“Generation to generation, it all stems from me.”
The lament of Sheldon Johnson, Sr. is a familiar one for many families stuck in a cycle of crime and incarceration. A deaf child raised by parents who showed little interest in communicating with him, Johnson struggled with feelings of inadequacy and nonacceptance. After graduating from the New Jersey School for the Deaf, Johnson became an apprentice for an upholstery company in Newark. Weekends spent partying in Harlem ignited a deep dependency to heroin and cocaine, which led to a string of failed or abandoned relationships, multiple children with different mothers, and frequent arrests.
“I regret a lot of the decisions I made in life,” Johnson says in a story on BuzzFeed.com. “It enters my mind all the time. A big, huge amount of guilt. I ruined everything.”
One of the children abandoned by Johnson was his first son, Sheldon Johnson, Jr. The elder Johnson had left his son and his mother when the boy was young, and one of the few lasting memories Sheldon Jr. has of his dad is serving as a sign language interpreter for him as he purchased drugs from street corner dealers.
Growing up as the son of a poor, deaf, drug-addicted father made Sheldon Jr. a target of ridicule in his neighborhood, and he often responded violently. He picked up odd jobs when he was as young as six, and dropped out of school by the time he reached sixth grade. On the streets, he befriended a local drug dealer, and soon was promoted to block manager of the neighborhood drug gang.
Eventually, Sheldon Jr. extended his business as far as Buffalo and the Philadelphia suburbs. And while he served several shorter sentences for drug-related charges, it wasn’t until he was arrested for shooting a man who owed him money that he felt the full brunt of his life choices.
Convicted of armed robbery and attempted murder during the height of the “tough on crime era, Sheldon Jr. was sentenced to 50 years in prison, with no chance of parole for 41 of those years. He promised his girlfriend that he would provide for her and their infant son, but when the income from his drug enterprises dried up, so did his support.
In April 2014, Sheldon was called to the office of the prison counselor. There, he was instructed to call his sister—his 14-year-old son had been arrested in the death of a graduate student.
“It knocked the wind out of me,” Sheldon Jr. says. He remembers how he had vowed to be a better father than his dad had been to him, yet now he was facing the reality that yet another generation of the Johnson family was caught in a cycle of crime and incarceration.
The youngest Johnson, named Sheldon like his father and grandfather, was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile detention boot camp.
“I always felt like I’m not going to end up in prison,” says now 23-year-old Sheldon. “I always had that vision that I’ma be better than my father. So even if he is in [prison], by the time he dies he can see his son and know that he has a legacy.”
The challenges to breaking that cycle are daunting. A 2000 U.S. Senate report shows that children with an incarcerated parent are six times more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives, and that 70 percent of children of prisoners will themselves become involved with the nation’s prison system.
Prison Fellowship believes that legacies can be changed, and families can be transformed. Through Angel Tree, Prison Fellowship works to restore families by keeping parents behind bars and their children connected. Local churches provide support and encouragement to those separated from their loved ones through incarceration, displaying in a very real and tangible way the love of Christ and the Bible’s call to “remember those in prison.”
Every year, churches around the country provide gifts for boys and girls on behalf of their mom or dad in prison. To learn more about the Angel Tree Christmas program, and how your church can get involved, visit https://www.angeltree.org.