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Michael Johnson had all but given up on living when a letter from his 14-year-old daughter, Ja’Kyra, arrived for him at Pontiac Correctional Center in 2015. She wanted to visit him.

He hadn’t seen her since 2007, when she was 6. He’d spent the last two years confined to a cell the size of a parking space. During that time, he didn’t leave his cell, walk outside, or get any form of exercise — other than a weekly 10-minute shower. It took a toll on his mental health.

“I never saw me getting out of prison,” Johnson said. “I gave up on life.”

When he got the letter from Ja’Kyra, Johnson was in the segregation unit, where inmates don’t have the opportunity to groom themselves. His hair and mustache were unkempt. His face was covered in sores. His jumpsuit was dirty.

He was hesitant to have her see him like that — but he knew he wanted to be back in touch. So he invited her to come. They both described those first meetings, when they finally reconnected, as a mix of good and bad.

“I was in pitiful condition,” he said. “She got over that. She would come here and we would talk, just getting to know each other again. I wish she never saw me in that state. At the same time, I guess it’s good to see that everything ain’t always good. You’ve got to see the good and the bad — the reality of life.”

Michael Johnson and daughter Ja’Kyra Watkins after her high school graduation and his release from prison in 2019. (Courtesy of Michael Johnson)

Ja’Kyra remembered less about his grooming and more about his condition.

“It was hard for both of us because I didn’t know what to expect. When I got there I started crying,” she said. “I was a little overwhelmed. And I seen him shackled — handcuffs on his feet and his hands. Then me crying made him cry and I know it’s harder for him in there.”

Johnson, who’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, had also become a pretty good jailhouse lawyer. He had filed a series of lawsuits about the conditions of his incarceration — and they eventually made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also was part of a class action suit filed by Uptown People’s Law Center of Chicago charging that the Illinois Department of Correction was subjecting mentally ill incarcerated people to “brutality instead of compassion” and housing them in “conditions that beggar imagination.”

But waging this battle had taken a toll — and he was ready to give up. He’d traded food trays for pen and paper, and he spent hours in his cramped cell drafting legal arguments. He’d struggled to get the law books he needed and to protect himself from officers and other inmates. The stress sapped his will.

“I’m just in a cell all day and nobody cares. I made up my mind that I was going to assault an officer and die down here,” Johnson told MindSite News in an interview. “I didn’t care anymore. It was my daughter that made me change that. She wanted to see me. She wanted me in her life. I was like ‘Man, I’ve got to do something to change my conditions.’”

Johnson resumed the legal battle. He argued that forcing him to spend almost every hour in a windowless, poorly ventilated cell caked with human waste violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court didn’t see it that way. When it got the case last year, its six conservative justices declined to hear it, and its three liberals passionately dissented. Johnson’s plea was rejected.

Chicago to Mississippi and back again

Johnson was born in Chicago in 1980. He spent the first few years of his life with his mother, uncle, younger brothers and sister in an East Side house owned by his grandfather.

Then his grandfather, a truck driver, was involved in an accident and was forced to sell the home. The family — including 4-year-old Johnson — packed up and moved to Little Rock, Mississippi, an unincorporated community about 80 miles east of Jackson.

In Mississippi, he was raised by his grandmother, a devout Christian. As he recalls it, they were disciplined and respectable, kids who always responded with “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am.” Still, life was far from easy.

“I went to an all-white school. It was me, my brother, my sister. We were the only Black kids so we dealt with a lot of racism,” Johnson said. In the early 1990s, Johnson and his siblings returned to Chicago with their mother. At school, they felt like outsiders, and their education was advanced compared with their new South Side schools. Johnson was also surprised by the sex, drug use, fighting and gang activity.

Michael Johnson stands in a park in Bloomington, Illinois in November 2023. (Josh McGhee/MindSite News)

“We wasn’t raised up like that,” he said. “It was a culture shock. We were getting picked on all the time because we were the soft kids.”

For the next few years, Johnson and his siblings bounced around Chicago housing projects and schools. Some neighborhoods were better than others, but overall, he said, he and his siblings didn’t fit in — until they adjusted their attitudes.

“Long story short, I started fighting back,” he said. “When I started doing that, people started liking me.” The bad news: His new friends introduced him to drugs, drinking, and crime.

Life as a juvenile

Johnson’s home life was also difficult: He often went to school with dirty clothes and many of the men his mother dated were abusive. After one tough day, he threw a tantrum, banging and throwing things, when the stove didn’t work. The neighbors must have heard the commotion because the police soon arrived. While the rest of his family was distracted by the officers at the front door, he threw a knife at his mother’s boyfriend, he recalled.

His mother told the officers Johnson was “crazy” and that they’d been “having problems with him.” The police took him — for the first, but not the last time — to a psychiatric ward. Thus began his on-and-off use of mental health medication.

When Johnson was about 13, he and some friends stole a motorcycle. The incident landed Johnson in Chicago’s juvenile detention center for about three months. He recalls it being a scary place.

“It was real tense. It was real wild,” he said. “You could feel it.”

He moved on to boosting cars, which landed him in Cook County Jail.

In early 2004, his grandmother died in Mississippi, and he went south for the funeral. He connected with his brothers, who enticed him to come back to Texas to meet other relatives he hadn’t seen in years. He was also introduced to something new — crack cocaine. He returned home addicted to crack, stole from his mother and tried to rob his uncle at knifepoint. Though they both pushed to drop the charges, he was charged with home invasion and sentenced to three years in prison.

“When you’re addicted to this drug it takes over your mind. You put this drug, this habit, before everything — your loved ones, your priorities,” he said. “Crack came first.”

In prison, Johnson learned the hard way the impact of burning his bridges: No one gave him money for commissary, leaving him unable to buy extra food or soap, things that make doing time a bit less uncomfortable. Worse, he acted out and was punished by having time tacked on to his sentence. His three-year sentence for robbing his family home turned into almost 12 years of confinement.

Many of his infractions were for behavior that reflected his declining mental state: He covered himself in feces and threw it. He spit, refused to clean himself or his cell, and damaged property, according to court papers.

“I couldn’t deal with it so I would do things and act up,” he said. “It was pretty much a cry for help.”

But instead of help, Johnson got more time. He spent nine of his nearly 12 years of incarceration in solitary confinement, including three at Pontiac Correctional Center. He was held in a windowless cell with a light on around the clock, leaving in shackles once a week for a 10-minute shower, according to the appeal. His only interactions with therapists came in brief conversations through the food slot in the door to his cell.

In his lawsuit, Johnson argued that these conditions and the extended use of solitary confinement violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case led to an impassioned dissent by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. They argued that the lower court had erred in its ruling, that Johnson’s confinement was “unusually severe” and that the jail conditions were abhorrent.

“For three years, Johnson had no opportunity at all to stretch his limbs or breathe fresh air,” Jackson wrote in her dissent.

His tiny cell had no shelves to store things safe and no table to write on — just a bed, a toilet and a chuckhole to receive food and mail. That gave him little space for his books, legal papers, pictures, greeting cards, magazines, hygiene products, clothing, jumpsuits, boxers, towels, etc.

“Everything that I owned was on the floor so when people flooded toilets you have to learn how to put all your stuff on your bed,” he said. “I lost plenty of things, sentimental things — letters from my daughter and family.”

Rasho v. Jeffreys

When Johnson entered the prison system, Rasho v. Jeffreys, a class action lawsuit, had just been filed. It argued that mental healthcare in Illinois prisons violated the constitutional rights of people with serious mental illness. The Illinois Department of Corrections and its medical contractor, Wexford Health Sources, failed to adequately care for the rising number of mentally ill inmates, leaving them “chronically underdiagnosed and undertreated,” the complaint charged.

In Illinois, and in prisons around the country, incarcerated people with mental health issues are routinely sent to segregation units, even though this is known to worsen their condition, according to the complaint. When they act out in ways that may be a direct result of their condition — destroying a jumpsuit in a suicide attempt, for example — they may be punished by having years added to their sentences or periods of isolation. This creates a vicious cycle that further debilitates people who are already fragile.

Many of the plaintiffs in the Uptown lawsuit had stories similar to Johnson. Ashoor Rasho, who has a history of hallucinations, suicide attempts, and self-mutilation, had more than five years tacked on to his sentence for infractions he was accused of committing. Gerrodo Forrest, who had a similar history, spent most of his time in segregation, according to court documents. The plaintiffs also contended that Illinois prisons refused to transfer people to mental health units and had no standards defining when they should do so.

In 2016, the parties agreed to a settlement requiring the Department of Corrections to revise its screening program to identify incarcerated people needing mental health services, create individualized treatment plans and increase the number of mental health staff, among other changes. It also appointed Pablo Stewart, a psychiatrist with the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, to monitor progress. In June 2017, he released his first report, which sharply criticized the department and found that the lack of quality psychiatric service left it out of compliance with the settlement.

In May 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mihm entered a preliminary injunction calling the staffing issues an “emergency” and held hearings. He later issued a permanent injunction addressing staffing, crisis care, segregation, medication, mental health evaluations and treatment plans.

But in January 2022, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the plaintiffs hadn’t proved that the prison system acted with “deliberate indifference” to the well-being of mentally ill incarcerated people and that the settlement was not enforceable under federal law. The case came back to Judge Mihm, and in 2023, he ruled that the appellate decision had deprived the court of jurisdiction. He dismissed the case and ended court oversight of the prisons.

That decision is currently being appealed at the Seventh Circuit, but it is already having an effect. Since the reversal, the amount of out-of-cell time and group therapy provided in the prisons has been greatly reduced, said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center.

Even when the court order was still in effect, few Illinois prisons complied with its terms requiring that inmates with mental health conditions receive the same amount of out-of-cell time as others in segregation including time for mental health care and yard time, Mills said.

Feeling like a fatherless child

When 14-year-old Ja’Kyra Watkins reached out to her incarcerated father, she wasn’t in the best place either, but she had memories of a happier time. She remembered spending time with her dad and the trips they took together to her aunt’s house. Those interactions stopped around her 6th birthday, when he was sent to prison. It was a hard adjustment for Ja’Kyra.

“I was basically a rebel child. I was out late, getting into trouble doing things I had no business doing,” she recalled. Then, she started reflecting. “I was thinking I was a fatherless child and I’m going to reach out to my dad and see if we can rekindle our relationship. And that’s exactly what it did.”

After meeting with her father, she reconnected with more of his family, including her grandfather.

Michael Johnson and Ja’Kyra Watkins kiss Johnson’s paternal grandmother. (Courtesy of Michael Johnson)

It’s been a long road to repairing their relationship, and the two are still traveling it. Reconnecting with him helped Ja’Kyra get her act together, but things got bumpy again when he was released in 2019 – as they got to know each other all over again, she said.

“It was me thinking I was grown because I was 18,” she said. “He was also trying to be an overprotective father. He was overboard with it and I didn’t know how to go about communicating with him.”

Still, they’ve worked their way through the ups and downs. Today, they live a few blocks away from each other in Bloomington, a city 150 miles southwest of Chicago, and they talk often.

“I want a healthy daughter-and-father relationship, where we can communicate and help each other when in need,” she said, tearing up on a phone call earlier this month. “I just want that fatherly love.”

What's next?

When MindSite News caught up with Johnson in November, he was in good spirits hours before a job interview. Over the next few months, he’d go to dozens of them with little success. Eventually, he secured a job at Burger King but quit after not receiving enough hours on his schedule.

Despite that, he and his girlfriend moved into a house together, bringing them more stability than they’d had.

“I’m just going with the flow of things, nothing spectacular, extraordinary, or impressive,” he said. “Just regular living. Trying to take care of myself, my family, and do the right thing.”

Now, Johnson wants to enroll at Heartland Community College and earn his GED. Eventually, he hopes to get a paralegal certificate so he can help others dealing with the kinds of struggles he has gone through.

He admires the work of people like Brian Nelson, who have done well after incarceration. Nelson spent nearly three decades in prison including a dozen years in solitary confinement at a now-closed supermax prison in southern Illinois.

About six months after his release, Nelson got a job as a paralegal for Uptown People’s Law Center, which had represented him in his efforts to get out of solitary. Part of his job included reading letters from incarcerated prisoners and writing them back personally. As a survivor, he considered this work therapy, he told NPR in 2015.

Nelson passed away in April 2021 — 11 years after he was released on parole. His life was remembered in a story by Block Club Chicago.

Johnson never met Nelson, but had read about him in Rolling Stone and spoke with him from prison when he worked for the civil rights firm.

“That was a good example of somebody getting out, taking a skill they learned in prison, going somewhere and being a productive member of society,” he said. “I have a few people I plan on helping because a lot of the brothers that I was locked up with [are serving] life. I just want to get in and help.”