“Educated in Hell: The Imprisonment of Lorenzo Cat Johnson.”
He was barely 20 when he was in prison by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, sent to prison on a trumped-up murder charge, sentenced to life on slow death row. Lorenzo Cat Johnson wasn’t a Pennsylvania but a native New Yorker from a place with a ridiculous name of Yonkers, and his introduction to Pennsylvania’s prisons was a rude awakening.
As he was shipped out to SCI Greene, near Pittsburgh, and entered processing, the first message he heard was something like “cease all inmate movement, cease all inmate movement” over the PA system. When I was on death row, I always wondered what this meant, because being on death row meant you were either in a cell for 22 hours a day and possibly in a steel cage in the yard. Well, that’s hardly movement.
Johnson, coming into a new jail, quickly learned this meant that prisoners were cleared from the walkways or locked in if they were in a school or in any other activity. This also meant that someone was assaulted or possibly stabbed. He would hear the thump, thump, thump of helicopter blades, of med-evacs taking out the wounded. He looked around himself and wondered, “Where the hell am I at?”
He was in prison, yes, but in another state with no one around him that he knew enough to call friend. He resolved to use his wits, to avoid petty prison squabbles, to transform his street knowledge into book knowledge, by earning his GED or high school graduation certificate, and by taking college courses in business.
His greatest challenge, though, was the law, for when he first read cases, it was like reading another language. An old head gave him a book titled “Criminal Law” which was several hundred pages thick. “What am I going to do with this?” he wondered. Well, he read it and read it and read it again until it began to make sense. He discovered the Brady v. Maryland case which ordered prosecutors to turn over evidence of innocence, and he knew he was on the right track.
Now he’s back in court, fighting for his freedom. The young man who came to prison barely literate after nine years of public school, had to go back to school in the hell of prison to learn how to regain his freedom.
From imprisoned nation, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.