Benjamin Johnson: Friend and Spiritual Advisor
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on November 1, 2020
I met Benjamin Johnson (Reg, No. 71301-019), a 58-year-old African-American inmate at the Talladega Federal Prison Camp, shortly after I arrived in August 2019. Ben is a tall, distinguished looking man who was popular within the Camp. He worked in the maintenance department as a painter. Ben painted my cubicle and locker a couple of months after I moved in.
Over the next 5-6 months, I noticed that Ben had two passions – watching current events on the TV news and reading the Bible. Our friendship began discussing news events. Ben had an encyclopedic knowledge of historical events and news stories. The Atlanta native and 11th grade dropout could discuss politics, business, or religion on any level I wanted to go.
Ben’s intellect amazed me. This man was smart. I wanted to know more about him as a person, especially since he never hustled me for anything. It became clear that Ben was a “giver” and not a “taker”.
I learned that Ben had dropped out of Carver High School in Atlanta to help his single mother, Rose Mae Thomas, raise his 5 younger siblings. In time, Ben helped his adopted mother, Joyce Praylor, as well. Family meant everything to him. He would do whatever it took to keep his family together and healthy.
Ben worked roofing, landscaping, heating and air conditioning, and recycling jobs to help his family eat and pay bills. Georgia Tech and Atlanta Housing Authority were among his employers. He also ventured out into the auto repair and salvage business. No job was too small or big for Ben. After all, he was feeding and sheltering his family.
Along the way, Ben became a father of five children himself. He loves the ground these three girls and two boys walk on. He beamed with pride when talking about his children.
Ben found God with the help of Rev. C.E. Maddox, his friend, teacher, pastor, and spiritual advisor at St. James 1st Baptist Missionary Church, 104 McDonough Blvd, SE in Atlanta. Ben regularly spoke to Rev. Maddox as an inmate. They would have Bible study on the prison phone on a regular basis.
In 2016, Ben’s girlfriend was killed. She had four children from another relationship. Ben took all of them in and cared for them as if they were his own children. When Ben entered prison in 2019, he was housing, clothing, feeding, and educating nine children with passion, pride and love. His daughter, Quinetta Johnson, has now taken over this role until Ben is released.
When I was removed from the Camp on May 12, 2020 and placed in the “Hole” on a bogus contraband charge that was designed to derail my transfer to home confinement due to COVID-19, I discovered that Ben was in the “Hole” as well. In mid-September, Ben was placed in the cell next to me. He shared a cell with Gary Bryon Gibbs, an inmate from Soldier, Iowa. I was in a cell alone.
From mid-September until October 19, 2020, Ben made it his mission in life to keep my spirits up. We talked through the wall. Ben checked on me throughout each day. He sent me postage stamps, food, handwritten daily prayers, a Bible, and a dictionary. We held regular discussions about Biblical passages. In turn, I read my new articles to Ben before I mailed them out for publication to my website.
Ben shared his life’s story with me. It made me proud of what he did for both mothers and his deceased girlfriend’s children. He talked about each child with extreme parental pride. Ben checked on them each week, even from the “Hole”. He was parenting – from the “Hole”. I was impressed.
Like the other Camp inmates, Ben recognized that I am a “political” prisoner and that different and harsher rules applied to me. He was already aware that an officer “planted” the contraband in my locker at the direction of his supervisor. This was the only way to block my release in May.
I like men who are great fathers. I had the best father. A man like Ben, who is parenting nine children, deserves recognition and blessings. I am proud of his love for his children. I wish all black men would show their children love and support – even from prison. Ben saved his money and his children are financially secure.
Ben left the “Hole” on October 19, 2020 at 3 a.m. He was transferred to another facility. He had been in the “Hole” for 5 months, even though his disciplinary sanction, like mine, was for 30 days only. I wished Ben well.
I promised Ben I would tell his story to the world. He is an incredible man.
May God continue to bless you and your children, Ben! I kept my promise. I still feel your humanitarian spirit in the “Hole”.