A Family Strives to Keep Close to a Dad Behind Bars
Otis Stillwell, 72, is Damon Johnson's mother. She was 43 when her son went to prison: 'My whole life has been wiped away. It’s not my life anymore, it’s his life and their life.' (Jeremy Raff/KQED)
On a recent morning, Hayward residents Otis Stillwell and her granddaughter Zakiya Johnson are making plans for a 500 mile trip south to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. They're going to visit Johnson's father, Damon Johnson.
After nearly 30 years of visiting him in various prisons, they have every detail down to a science, including their outfits. They’re both planning on wearing all black and bras with no underwire -- prison rules don’t allow undergarments containing metal.
Johnson is serving a 25-year-to-life sentence for first-degree murder and attempted robbery. He was convicted as an accomplice due to his “active and knowing” participation in the robbery.
Stillwell vividly remembers the day three decades ago when her 23-year-old son came home crying and upset.
“He said, ‘I was out with a crazy man, Mom,’ and he said, ‘I think he shot somebody.'"
When Johnson went to prison, he told Zakiya, then just 6 years old, that he had gotten a ticket and would have to go away for a while.
“I went from having a dad to hold me at home to a dad holding me behind bars," she says.
She’s 35 now and notes that her dad missed all her firsts: high school graduation, the birth of her two children and her first breakups.
Even though her father missed out on so much of her life, Zakiya says she never felt abandoned.
“Growing up in Oakland, a lot of people didn’t have dads," she says, "so I was one of the lucky ones. Even though my father was in prison, I had a dad.”
In this family, three generations of men have been killed or incarcerated. Stillwell’s father was killed, Johnson is in prison, and the father of Zakiya’s son was killed.
Zakiya says she’s grateful her father has always been a part of her life.
“I got to visit him, touch him, hug him, tell him about what I was going through, color with him, do things you get to do with daddies,” she says.
And now her children get to have a grandfather. They visit Johnson in prison twice a year.
Stillwell moved from her home in Oakland to the Hayward apartment complex to help raise Zaikya’s children. She says her great-grandchildren need a father figure in their lives.
“The kids ask, 'When are we going to San Diego? When we going to see granddad? Why is granddad in jail? What happened? He’s too smart to go to prison,'” she says.
In recent years, Johnson has also become a father figure to another family. Eight years ago, he met Shamika Wilson over the phone, through a mutual friend. At the time, Johnson was at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville and Wilson lived in Georgia.
Johnson and Wilson became close friends. When Wilson said she wanted to leave Georgia and go to school, Johnson suggested she come to California. About a year later, she got in her car and drove across the country.
Wilson now lives in Redwood City. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in equity and social justice at San Francisco State University.
Her kids call Johnson “Dad.” Wilson says, “For them to have this father figure, it’s very important to me.”
She says it’s hard loving someone in prison, but she has the support of Johnson’s daughter and mother.
“I think Shamika came just as I was in some of my low points, like a gift from God," Stillwell says. "She kinda took my place to be the No. 1 person in his life. So I'm real grateful that she did come."
Stillwell says she’s been the head of the family for too long, and she’s praying she doesn’t pass away before her son comes home.
“It’s made me weary and tired and old before my time," she says. "Because he went in prison I was like 43 and I’m like 72 now. My life has been focused on keeping him alive, keeping her alive, trying to keep this thing together.”
Earlier this month, Johnson was denied parole -- for the fourth time.
His family was devastated, Stillwell says, but she is trying to remain optimistic. “There’s nothing else I can do. I’ve done all I can do, now I just have to wait and pray, you know.”
As for Shamika Wilson, she stands by a promise she made to Johnson years ago.
“He was like, 'What if I never get out?'" she says. Her answer: "I’ll still be there, and I made that promise because I’ll still be there.”
Johnson is eligible for another parole hearing in three years.