A photographer follows Otis Johnson, who has spent most of his life in jail for a crime he has never admitted to, through his incarceration, release, and rehabilitation – and how he’s helping others
On 5 May 1970, 25-year old martial arts teacher Otis Johnson was arrested in New York for the attempted murder of a police officer. A conviction that would see him spend the next 40 years of his life in prison. A conviction he has strongly rebutted every day since being detained.
“Why would a man shoot at a police officer and then stand on the corner talking to people with the same clothes on?” Johnson says, remembering the very day that changed his life. The incident in question had happened after an anonymous 911 caller alerted police about a possibly armed man in a beige coat selling drugs in a hallway. When two police officers arrived at the scene to make an arrest, the suspect resisted and shot one of the officers in the stomach before fleeing. Less than an hour later, Otis (who was wearing a tan leather jacket) was stopped on the street, pushed up against a wall and arrested. “When I got downtown, they handcuffed me to a radiator. Hit me a couple of times. Tried to make me make a statement but I kept saying I would like to see a lawyer.”
“Why would a man shoot at a police officer and then stand on the corner talking to people with the same clothes on?” – Otis Johnson
Despite the lack of evidence and credible eyewitnesses, Otis was sentenced to 25-to-life and was denied parole seven times for refusing to confess. “I meditated a lot,” Otis reflects, explaining how training to be a monk in Hong Kong when he was younger helped him get through four decades of incarceration. “Going to prison as a person who had practiced as monk and was also a Muslim. I had the discipline already. I didn’t have fear.”
Interested in the rehabilitation process, Icelandic photographer Kari Bjorn met Otis at the Exodus Transitional Community in East Harlem. "We talked for a few hours and he broke down what led to his incarceration,” Bjorn explains. Keen to collaborate, the two began taking photographs and collecting important records as part of an ongoing project that would document Otis’ life. “Otis is one of the kindest and most warm hearted people I have ever met. He has faced severe adversity throughout his life and despite that, has never given up hope.” Bjorn also notes that court files verify Otis's arrest was based on mistaken identity, racism and carelessness by the NYPD, the prosecutor and court appointed lawyer.
The ongoing project features a series of polaroids, candid shots, scenes from the mosque that Otis frequents and portraits of people who are his closest friends. “I want our project to also connect to the times we live in where it seems that little progress has been made in terms of violence and injustice towards people of color by the police and the justice system,” Bjorn says. Otis, who was imprisoned during the war on drugs and as US incarceration rates began to soar to dramatic heights, witnessed the prison system change from the inside. “Pre-release is a programme that inmates go to six to eight months before they go to the board. That was taken away,” Otis says, discussing how government funding for rehabilitation programmes, self help, and educational groups had stopped in the late 80s.
Although Otis is now a free man, his reentry into society hasn’t been easy. “They gave me $40,” he reveals, recalling his 2014 release. He also had no personal documentation and adds, “It was hard coming back into society without proper identification.” He spent his first few months in Bellevue shelter. A facility that had a metal detector and a 9pm curfew. “I’m home, but I’m having flashbacks about prison,” Otis says. “You gotta build reentry programmes that take the stigma away from the person that comes out of prison otherwise, since he isn’t being helped and he’s being reminded of being in prison, he’s going to go back into crime.”
“You gotta build reentry programmes that take the stigma away from the person that comes out of prison otherwise, since he isn’t being helped and he’s being reminded of being in prison, he’s going to go back into crime” – Otis Johnson
Despite the hardship he has faced, Otis has remained positive, business-minded and is committed to helping the vulnerable people in his community. He has worked with various social justice companies and his non-profit organisation H.E.F.T aims to provide shelter to the elderly, mentally ill and those escaping abusive relationships. “I’m trying to build my organisation. I need financial support. To get staff paid. To get a building. I’m doing it all by myself,” Otis explains.
Bjorn hopes the project can help Otis find a lawyer who will help prove his innocence. “In the past year or so, I’ve shot less and become more involved with Otis’s moves towards having his case reopened, moving out of the halfway house and into his own place and restarting the non-profit organisation,” he explains. “Otis spends most of his time, and has spent most of his life, dedicated to helping others. I would like the project first and foremost to bring a positive change in his life.”
Donate to Otis Johnson’s Home Fund here