His grandfather, Sheldon Johnson Sr., was addicted to crack cocaine and went to prison. His father, Sheldon Johnson Jr., was a drug dealer and went to prison. And on a cold night in April 2008, 14-year-old Sheldon Johnson became the third of his name to get locked up.
He was with two friends that Friday, and they planned to pick up Chinese food, then play video games until sunrise. They walked west, along the same Harlem streets Sheldon’s father and grandfather had once walked. Their sneakers slapped against the damp sidewalk; their jackets rustled in the wind. It should have been a quick trip to the takeout joint, “but we ended up being stupid, trying to fuck with people,” Sheldon said.
They spotted the mark on Broadway and 122nd Street a few minutes before 9 p.m. The man’s name was Minghui Yu, and he was a 24-year-old graduate student from China who was studying statistics at Columbia University. He had just finished dinner and was one block from his dorm. Nobody else was in sight. Sheldon went up to the man and punched him in the head. Yu staggered a few steps and bolted into the street.
Then, a loud honk. A screech of tires. A thud as an SUV slammed into Yu.
The three boys took off running.
Security cameras captured it all, and the next day, detectives arrived at the Bronx apartment where Sheldon lived with his aunt. They told him that the man he had punched was dead. In an interrogation room at the precinct, an older detective recognized Sheldon’s name. Years ago, he had arrested his dad. “He told me, ‘Son, don’t be like your father. Just tell us what happened,’” Sheldon recalled.
He sat there for hours, and then, around 2 a.m., he confessed. A few days later he was on Rikers Island.
The New York Daily News called him a “14-year-old punk.” The New York Post called him a “14-year-old thug.” The New York Times noted that “police say he is a cold-blooded predator with little capacity for remorse.”
A letter to the editor in the Daily News seethed, “Where were the parents?”
In a senior citizens housing complex in Linden, New Jersey, in April 2008, Sheldon’s grandfather shook his head and leaned back on the couch in his living room. He was 57 years old, and as he read those newspaper articles, he mourned the legacy he had left, the legacy of his name — Sheldon Johnson — a name trapped in the revolving door of incarceration.
He turned to his wife, Laura, and signed a few disappointed words with his big, wrinkled hands. Sheldon Sr. was born deaf. A lamp near the kitchen blinked when somebody rang his doorbell. The television was on mute, and a 2,000-piece puzzle lay completed on the coffee table. It was a quiet existence, far removed from the turmoil and destruction of his younger days.
The old man had tried to forget the past, but now it all came rushing back.
“Generation to generation, it all stems from me,” he said, through a sign language interpreter. “I feel disappointed. I regret a lot of the decisions I made in life. It enters my mind all the time. A big, huge amount of guilt. I ruined everything.”
The country was a generation removed from the crack epidemic, and yet the era’s impact continued to ripple through time, in the prisons filled with old addicts and dealers and in the broken homes of their children. The old man’s family was still trying to escape it.
Sheldon Johnson Sr. was born into the image of the American dream. His mother, who was white, came from a poor family in Ohio, and his father, who was black, came from a poor family in Virginia. They met in Philadelphia, married shortly after World War II, and bought a house in the New Jersey suburbs. His father worked at the Social Security office, and his mother was a homemaker. They had five children, and all of them went to good schools.
Neither parent was deaf, but two of their children were. The way Sheldon Sr. remembered it, his family never fully accepted him and his sister, who was a year older. Their parents seemed overwhelmed by the challenge of taking care of them, and their siblings ignored them. “My parents didn’t know what to do with us or how to communicate with us,” he said. “They never learned to sign, didn’t even try. They pretty much just sent us to Trenton, and that’s where we learned sign language.”
In Trenton, Sheldon Sr. and his sister attended the New Jersey School for the Deaf. He played basketball and baseball and ran track. After graduating in 1971, he got an apprenticeship in upholstery, the trade he would work until he retired. On weekends, he often crossed the river into Harlem, where some of his friends lived. He met a deaf woman named Theresa on one of those trips. They married and had two children. He named their first child Sheldon Johnson Jr.
By the time his son was born, Sheldon Sr. had discovered heroin and cocaine, and a few years later he discovered crack cocaine. He’d first tried the drugs at the house parties he frequented.
“That’s what people were doing all around,” he said, shaking his head. In his home decades later, when he recalled that initial descent into addiction, his hands moved slower, more deliberately, and his eyes turned big and sad, as if he knew that he could never precisely explain the moment things fell apart. “I just fell into it,” he said.
With each high, his cravings grew. Crack, cheap and more potent than powder cocaine, became the young father’s drug of choice. He spent much of his paycheck and most of his free time feeding his addiction. He fought with Theresa and resented her pleas for him to cut back his use. As long as his family had food and shelter, he believed, he was fulfilling his duties as a man. He stopped going home every night, and then one day, four years after he and Theresa married, he stopped going home altogether. “I abandoned the family,” he said. “I was so deep into the drug scene that I didn’t know my way out.”
His addiction deepened over the years. He had a child with another woman, left them, and then married another woman and had two kids with her. When he was not working, he was shuttling between the dealers on the corners and the junkies in the drug dens in Newark and Harlem.
In 1986, he was arrested for raping his 7-year-old stepdaughter three times. He pleaded guilty. “Johnson claims that he committed these acts when his wife refused to have sexual relations with him because she was angry at his continued drug use,” Judge Joseph Falcone said at his sentencing.
Falcone noted that Sheldon Sr. had no previous criminal record and was his family’s sole breadwinner. Sending him to prison, Falcone said, “would entail excessive hardship” to the family.
And so for his crimes, Sheldon Sr. received five years’ probation and no prison time. “I was surprised they let me go,” he said.
Looking back years later, Sheldon said that he’d had many shameful moments in his life but that this was the most shameful. He knew that he had gotten off easy, and that such a crime would bring a much harsher sentence today. Times change, he knew, and so does the court system’s choice of punishment. He believed that people could change, too, even those who had committed heinous acts.
Back then, though, his unexpected freedom only drove him deeper into his addiction. “I was a big fuckup,” he said.
With a court order for him to stay away from his stepdaughter, he moved out of the family’s home.
Three years later, in 1989, as state and federal authorities pumped more and more money and resources into the “war on drugs,” Sheldon Sr. was arrested when Newark police caught him buying crack cocaine. He was convicted of drug possession and served 14 months in state prison. He was arrested again in 1993, this time for trying to buy crack from an undercover officer. He spent about a year in jail. Four years later, an undercover cop busted him again, and he spent another year in jail. By the time he got out, he had lost contact with his family. His sister did not know whether he was alive; neither did the mothers of his children.
Two decades later, in his home, Sheldon Sr. remembered little about those years. He held only hazy images of taking the train into Harlem, ambling down to the street corner, and handing a dealer a piece of paper with his order. He had vague memories of sometimes forgetting the paper and having to mime as if he were snorting or smoking.
He didn’t remember the times his teenage son, Sheldon Jr., who knew sign language, helped him communicate with the dealers on those corners in Harlem.
Crime rates began to rise across the country when Sheldon Sr. was a young boy in the 1960s, fueled by a growing youth population, an exodus of wealthy taxpayers to the suburbs, government neglect in inner cities, and exposure to lead-based paint, which caused cognitive deficiencies in countless children. Low-income black and brown communities, struggling from public service cuts in the ’70s and decades of racist housing policies, were particularly vulnerable.
Spurred by public fear, legislators passed tough-on-crime laws that imposed mandatory minimums and reduced chances of parole. The emergence of crack cocaine in the early ’80s expanded the already ballooning inmate population as addicts and dealers got swept into a system that favored incarceration over rehabilitation. By 1988, 70% of Manhattan juveniles booked into jail tested positive for crack.
“Within a few years, boom — it was everywhere,” said Cy Vance Jr., now Manhattan’s district attorney but an assistant prosecutor at the time. “It was so destructive, so directly related to violence. Everybody just woke up and looked around and realized, my god, this is a different game.”
The drug was very cheap and very addictive: $3 for a five-minute rush. Disputes over debts and territory brought more violence to America’s already crime-ridden cities. The federal government responded by escalating the war on drugs, passing bills in 1986 and 1988 that shifted millions of dollars and hundreds of agents to the task and set a mandatory minimum sentence for first-time crack cocaine possession. By 2000, 450 of every 100,000 people were locked up in state prisons, more than four times the rate in 1970. A disproportionate number of these inmates were black and brown men.
Sheldon Johnson Jr., 32 years old on this morning in April 2008, was one of them.
He sat on a thin mattress on a steel bed frame in a prison in upstate New York. Chatter and clangs echoed through the cellblock. He put on his glasses and stretched his sore legs. A bullet from a .357 Magnum was lodged in his right knee, protruding beneath the skin like a rat under a rug. Dark marks on his back and torso memorialized other bullets that had passed through him. A scar ran from his left ear to his jaw, the work of a Latin King’s razor in the heat of a Rikers Island gang rumble 15 years earlier. He still had the tattoo on his arm pledging allegiance to the Bloods, which he’d etched into himself during his early years in prison. There was a large cross just below that, a dragon on the opposite shoulder, and a tribal band on his wrist — a decade’s worth of prison ink.
He’d grown accustomed to the rhythms of incarceration, so he was surprised when a guard stopped at his cell and told him to go to the prison counselor’s office. There, the counselor told him to call his sister, who told him that his 14-year-old son had been arrested.
He sensed panic in his sister’s voice, so he told her to keep calm.
“And then she was like, ‘No, you don’t understand. He killed somebody,’” he recalled. “And it knocked the wind out of me.”
He thought about his father, Sheldon Sr., who had left when he was 3 years old. He had done the same when his own son was about that age. From prison, he had tried to be a better father than his own dad had been. He had called and written home every week. His son was usually around to take the phone and often wrote letters back. But Sheldon Jr. hadn’t heard from his son for many months. And now he realized that he had failed, just as his own father had.
Sheldon Jr. would spend the rest of his life in prison, and he wondered if his son would too.
Harlem was a rough place in the early ’80s, but it was especially rough for Sheldon Jr. His mother, Theresa, was white, his father, Sheldon Sr., was an addict, and both of them were deaf. His family was among the poorest in a poor neighborhood, and the tall, skinny Sheldon Jr. wore ratty clothes much too small for him. His classmates picked on him for all of the above and called him “Slinky.”
He was a good student and wanted to become a scientist, but he got into many fights. After one fight, when he was 10 years old, his teacher called him over to dole out the standard punishment: a sprinkling of salt on the palm followed by slapping of the flesh with rulers. But just as the teacher swung, Sheldon Jr. ran out of the classroom. He grabbed a fire extinguisher and sprayed the teacher. The police arrived and arrested him. A judge sent him to the psychiatric ward at Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was placed in a class “with a bunch of bad kids,” he said. He spent 11 months there before running away, pushing past a nurse when she opened a locked door and racing down the stairs. “I was from the projects, so I knew how to fly down them fast,” he said.
He dropped out of school after that, his sixth-grade year. He spent his days ducking truancy officers with his best friend, Antwon Payne. They camped inside abandoned buildings. They went to the lake on the north end of Central Park and caught fish and tadpoles with nets made of onion bags and clothes hangers. They climbed the roofs of project buildings, sneaked into the elevator shafts, and rode the tops of the elevators, until one of their friends fell and died.
“In those days, we were wanting to be kids but not able to be kids,” Antwon said. “Being forced to grow up without actually being grown.”
From the time he was 6 years old, Sheldon Jr. sold newspapers in the morning and bagged groceries in the afternoon. He stole food from the store. He sold tadpoles he caught in the park for a quarter each. He used much of his money to help feed his four younger sisters. His mother’s Social Security check was not enough for all of them. “With his father not there and his mother not able to get a job because she was deaf, he believed he had a responsibility to be the breadwinner,” said his cousin, Tammy White.
When he was 9, he was walking down 114th Street and saw a pit bull. He stopped and played with it. The boy holding the leash, a 16-year-old named Shameek, told Sheldon Jr. that he could take the dog home and look after it if he wanted. Over the following weeks, Shameek paid Sheldon Jr. a daily allowance to feed and walk the dog. Every day, he dropped by Shameek’s block to pick up his money and hang out with the cool older boys there. One day, when police cars were all over the block, Shameek gave Sheldon Jr. a brown paper bag and told him to keep it overnight. After he brought the bag back the next day, Shameek took him to the clothing store and bought him jeans, sneakers, a shirt, and a leather jacket. For the first time he could remember, his clothes fit.
Shameek gave him a job as a lookout, standing on the corner and calling out when he saw police. Soon, he was tasked with carrying drugs to the stash house. He rose through the ranks quickly. When Sheldon Jr. was 12, Shameek promoted him to block manager in charge of day-to-day operations. He made $1,000 a week, and he made sure he took care of all his people. “Sheldon was always a generous provider,” his cousin Tammy said. “He didn’t want anybody he loved to have to worry about money.”
Two years later, he linked up with Shameek’s supplier and opened his own shop on 112th Street. His first day, he flipped 10 grams of cocaine for a $500 profit. After a few months, he joined forces with Antwon, who’d also been hustling. Their small operation brought in thousands of dollars a week, they said. Bigger groups made millions each month. Drug gangs controlled the streets. Sheldon Jr. and Antwon remembered the power of the top gang in their neighborhood, the Mad Madison Mob. When a member messed up or a buyer was late on a payment, the gang leaders would march them down the street naked, pointing shotguns at their heads.
Sheldon Jr. and Antwon expanded their business. They borrowed a friend’s apartment to store and cook their growing stash. They rented a roach-infested house in Buffalo, where demand far outpaced supply, and sold up there a few days a week. They drove to the Pennsylvania suburbs and sold to rich white people, who paid them by handing over their credit cards. It was a mutually beneficial agreement: Sheldon Jr. used the cards to buy clothes and furniture, which he then sold on the streets; the white people reported the cards lost or stolen and didn’t have to pay a cent. He hired a dozen more workers for the crew. They bought more guns. They made more money.
“It’s never enough,” he said. “You want more and you want more and you want more.”
He became the group’s enforcer. His friends nicknamed him “Chaos.” He led the attacks against rivals creeping on their territory. He hid a gun under a garbage can, ready to defend their corner. He traded bullets in shootouts three to four times a month, he said.
Antwon thought his business partner was getting reckless. Sheldon Jr. had been arrested a few times over the years and had served time at Rikers Island for drug convictions. But it was not until 1994, when he was 19 years old, that he faced serious prison time. Police busted into the crew’s stash house, and the man living there identified Sheldon Jr. as the ringleader. By then, Sheldon Jr. was living on the fifth floor of a project building on 112th Street with his girlfriend, Tina, and their 1-year-old son, whom he’d given his name to. When police smashed through the door of their apartment, Sheldon Jr. ran through the living room, past the crib holding his sleeping baby, and jumped out the window. His right foot shattered, his hip broke, and two vertebrae in his back fractured, but adrenaline kept him numb to the pain as he ran to Antwon’s house a block away.
He told doctors at the hospital that he’d been hit by a car, and he returned home in a wheelchair. A few months later, police spotted him and arrested him on charges of drug trafficking, kidnapping, and other felonies that could put him in prison for life. As he sat at Rikers Island for two years awaiting trial, the streets moved on without him. His workers told him that people who owed him money were refusing to pay because “they thought I wasn’t coming home,” Sheldon Jr. said. So after a jury acquitted him, he returned to the neighborhood in a fury. One by one, he tracked down his debtors and robbed them at gunpoint of their money and jewelry. When one man tried to run, he shot him in the back.
Police arrested Sheldon Jr. four days before Christmas in 1997, pulling him over as he drove home from a shopping trip. He faced charges of armed robbery and attempted murder. “I knew I was going down,” he said. This time, he was convicted. A judge sentenced him to 50 years in prison, with no chance of parole for 41 years. Sheldon Jr. saw it as a life sentence.
He promised Tina that he would try to provide for her and their child from behind bars. But soon his savings ran out, and mother and son were on their own.
America’s violent crime rate had started to drop by the time the youngest Sheldon was born in 1993.
Experts still debate the reasons for that, citing a list of possible factors: Police forces grew larger, cracked down on lower-level crimes, and began using data-driven crime-fighting strategies. Crack cocaine use decreased. The government banned commercial use of lead-based paint, which was blamed for causing brain damage that led to behavioral problems. The youth population declined, and employment rates for black and Latino people ticked upward.
From 1991 to 2015, the number of reported violent crimes decreased by 50–80% in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, Newark, Tampa, St. Louis, and many other cities. Day-to-day safety was no longer a primary concern for most people. With the public no longer terrified to walk the streets of their cities, policymakers were free to consider alternatives to the laws that had marked the tough-on-crime era.
Many prosecutors began charging fewer minors as adults, reversing a trend rooted in past fears over a mythic generation of young offenders dubbed “superpredators.” In 1988, 4% of incarcerated minors were locked up in adult facilities; in 1997, 15% percent were. By 2013, the rate had dropped back to 6%. The US Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it is unconstitutional to sentence minors to life in prison without the chance for parole. The justice system as a whole came under scrutiny as DNA technology led to exonerations of hundreds of people imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. States relaxed sentencing guidelines for drug offenses and dedicated more resources to helping inmates re-enter society. President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of more than 600 inmates — more than the previous 10 presidents combined — who had been locked up on drug charges and deserved “a second chance,” the president’s spokesperson announced. “Entire communities have been ravaged where largely men, but some women, are taken out of those communities,” Obama said in a press conference in August. “Kids are now growing up without parents. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty and disorder in their lives.”
A Cornell University study found that 25% of black children born in 1990 had their father in prison before they turned 14. According to a 2000 US Senate report, children with an incarcerated parent are three times as likely to be arrested as those with no parent in prison.
“We are now in an era of reckoning with the consequences of the tough-on-crime era,” said District Attorney Vance.
When Vance walks into a courtroom today, he said, he sees the same racial disparities he saw when he first became a prosecutor in 1982. “How do you change that picture?” he said. “How is it possibly fair that that picture continues to repeat itself over a 30-year time period?”
This question was woven into the fabric of the youngest Sheldon’s childhood.
He had heard so much about his father. “You look just like him!” relatives would say. They had grown up in the same building, attended the same schools. His father’s old friends greeted him on the street and looked out for him. They gave him money — sometimes as much as $500. They told him stories about his father, mostly recalling his violent streak but almost always ending the conversation by saying how highly they thought of him. “Even though it was wrong what he did, it was good to know my father was a respected person,” Sheldon said.
What he heard on the street contrasted with what he heard at home. His mother, Tina, seemed to hate the man. He had stopped sending her money and had married another woman while behind bars. When his name came up, she became angry. When Sheldon acted up, as he often did, she would say, dismissively, “You’re just like your father.”
He couldn’t escape the comparisons — not at home, not on the streets, and not at school, where he began racking up suspensions for bad behavior in the second grade. He talked back to teachers, threw a chair at one, and got into fights. Some of his teachers remembered his father from his time in school. When he acted up, Sheldon said, “they see my name and they be like, ‘Oh, he gon’ be nothing. Just like his father.’” He was expelled from one school. When counselors asked him why he kept getting in trouble, he blamed his rage on his father’s absence. “For a long time, I held a grudge toward him,” Sheldon said. “I didn’t really understand why my father left me.”
And so he stopped writing back to his dad in prison, stopped freeing up his schedule to take his phone calls, and tried to put distance between himself and the man who shared his name.
But now he stood before a judge, just as his father and his grandfather had. The prosecutor charged him with manslaughter but did not charge him as an adult, so the proceedings were in family court. His aunt, Shelley, told the judge that he felt “very sorry” about what he had done. “He’s cried night by night,” she said. A probation officer testified that Sheldon was born into a broken household, bounced around among relatives’ homes, and was an “angry” boy who had been in counseling from 6 years old to 10 years old. He had no criminal record.
At the next hearing, Yu’s father spoke about “the unspeakable grief of the total loss of joy in our lives.” Sitting 15 feet away, Sheldon cried. He was thin and long-limbed like his father, but his face was softer. His father once observed that Sheldon “doesn’t have that street edge. He’s kinda polished. And I’m happy about that. I guess that’s a good thing.”
He pleaded guilty and braced for the sentence. The judge ordered 18 months in a juvenile detention boot camp. He had the chance to turn his life around, the judge told him. The teenager nodded. He knew it all could have gone differently.
“My father got life and he didn’t even kill anybody,” he said.
For Sheldon Jr., those years in prison had passed slowly. He thought about his future when he saw the old men shuffling down the prison halls. “I try not to think about it, but it’s impossible,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve come to peace with the time that I have. One of my greatest fears is growing old and being alone in here and dying in prison.”
He kept busy. He took college courses and performed in a theater group. He read whatever he could find in the library. He wrote essays and short stories. He became a model inmate, said David Roth, the prison’s social worker. His days were so full that he went to bed exhausted and fell asleep immediately, which meant he wouldn’t be trapped with his thoughts in the dark, quiet moments of the night.
He forced himself to forget about the outside world. He stopped expecting updates from loved ones. No calls, no letters, no news meant everything was all right. He rarely got visitors. Auburn Correctional Facility was an eight-hour drive from New York City. He had not spoken to his father since those days on the Harlem street corners years ago. So he was surprised to see the old man in the visiting room one morning in 2010.
Sheldon Sr. had wanted to see his son ever since he heard about his grandson’s arrest. They talked for hours, two men with regrets, trying to heal wounds of the past. They were both better men now, they agreed. Sheldon Jr. told his father that he looked good, full-bodied and clear-eyed. His father said that he’d beaten his crack addiction eight years earlier, at 51, after years of despair and loneliness. He’d tracked down his sister and started going to church with her. One Sunday, he met Laura there, and soon he married her.
He asked about his grandson, and Sheldon Jr. told him that their youngest namesake had been released from boot camp and was living in Florida with his mother. The two men hoped that he would be the one to break this cycle of incarceration. Sheldon Jr. asked his father about the history of the Johnson family and learned that their surname traced back to slaves in South Carolina. This fact burned in Sheldon Jr.’s mind. Long after generations of Johnsons “had been bonded in slavery,” he later reflected, “three generations of men in my family had been entrapped.”
He didn’t hear from his father again after that visit.
The youngest Sheldon had spent his 15th birthday in a boot camp near Poughkeepsie, New York, where the daily grind seemed to set him straight.
“It leveled me out,” he said. “Brought me down from some of the wildness.” Because of his good behavior, he was released after 10 months, and he moved in with his mother, who was living in Jacksonville, Florida. At first, things went well, but it wasn’t long before he strayed from the straight life. Within a year, he’d returned to his old ways: fighting in school, shoplifting, stealing cars, and staying out all night with friends. He dropped out of school at 16.
One day, his mother told him she was going to New York for two weeks, and she vanished for four months. By the time she came back, Sheldon had begun selling weed to earn food money as he searched for a job. He found work at a gas station convenience store. His relationship with his mother deteriorated, and for the next three years, Sheldon found himself sleeping on friends’ sofas and staying in cheap motels.
Over those years, Sheldon was arrested three times and served a total of 10 months in jail. None of his offenses were violent — weed in his car, driving with a suspended license, dealing in stolen property — but each arrest underscored his seemingly endless struggle.
Sheldon had always believed that this struggle was temporary. This was America, where a man was expected to rise from poverty through effort and merit and build a stronger foundation for his son, each generation surpassing the one before. But the cycle spins both ways. Just as a child is born into a family’s accumulated wealth, a child is born into a family’s accumulated troubles. Those troubles were now Sheldon’s alone to bear. When employers and prosecutors saw him, they did not see the decades of history weighing on him, but only the crimes under his own name.
He was 23 years old now, working a landscaping job, saving up, and hoping to move into his own place soon. He told people he would be a millionaire one day. He planned to go back to school and have a career. He planned to take care of his family. If he ever had a son, he planned to pass down his name.
“I always felt like I’m not gon’ end up in prison,” Sheldon said. “I always had that vision that I’ma be better than my father. So even if he is in that bitch, by the time he dies he can see his son and know that he has a legacy.”
In the summer of 2015, he visited his father in prison for the first time. He told him about the jobs he’d had, the girlfriend he cared for, the problems he’d overcome. They spoke for hours, bursts of conversation interwoven with stretches of comfortable silence.
The youngest Sheldon studied his father’s face. “Even though I had seen pictures and people had always told me I looked like him, that was the first time I was really like, damn, I really do look like my father,” he said.
Near the end of their time together, his father apologized for his absence and Sheldon forgave him. He told his father about a night, not long ago, when he was broke and angry and desperate. He’d just lost another job and was getting kicked out of another apartment. He went for a walk. He felt overcome by hopelessness. “I thought about robbing people,” he said. But then he thought about his father and he knew he had to find another way. ●