He was removed from society in 1975, and when he returned, Otis Johnson entered a whole new world. A testament to the notion that time waits for no one (and has perhaps accelerated in the last few decades), Johnson’s release from prison was much more than a reintroduction to civilization — it was an introduction to the digital age.
Convicted of attempted murder more than four decades ago, Johnson had been incarcerated for 44 years by the time of his release in August 2014. And while rehabilitation for ex-prisoners tends to pose a challenge, nothing could have prepared Johnson for the 21st century.
When Johnson began his lengthy sentence in 1975, the first personal computer had just made an appearance as a kit. Apple had not yet been founded, there were just three major television channels, and the Internet was still several years away from its invention.
When Johnson returned to the world in 2014, cell phones were ubiquitous devices, cars could be driven sans human interaction, and t-shirts could monitor blood pressure.
Johnson’s shock at his foreign environment was captured in an interview with Al Jazeera America, in which the now 69-year-old relates his experiences as a veritable exile from technological progress over the last several decades. Upon his first visit to Times Square, he expresses his confusion at the automatons walking quickly with wires in their ears, all apparently talking to themselves.
It’s an interesting commentary on the effects of technology on not only human behavior, but humanity as a whole. As the rest of the country reaped the (supposed) benefits of technology and innovation, a proportion of our citizenry was left entirely in the dust, impacted by the ravages of time, but privy to none of its advantages.
Every year, a small percentage of prisoners are released who have not seen the rest of the world in two decades or more, and as Al Jazeera reports, “from 1999 to 2014, the number of state and federal prisoners aged 55 and older grew by 250 percent.” As of 2014, inmates over the age of 55 account for 10 percent of the total prison population.
As these inmates near the end of their sentences, there are few resources available to prepare them for what lies beyond. When Johnson was released, he received an ID, his criminal history record, two bus tickets, and $40. None of that could possibly prove useful in navigating a society that has so drastically changed from the one he left so many years ago.
The remarkable bounds technology has made in the last few decades is all but unbelievable, and while living through change allows for some semblance of adaptation, former inmates become prisoners of a new breed, trapped by a changed world. And it’s a world that seems to have neither the patience nor the space for the unfamiliar.
Of course, it isn’t just technology that makes life after prison difficult for ex-inmates. “Prison decides when lights go on and when they go off,” Marieke Liem, a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School, told Al Jazeera. “Every moment of the day is scheduled. When you have been in the prison system the majority of your life, how can you be expected to function as a member of society?”
Prison reform has become a major issue in the last few years, and while a solution is still far from viable, continued efforts in the political arena may ultimately prove useful in helping individuals like Otis Johnson create a life post-incarceration.
“It’s not too late,” said President Obama. “There are people who have gone through tough times, they’ve made mistakes, but with a little bit of help, they can get on the right path.”