Johnnie Ford is back on the bricks, as they say. He has been paroled.
But after three years' imprisonment, he still feels the lure of the street life, and as he heads for work from his home in Northeast Washington to a construction site in Bethesda, it is sheer revulsion with prison life--and a new-found respect for himself and his family--that he says keeps him on the straight and narrow.
"I see guys selling drugs every day," he said during a recent interview. "You can't help but feel the pull. It's the same as it was before. See, I don't have no money so it's easy to rationalize that in a world of haves and have-nots you have to take what you get. But I'm not going to put myself in that position again. On the other hand it scares me because I got to survive."
Ford was convicted of the armed robbery of a clothing store in Southeast Washington. Sent to Lorton in April 1980, he lost six teeth when he was jumped by seven inmates his first week in prison. He said he had dealt in cocaine before his robbery conviction, and what saved his life in that "initiation" fight was that one of his assailants turned out to be a man to whom he had once extended credit in a drug sale.
He was released to a D.C. Department of Corrections halfway house in June l982 and paroled last December.
Now, after his first few weeks back with his family, he is beginning to feel the impact that Lorton has had on him.
"My anxiety level was so high I still haven't come down," he said. "Surviving Lorton doesn't have anything to do with how big or bad you are, just who gets to the mark first. There were high school football players wearing their shoulder pads and helmets for protection and as soon as they fell asleep they'd get shanked"--stabbed with a hand-made weapon.
Within a week after his release, Ford got a job with the Oliver T. Carr Company as a parking lot attendant earning $4.50 an hour.
"The first thing a man coming out of Lorton has to know is what his limitations are," he said.
The readjustment process had begun. Nothing he had learned in Lorton prepared him for this. Of his apparent ability to cope, he said, "I must be blessed because of my mother and my wife. They never judged me. To this day, they have never asked if I committed the crime. They just told me to pray, and take it slow, one day at a time. It was clear I had their support."
Going to work for Oliver Carr, he was given a choice: a parking lot at 13th and G or one in Bethesda. He chose Bethesda because "I thought I would do better not seeing old associates."
He said he sees enough of them in his dreams. Nearly eight months after leaving Lorton, the sight of knifing victims screaming in shock still stands out in his mind. His dreams--he said they are not nightmares--are often of fights, usually involving himself pounding relentlessly on some faceless prisoner. "I used to wake up angry at Lorton and wouldn't talk to anyone until noon. In my sleep, I was aware of where I kept my shank, in case I was suddenly awakened I'd know where to reach. I still experience that."
Sometimes, he said, he gets "disgusted" standing in the cold waiting for a bus to take him to work, but when he thinks back on what his life was like in prison, bus stops are not so bad.
"Going to bed not knowing if you will wake up. Watching people having fun at Lorton horse-playing and running their games made me mad," he said. "I started caring for my life and as a result I started fearing for my life and I came to see that Lorton was nothing but fang and claw."