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Excerpt: 'Exit to Freedom'

After spending 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Calvin Johnson was exonerated in 1999 with the aid of DNA evidence. In 2003, he published a book about his experiences in prison:


There is a threshold after which math becomes detestable; and no one counts down from twenty-five years. For the lifer prison is a series of shorter countdowns and letdowns. All dates are approximate: release, transfers, parole hearings - everything is subject to change according to rules that no prisoner can fathom.

The men with short sentences are the precision timekeepers of prison life. They are anxious about every lawyer appointment, every visit, and they still have faith in the generosity of the parole board. You can see the days and weeks tick across their faces. To the lifer their waxing grins have all the charm of a stomach flu.

After a decade in prison I am able to entirely suppress the numbers. I try not to keep track of the months until my parole hearing: no mental calculation of the years remaining in a life sentence. But as my sense of time wanes, my sense of indignation grows. Each day I wake to a silent rehearsal of the absurd "facts" surrounding my case.

I am innocent. I have filed appeals at every level, and as always I am denied. The parole board sends smiling representatives who give me hope, but during my hearings they ask me over and over again, "What can you tell us about the crime?" Each time I go up, I am denied parole, and rather than shortening the period between hearings, they lengthen it. Everyone urges me to join the Sex Offenders Program, but membership requires a detailed admission of my crimes.

My jaws ache from clenching, but I repeat my silent mantra through gritted teeth: I will not lie, I will not condemn myself as they have condemned me — if I have no hope for parole, so be it. I will not slander myself.

Anger is not a trait I was born with. It began in prison, and it grows each day. After ten years my anger has started to assert itself. For most of my life I took pride in being easygoing, slow to react, and naturally calm. But I have changed. I have become unsociable and quick to argue — but who wouldn't? I wake up each morning to prison bars, in the company of men I would not choose as friends. My time — and my life — are totally controlled and hopeless. As soon as I open my eyes I am mad. The gnawing of my stomach now accompanies the dawn of each new day.

I am so angry that complete madness cannot be far away. Bitterness is a drug, an addictive substance — it haunts me each minute, whispering its catechism of complaints. As much as I try, I cannot calm the increasing volume of those voices. I cannot reason my way out, because my anger is so reasonably constructed — I am innocent, I have been railroaded, and no one will help me. I have followed all the rules, been patient in my appeals for help — and nothing. Nothing! My case for hatred is airtight, and the facts arrange themselves in my mind without effort. It is consuming me and I am losing myself. Up until now I have contained the rage beneath a thin shell of control, but now the surface has cracked.

Excerpted from 'Exit to Freedom' by Calvin C. Johnson, Jr. and Greg Hampikian Copyright © 2003. Excerpted by permission of University of Georgia Press.

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Calvin C. Johnson, Jr.
Greg Hampikian