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|Subject: Kenneth Johnson - Rikers Island Teacher|
died October 20
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Date Posted: October 27, 2002 4:41:54 EDT
Kenneth Johnson, a cat burglar and holdup man who had a jailhouse conversion after reading Jean-Paul Sartre and transformed himself into a beloved teacher of inmates on Rikers Island, died last Sunday at his home in Brooklyn. He was 49.
The cause was a heart attack, his family said.
Mr. Johnson taught a class called Reality Check to inmates on Rikers, a motivational seminar based on the writings of Sartre and Albert Camus in which he stressed that life was what one made of it and that destiny was created by the power of everyday decisions.
With sly sarcasm, brutal honesty and a velvet, rap-and-banter style honed during his years on the streets, Mr. Johnson systematically dismantled the bitterness and ingrained self-pity of some of his students, encouraging them to see that they were in charge of their own lives and responsible for their every action.
His class, part of a vocational training program called Fresh Start, was considered one of the finest educational offerings on Rikers Island, and the many graduates of the Fresh Start program who kept in touch with him after their release was a testament to its value.
He himself was at first denied entrance to the Fresh Start program because he was thought to be incorrigible. In his wilder days, Mr. Johnson was the sort of violent but sardonic man who might demand your wallet and, if refused, go on to say: "This is not a dialogue, this is a monologue. Now, give me the money."
In 1997, while jailed on Rikers, he enrolled in a public-speaking course and so impressed the instructor, John Wareham, that he was invited back to address his former classmates after his release on the subject of Plato's cave. (Mr. Johnson considered the philosopher's description of cave-dwellers seeing only the shadows of reality to be a metaphor for imprisonment.)
One day, Mr. Wareham forgot his credentials and, denied entrance to the jail, told Mr. Johnson that he would have to teach the class alone. Within a year, Mr. Johnson was hired full time by the Osborne Association, which runs Fresh Start.
Mr. Johnson was writing a book about his experiences when he died.
Mr. Johnson was born on Sept. 21, 1953, in Plymouth, Fla., but his family moved to New York City when he was 8. They settled in Brooklyn. By his 30's, he had been in and out of jails and prisons several times.
A smooth character with the agile mind of a street kid and the smoky manners of a jazz musician, Mr. Johnson was also a poet, performing his spoken-word verse at places like the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
He is survived by his mother, Marie; his sisters, Barbara Burce and Shirley Frederick; and his brothers, Harold, Michael and Wayne.
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