogue

Mwalimu Johnson spent his early youth using and selling illegal drugs on the streets of New Orleans. In 1958 he received a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty to bank robbery. He was released in 1967, only to be shot in 1975 by FBI agents who claimed he was involved in another bank robbery – a claim they later withdrew. As a result of that shooting Mwalimu is now confined to a wheelchair. He was arrested and sentenced to seven years for assault and 50 years for an unrelated charge of armed robbery. In 1990 British attorney Clive Stafford-Smith won Mwalimu a reduction in sentence. Mwalimu was released in 1997, and is now the Executive Secretary at the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana.

While I’m not proud of many of the things I’ve done in my life, I cannot undo the past. All I can do is use it as a guide to help me make a better future. I grew up in a Christian family, but in my teenage years I got involved in drug culture. I don’t want to make excuses for my actions, but sometimes poverty forces you into criminal behavior: the choice is either sit around and starve or step beyond the law. I made the choice to support a lifestyle rather than life. You see, I didn’t feel comfortable without my alligator shoes or my diamond cufflinks. I was in bad psychological health and contributed to the destruction of many people’s lives.

During my first sentence I learned about yoga. I’m convinced it saved me from dying of pneumonia in a strip cell (a cell where prisoners are placed naked, with nothing except a hole in the floor). I had to lie there completely naked, my cell flooded with water, drawing upon my spiritual, mental and physical faculties in order to survive.

I was released from prison in 1967, but my run-ins with the law did not end there. Today I am in a wheelchair, with a bullet lodged in my lower spine after being shot in 1975 by FBI agents responding to a bank robbery call. It was a bank robbery I had nothing to do with. Following that arrest, I was sentenced to seven years for assault on the agents who shot me, and to 50 years for an unrelated charge of armed robbery.

In 1977 I was transferred to Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where I remained until 1992. Conditions at Angola were nothing less than barbaric. I kept notes of abuses carried out by prison personnel, eventually doing an exposé in which I cited 62 cases of abuse, some of which resulted in death.

I tried again and again to have my conviction reversed, but my appeals were unsuccessful. But then, in 1990, British attorney Clive Stafford-Smith took an interest in my case. Seeing that I had been wrongfully incarcerated, he got the court to reduce my sentence to 26 years. I was finally released from prison on Monday, September 8th, 1997.

Interestingly, the person who admitted to participating in the robbery for which I got 50 years received just five years in exchange for helping to convict me. Although I’m unhappy that he helped send me to prison, and although I would not have done that to him or anyone else, I do not blame him, because I understand what it means to be separated from family. I also understand how some law-enforcement personnel play on people’s emotions to achieve their objectives, regardless of any injustice that may result.

Initially I was unable to entertain any thought of forgiveness, but slowly I came to realize that bitterness only creates bitterness. Negative experiences are a kind of cancer, and my choice as a human being is either to encourage the spread of that cancer or to arrest it and apply a solution. I opt to be part of the solution, part of the healing. Forgiveness is not a matter of doing anything heroic or exceptional, it’s just about being natural.