Black Army vet Andrew Johnson’s 16 months in solitary in San Jose jail

Andrew Johnson refused to plead responsible to tried homicide fees, insisting he’d been defending himself throughout a confrontation in California.

Andrew Johnson, now 33, spent 16 months in solitary confinement after being charged with attempted murder in San Jose, Calif. (Photo by Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)
Andrew Johnson, now 33, spent 16 months in solitary confinement after being charged with tried homicide in San Jose, Calif. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Publish)

The cell was smaller than a parking house, certain by three soiled beige concrete partitions and a metal door with a slim slot to push in meals and shackle arms.

There was a slim cot, a bathroom, a sink. The filmy glass on the barred window allowed little solar; the always-on fluorescent ceiling mild allowed no darkness. Every day introduced the clanging of chains, the shuffling and shouting of guards and inmates, the specter of violence or the truth of it. Every day poured itself into the following.

For 16 months and all however a random hour each different day, Andrew Johnson languished in solitary confinement in a California jail. The primary day — Nov. 12, 2014 — was hardly completely different from the 479th day.

“Once they put you in solitary confinement, you’re now not considering clearly,” Johnson, 33, says now. “You’re considering ‘Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God. I’m trapped.’ ”

Johnson, an Army veteran who’d undergone Special Forces coaching, knew the right way to endure hardship. He’d carried 120 kilos in a rucksack for days, he’d overcome a lifelong worry of heights to parachute from planes, he’d fought his method again from a coma after struggling carbon monoxide poisoning. He had a navy prognosis of post-traumatic stress dysfunction and a traumatic mind damage to indicate for it.

However Johnson had by no means been remoted from the world like this earlier than. He had grown up in a snug D.C. suburb, the adored solely son in a deeply non secular Black household. He had by no means been incarcerated earlier than.

Then a nighttime encounter with two strangers in San Jose led to his arrest for tried homicide. Johnson insisted he was defending himself and had finished nothing unsuitable. However at 26, he was despatched to solitary instantly after he was booked into the jail to await trial.

Nobody ever defined to Johnson, his mother and father, William and Angela Johnson, or Johnson’s legal protection lawyer why he was put in isolation, they mentioned. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Workplace, which oversees the jail and was accountable for the choice, didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark.

Between 2014 and 2018, Johnson was amongst about 735,000 individuals who have been being held at any given time within the nation’s 3,000 jails, most of them awaiting trial, in keeping with the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

But there isn’t a systematic try by the federal authorities to trace using solitary in jails, consultants say. The bureau’s final survey on the topic was a decade in the past. In a pattern of 357 jails housing virtually practically 53,000 inmates, it discovered roughly 2.7 p.c have been held in solitary — some for 30 days or extra.

Folks of coloration have been overrepresented in that depend, as they’re within the nation’s prisons.

As proof has mounted in regards to the long-term psychological well being harm brought on by solitary confinement, there was a “seismic shift” within the willingness of federal and state authorities to reform or remove its use in prisons, mentioned David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Nationwide Jail Venture, which focuses on defending inmate rights.

However the anti-solitary motion has had far much less success curbing the observe in domestically managed jails, the place it’s notably egregious as a result of most individuals being detained haven’t been convicted of the fees towards them, Fathi mentioned.

Santa Clara County would ultimately change into an outlier, reforming its use of solitary and significantly lowering the variety of detainees it isolates. However not quickly sufficient to assist Johnson, who was going through a sentence of as much as 85 years to life if convicted.

He and his mother and father have been so traumatized by what occurred to him that they’ve by no means spoken publicly about it as a household.

Whereas Johnson was being held, he witnessed fellow inmates being crushed by guards and was crushed himself, in keeping with a lawsuit he filed in 2018 alleging his civil rights have been violated. From his tiny, barren cell, he listened to the cries of a mentally in poor health inmate as he was pummeled by three sheriff’s deputies, who have been later tried and convicted within the man’s demise.

Prosecutors supplied Johnson a lesser sentence in change for a responsible plea, however he refused to just accept a deal.

“My frustration with my case won’t permit me to consent to a lie,” Johnson wrote his mom in a Nov. 15, 2016, letter. “I’m a warrior till my demise and I have to stand [up] to injustice regardless of how dismal the percentages.”

It might take three years — virtually half of it in solitary — earlier than Johnson obtained the possibility to testify in his personal protection. It might take simply two hours for a jury to acquit him.

Andrew Johnson’s path to solitary started in a crosswalk at a busy San Jose intersection 4 days earlier than Halloween in 2014.

After his honorable discharge from the Army, he had moved from Northern Virginia to California to change into a full-time licensed caregiver to his finest Army pal, who had been left a quadriplegic after a car accident in Afghanistan.

Johnson testified that he had given Ignacio Arriaga, whom he affectionately referred to as “Nacho,” his sleep remedy and hoisted him into mattress as regular round 9 p.m. earlier than deciding to stroll to the Bonfare Market an hour later. He frequented the nook retailer a brief stroll away from his house within the Bella Villagio Residences, to purchase snacks, beer or cigar blunts to empty after which refill with the marijuana he bought legally as a therapy for his PTSD.

Johnson, a lean 6-foot-4 with mild brown eyes, donned his military-issued head overlaying, often known as a balaclava, to maintain his face heat within the chilly night time air after which wedged Arriaga’s Glock pistol inside his zipped vest within the occasion, he mentioned, that he wanted to guard himself.

As Johnson started to make his method throughout the busy intersection of Capitol Expressway and Vistapark Drive, two males approached in the wrong way. He’d seen Alvaro and Bicente Castro earlier within the day throughout one other journey to the market. They have been staggering drunk, Johnson testified, and smashing their beer bottles on the sidewalk.

That night time within the crosswalk, the Castro brothers have been once more drunk. Alvaro’s blood alcohol degree would take a look at at 0.20, greater than twice the authorized restrict, on the hospital that night time. Bicente’s was even greater, in keeping with courtroom information.

Johnson moved to the sting of the crosswalk to permit them to move. Alvaro Castro turned to him.

“What the f— are you watching,” Johnson recalled him saying.

“The place are you from?” Bicente Castro demanded.

Johnson shrugged together with his palms up and saved strolling, he testified. Behind him, he mentioned he heard one of many brothers yell out “Do we’ve an issue?”

Contained in the Bonfare, Johnson chatted with the shift supervisor, Naresh Sharma, each males recalled in courtroom. He left with a beer and a pack of Swisher Sweets cigar blunts.

After returning to the condo to smoke and end class work for his on-line undergraduate diploma, Johnson mentioned he determined to make a return journey to the market round 11:30 p.m. As he approached, he may see that the Bonfare appeared to have closed early, the neon signal turned off. So he headed again to the intersection to return house. As he pushed the button to immediate the sunshine to alter, he testified that he may hear male voices getting nearer.

“Hey, it’s that f—–g man,” one of many males mentioned loudly, Johnson recalled.

“The place are you from?” Bicente Castro requested once more.

“That is the south aspect. You’re on the south aspect,” Alvaro Castro yelled.

Instantly the boys have been lower than an arm’s size from Johnson. He put his arms within the air.

“I don’t need any bother,” Johnson recalled saying.

At that time, Johnson testified, Alvaro instructed Bicente: “Take every part he’s obtained.”

Bicente lunged towards Johnson and grabbed his vest. Johnson mentioned he noticed the glint of a knife in Alvaro’s hand. Fearing he could be stabbed or pushed into site visitors, Johnson testified he reached for the Glock.

He fired two warning photographs into the concrete sidewalk, he mentioned. Within the Army, the place he was rated an skilled marksman, he was taught to shoot lethally within the chest and head. This time, he purposely aimed his weapon at Alvaro’s left shin and fired after which fired into Bicente’s hip. The brothers each fell to the bottom.

“As quickly as I noticed the weapon, I moved in like a flash,” Johnson mentioned in an interview with The Washington Publish. “All that weapons coaching, all these issues I realized to do. It was like muscle reminiscence.”

A Marine fights to show he’s harmless of sexual misconduct. Then a misplaced cellphone is discovered.

Instantaneous reactions are widespread among the many rising variety of veterans who’ve change into concerned with the legal justice system during the last 20 years, mentioned William Brown, a sociology professor at Western Oregon College and an skilled on the results of navy coaching on veterans. Responding rapidly to threats is a part of that coaching, he mentioned.

Alvaro Castro instructed the jury that Johnson had confronted him and his brother, in keeping with the trial transcript. However he additionally acknowledged they’d been ingesting and struggled to recall key particulars, together with the place they’d been shot.

After he fired, Johnson testified that he crossed the road and headed again to the condo advanced. Within the rising distance, he mentioned he may see two individuals, one among whom turned out to be an off-duty EMT, cease to assist the boys earlier than police arrived.

Johnson later regretted not calling 911 as a result of it might need saved him the ordeal of the following three years, he instructed The Publish. On the time, he nervous about how police would interpret the state of affairs given his race. Would they consider he was defending himself?

Two weeks later, on Nov. 12, 2014, Johnson once more returned to the Bonfare Market to purchase some beer. As he left the shop, police, weapons drawn, surrounded him.

Over the following three years, two judges would toss out the tried homicide fees towards Johnson. Prosecutors obtained them reinstated on enchantment.

The county district lawyer’s workplace declined to remark, citing Johnson’s civil lawsuit.

Together with his bail initially set at $2 million, Johnson’s mother and father mentioned they have been pressured to decide on between paying it to free him from solitary or hiring the perfect lawyer they might discover. Johnson insisted they put money into the combat so the household employed a veteran San Jose legal protection lawyer.

Angela Johnson, a analysis analyst, had been battling for her son’s well-being and security for the reason that day he was born. She and William, a product supervisor, thought they have been having a lady up to date Andrew emerged. There was shock, pleasure — after which fear.

“I had somewhat Black boy,” she mentioned. “I needed to defend him in another way.”

Andrew was a superb child who did nicely at college, however was stuffed with rambunctious vitality, his mother mentioned. He bent the frames on his bikes, broke a window with a Wiffle ball, and, after smelling fuel, Angela caught him singing “Glad Birthday” to the pilot mild on the broiler earlier than blowing it out.

In highschool, he joined the junior ROTC and set his sights on enlisting whereas the nation was at struggle. Angela believed her son was too younger to make such a life-altering resolution. She would run out on her entrance garden to yell on the recruiter as quickly as she noticed his white SUV approaching. The primary time Andrew joined the Army, she managed to get the contract voided on a technicality. When she realized he had enlisted a second time, in 2008 on the age of 19, it was already too late.

Johnson was stationed in Germany when he was recruited to take the qualification course to affix the elite Special Forces unit, also referred to as the Inexperienced Berets.

Eighteen months into the grueling two-year coaching, he collapsed from warmth exhaustion whereas carrying further weight in his rucksack. He wound up working within the a hundred and sixtieth Particular Operations Aviation Regiment primarily based in Fort Campbell, Ky., as a mechanic on autos for Special Forces items.

In 2012, the household obtained an pressing telephone name. Johnson had been engaged on a car off base when he collapsed from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was rushed to the hospital and put right into a coma so docs may deal with him.

The Army later accepted Johnson’s navy incapacity software whereas he was in jail primarily based on the chemical damage to his mind, which had impaired his reminiscence and moods, in addition to an earlier PTSD prognosis.

Angela, 60, was annoyed by how blind the legal justice system gave the impression to be to her son’s wants as a veteran. Jail directors failed to supply Andrew’s prescription remedy to deal with the melancholy and anxiousness brought on by his mind damage and PTSD, she mentioned. She and William, additionally 60, needed to combat to get it for him.

However efforts to get his case referred to a veteran’s therapy courtroom have been opposed by prosecutors.

And the isolation in jail was making every part worse for him.

The implications of extended durations of solitary confinement can embrace self-mutilation, suicidal melancholy, explosive anger, hallucinations and catatonia, in keeping with Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and skilled on the observe.

Extended solitary confinement is torture. It’s time for all states to ban it.

The United Nations has equated using isolation past 15 consecutive days to “a type of torture.”

At the same time as it’s often cited by reformers, the 15-day restrict has no scientific foundation, Kupers mentioned. “I’ve seen individuals change into psychotic or commit suicide after in the future.”

Defenders of solitary confinement — also referred to as restrictive housing and administrative segregation — assert that it may be essential to preserve different inmates and correctional staff secure from hurt.

However many correctional officers have come to agree that the observe has restricted utility. So have elected officers.

Within the final 5 years, at the least 78 legal guidelines have been handed by state legislatures to restrict solitary for a lot of jail inmates, in keeping with Fathi. Final yr, New York turned the first state to move a legislation eliminating its use for greater than 15 days in prisons and jails.

Santa Clara County, which at one level held as much as 400 jail inmates in solitary, agreed to main modifications in 2019 after settling a class-action lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Jail Regulation Workplace.

However many who spend time in solitary confinement proceed to endure profound psychological harm after their launch, usually unable to be in shut proximity to others with out nice anxiousness, mentioned Craig Haney, a professor of psychology on the College of California at Santa Cruz, who has studied the long-term results.

“I’ve had individuals name who have been having panic assaults in grocery shops,” he mentioned. “I’ve heard from individuals whose spouses have been locked of their bedrooms” unable to come back out.

To outlive months with out human contact, Johnson tried to schedule each minute of day by day, he mentioned. He exercised consistently in his cell — shadowboxing, working in place, sit-ups. By no means an enormous reader, he turned engrossed in books, bought for him by his mother and father by Catholic Charities. The guards ultimately entrusted him with performing chores exterior his cell due to his good habits, although that offered little respite.

He was plagued with eager for his 3-year-old daughter from an early marriage that had led to divorce. Throughout his first months in jail, Johnson’s new girlfriend, a lady he’d recognized since they have been each was 15, came over, and he lived for her letters, he mentioned. Then the letters trailed off and she or he broke off the connection. She later married one other man.

“She thought I’d be in jail for the remainder of my life,” he mentioned.

The visits by his mother and father have been wrenching.

Separated by a thick glass partition, Angela had a tough time trying into her son’s eyes.

“I simply needed to protect his dignity,” she mentioned. “He’s a detainee. He’s not convicted of something, proper? He’s sitting there in chains as a result of we don’t have $2 million.”

By the point Johnson’s case lastly went to trial on Jan. 24, 2018, he had endured way over isolation.

In his civil rights lawsuit towards Santa Clara County, town of San Jose and particular person cops and jail guards, Johnson alleges that he was handcuffed after which punched and kicked in his cell and in a personal interview room in 2015 by three guards.

5 months later, Johnson mentioned he heard a person screaming loudly by the concrete ground under him. It was Michael Tyree , a 31-year-old inmate with bipolar dysfunction, who was being attacked by three guards. The three males have been sentenced on Jan. 5, 2018, to fifteen years to life in state jail after a jury convicted them of second-degree homicide in Tyree’s killing.

Johnson carried all that with him when he took the witness stand in his personal protection on Jan. 31, 2018. His mother and father, watching within the courtroom, knew how excessive the stakes have been. However Angela had by no means wavered in her perception that Andrew could be acquitted.

“You’ve been ready for some time to inform your story, appropriate?” Johnson’s lawyer, Cameron Bowman, requested him.

“I’ve been ready for years,” he replied.

Bowman, a former prosecutor-turned-defense lawyer, had been reluctant to let Johnson waive his Fifth Modification proper in an effort to defend himself — for good cause.

“It’s a dangerous technique to go inform a jury that ‘Everyone’s mendacity to you besides me and my consumer,’ ” Bowman mentioned in an interview. Johnson’s race made it extra so. It was doable jurors may understand Johnson, now 100 kilos heftier and closely muscled from jail, because the stereotypically threatening Black man, he mentioned.

Bowman modified his thoughts when it turned clear that the prosecution’s case was unraveling. Proof had gone lacking or was simply refuted. The Castro brothers have been terrible witnesses, struggling to get primary particulars proper in regards to the capturing, the courtroom transcript exhibits. Alvaro Castro confirmed on the stand that he had a felony theft conviction, usually carried a knife and will have had one which night time, and had been shot in the identical leg once more for the reason that confrontation with Johnson.

Now the jury — 9 White individuals and three individuals of coloration, none of them Black — listened as Johnson recounted his closing, aborted journey to the Bonfare Market on Oct. 27, 2014, and his confrontation with Alvaro and Bicente Castro.

“Was your intent to homicide these guys?” Bowman requested, in keeping with the trial transcript.

“My intent was to not commit a criminal offense or a felony,” Johnson testified. “My intent was to get these guys off of me in a fashion that’s going to cease the menace to my life so I can proceed and dwell one other day.”

In her cross-examination, Deputy District Legal professional Judy Lee pressed Johnson on his habits after the capturing.

“You don’t suppose you probably did something unsuitable. Is that appropriate?” Lee mentioned.

“I feel that as an American it’s best to have the ability to defend your life. And that isn’t one thing unsuitable,” Johnson mentioned.

“And what about telling the police?” Lee requested.

Johnson had already defined to the jury that as a Black man, he feared how the police may interpret the state of affairs.

Lee requested Johnson if he thought-about yelling for assist or punching or kicking Bicente Castro as he was clutching Johnson’s vest.

“I’m being pushed in direction of transferring site visitors,” Johnson replied. “I wish to make that as clear as I can, that the sunshine is inexperienced. There are vehicles coming at a quick tempo … my major menace was the vehicles that I’m being pushed in direction of after which the knife.”

He fired, he mentioned once more, in self-defense.

On the night earlier than the jury started to deliberate, Angela needed to be close to the water to wish. She and William drove to the seashore in Santa Cruz.

Reflecting her religion, she had already bought a one-way aircraft ticket for Andrew to return to Virginia with them. She additionally purchased copies of “Simply Mercy,” civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s account of racial inequity within the legal justice system, to move out to the jurors after her son’s acquittal.

Angela and William have been strolling alongside the glittering ocean when Angela seen that somebody had drawn the define of a flower within the sand. She picked up a twig, crouched down and in giant block letters within the middle wrote “Not Responsible.”

The following day, on Feb. 6, after deliberating simply over two hours, jurors pronounced Johnson not responsible of tried homicide.

After the decision was learn, William and Angela started sobbing. Bowman felt the stress go away his physique. However Johnson neither cried nor felt nice aid, he mentioned. He had misplaced a part of his life. He had been abused. He was offended.

There was no time to have fun anyway. As an alternative of releasing him instantly, deputies escorted Johnson again to a jail cell and he waited there, livid, for 5 hours till he was out of the blue launched into his mother and father ready arms.

The following day, the household boarded a aircraft for Virginia.

Johnson now lives with a remedy canine on 5 acres in southern Virginia — he gained’t say the place.

For a very long time, he had his mail despatched to his mother and father’ home as a result of he didn’t need anybody to know his handle. When he eats out, he all the time sits going through the door of the restaurant. He nonetheless fears the police.

His hypervigilance could by no means recede, which makes what he’s completed extra exceptional.

Johnson has spent the 4 years since his acquittal attempting to maneuver ahead.

He obtained his undergraduate diploma from Grantham College (now the College of Arkansas Grantham) together with his household gathered round and Asha, his American Staffordshire terrier, guiding him by his anxiousness throughout the stage. He went on to earn an MS in management and is within the midst of engaged on his doctorate in organizational improvement on the College of Arizona World Campus.

He’s managing a for-profit firm that hires and trains previously incarcerated individuals to wash carpets and work on development initiatives. He additionally runs a nonprofit primarily based in Stockton Calif., Transition U, that gives housing, providers and enterprise teaching for veterans.

His mother and father, too, have used their expertise to assist others. After beginning a help group and assist line for households of incarcerated veterans, they purchased a historic home in Newport News, Va., at public sale in 2018 to function a free in a single day haven for court-involved veterans and their households. They renovated the Colonial, with native vets pitching in to deliver down bills.

The house now has a reputation: Valor Village.

Its 5 bedrooms are adorned to replicate every department of the U.S. navy. Lots of the home windows provide sweeping views of the Chesapeake Bay. Simply earlier than the pandemic descended in early 2020, Valor Village hosted its first household.

Each month or so, Angela and William drive down from Northern Virginia to handle the property, and Andrew meets them there to assist.

One Sunday, he slouches in an armchair within the sunroom, a mane of darkish locks framing his face. He and his mother and father start debating the that means of religion.

“It’s important to name what you consider into existence,” Angela says. “It’s important to declare it.”

Andrew agrees: “We didn’t sit there and hope that one thing was going to occur. We made it occur. Religion with out motion is nothing.”

His lawsuit towards Santa Clara County has but to be resolved. Within the seven years since he was remoted and crushed, extra human rights abuses have been alleged in Santa Clara’s jails.

In January, California Legal professional Common Rob Bonta introduced he was opening a civil rights investigation into the administration of the jails and the operation of the county sheriff’s workplace.

Sheriff Laurie Smith, who has run the jails since 1998, didn’t reply to 3 requests for an interview made by her workplace. In March, she introduced that she wouldn’t search one other time period in workplace and accused her critics of creating her a scapegoat.

Even when Johnson wins his civil case, it could actually’t erase what he endured.

At instances, he imagines himself taking the stand once more in a civil trial, a jury weighing his accomplishments as proof of his character. Different instances, he hopes for a settlement to come back rapidly, so he can lastly discover a refuge from the previous.

He has bought land in Ghana, the place he’s engaged to an African lady. He feels secure there.

“There’s no method I’m going to remain on this nation after what it’s finished to me,” he says. “I’m not going to attend for the police to come back and shoot me after I win.”

For now, he says goodbye to his mother and father. Then he and Asha climb into his pickup and begin driving to the place the place nobody can discover him.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Story enhancing by Lynda Robinson, picture enhancing by Mark Miller, copy enhancing by Thomas Heleba and design by Talia Trackim.