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First Person: Imprisoned For Murder

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May 15, 2017 1:22 p.m.

First Person: Imprisoned For Murder


Billy Johnson, inmate, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility

Related Story: First Person: Imprisoned For Murder


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

First-person features bring us stories the San Diegans told in their own voices. In 1992 Billy Johnson was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison for committing a murder. Now 46, he is serving and San Diego's Donovan correctional facility. This Sunday he will be one of five prisoners speaking about their experiences, part of a Ted talk. Johnson told us about coping with his guilt while in prison.
I am Billy Johnson became an inmate. -- I am an inmate. Sports was my way out. Sports was my piece in the neighborhood I grew up in. I played for my high school and I played Pop Warner from nine through 14. Was the first port I played in my life. It was probably the best thing I ever did in my life. Playing sports took me to this peaceful environment. This place where I felt like I had a family, I felt like it was home, our teammates was family. The coach was always supportive of us. I just felt comfortable on the football field. Football was my passion. And after football practice, after coming home and after having to go back to the neighborhood and the environment I grew up in, it was a different world. It was football took me out of that, that life, but after football, I had to return back to that life because I had nowhere else to go. I saw a path forward in football, but I made some choices that changed my path. It was some events that transpired. They were personal with me. I got involved in dealing drugs and stuff like that in my life. I lost some family members, and I knew who is -- who was responsible for their death and committed a crime, a murder. My first 20 years in prison I was on maximum security yards. And I noticed that everybody had this dark side inside them. This pain. For whatever reason it was, we all shared it. we all had a and felt it. and the only way to get some type apiece from that darkness and pain was to bring violence and hurt on other inmates. It was just a way to unleash your hostility and your anger out on inmates and staff because it wasn't really nothing happening to you if you was to bring violence and pain on another inmate. You would just go to the hole and be back out. People tended to get rid of their frustration, there hurt and pain, and they needed to exercise in the best way they felt fit. And if that was violence, that is what happened. It had been a couple of years that I have been trying to make this transformation in my life. I was watching a St. Jude's commercial and I was staring at this commercial, and watching that little girl's eyes reminded me of the day when me and my codefendant committed this crime. The day I walked by that window I saw this girl, this kid. And I've always thought about that girl. Seeing that just let something inside of me. That I needed to do something. By me being involved with deaths and taking lives and being in prison for a murder, it was time for me to give back. In order for me to do that, I felt that I had to go outside of my comfort zone. Do something that people in prison don't do. That is donate money for a good cause. I donated money myself. My mother sends me $100 a month, and I take $19 and send that to St. Jude's. That gives me the peace I am looking for because I watch so many deaths and have been involved in so many crimes out there. I think but now I want to, instead of taking lies come I want to try to help lives now. -- save lives now and want to get out one day and possibly help troubled youth that grew up in the same environment I grew up in, grew up with the same circumstances and what better way to utilize and to learn from then helping children. I just want people to know that people do changed the -- do changed there's all types of darkness in our lives, and I want people to know it is okay to search for the light it is okay to seek help, it is okay to feel this pain, this shame and guilt, but at the end of the day, you don't have to be stuck in this coffin I was in. If I climbed out of that coffin after all I have been through, I know that there is hope for anyone else who is in a dark place no matter what the darkness may be. No matter what they were faced against. I just hope someone walks away with the message that I give that it is okay. And the light will eventually come.