Still Life The Jailhouse Jackson Pollock

Donny Johnson is a convicted murderer who has been kept in complete solitary confinement for the past 18 years. He started painting in order to stay sane, using dyes extracted from M&Ms and a home-made brush. Now his paintings sell for $500 each.

By SPIEGEL Staff


At the northernmost tip of California, where place names sound poetic and people are few and far between, lies the backwater town of Crescent City. The view over Pelican Bay's rugged coastal landscape is magnificent: Giant trees and heaps of driftwood glisten in the early morning light against the distant horizon of the Pacific Ocean. It's a painter's dream.

"It's the damned green that's the most difficult," says Donny Johnson. Although he is a painter and has been living here since 1989, he hasn't seen the Californian sunlight for decades. He hasn't seen the moon either, or the colorful soda billboards at the side of the road. Nor has he seen the reddish hue of the tree bark or the lush green on top of the conifers.

That's because Donny's world is gray. For nearly 20 years, 47-year-old Donald Clayton Johnson has been imprisoned in an 8-by-12 foot (2.5-by-3.5 meter) concrete cell in the high-security unit of Pelican Bay State Prison, a few miles outside Crescent City.

Gray dominates Prisoner B95524's world. The walls, table, bunk bed and chair are made of gray concrete. The washbowl and toilet are made of metal. There is no window. "Even the Mexicans here look white, because they never see the sun," says Donny.

The front of the cell consists of a perforated sheet of steel. The guards can watch his every move, day and night. However Donny himself hardly ever sees or talks to anyone. He stays locked up for 22.5 hours ever day. When he wants to leave his concrete dungeon, he is handcuffed and searched for drugs and weapons. "So I'd just rather stay here," says Donny. Twice a day a plastic tray with food is pushed through a slot in the door.

In a world such as this, there are only two alternatives: you either give up or you fight to stay sane. No other prisoner has been in Pelican Bay as long as Donny, but he's managed to keep his sanity nevertheless.

That's because Donny paints. And it's not just the usual prison kitsch of sexy women, Madonna-and-child images and pictures of sunsets. His paintings are orgies of color that burst out of the monotony of a gray world. Some of them, with their spraying and dripping techniques, are reminiscent of the early works of Jackson Pollock, while others are wild and dark. All of them scream with color. But who is the man behind them?

The Worst of the Worst

Pelican Bay, which belongs to the "supermax" maximum security category, is regarded as one of the toughest prisons in the US. But even here there are varying levels of security. The Secure Housing Unit (SHU), where Donny is imprisoned, has the highest security level of all. Prisoners held here are subject to even stricter isolation than those on Death Row in San Quentin.

This is where convicts wind up when other prisons can't cope with them. The inmates include extremely violent prisoners as well as members of notorious prison gangs such as the Black Guerilla Family, the Mexican Mafia or the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang that prison officials maintain Donny belongs to.

"We've got the worst of the worst here," says a prison guard with a hint of pride and points to a T-shirt sold on the premises bearing the words: "Hard Time Hotel -- Worst of the Worst." The prison directors call the inmates "predators" and say they need to be taken out of the normal inmate population in order to have any chance of controlling California's hopelessly overcrowded prisons.

Donny's background is typical for a criminal. He experienced a poverty-stricken childhood with a brutal father who constantly abused his mother. His two stepfathers were petty criminals who were shot by the police when Donny was 10 years old. He ran away from home and started smoking pot before moving on to harder drugs. He spent years in and out of juvenile detention centers for thefts and hold-ups until, in the end, he murdered another criminal.

Donny has been behind bars since 1980. Initially he was serving a sentence for second-degree murder. Later he assaulted a prison guard by slashing his throat, causing life-threatening injuries. For that he got three life sentences and indefinite solitary confinement.

Donny was always there whenever California's politicians opened a new prison that was even more secure than the existing ones. First he was transferred to the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, then to California State Prison in Corcoran, and then to Pelican Bay in 1989. “I opened all three baptizing them in my blood, literally,” says Donny darkly.

In prison, Donny learnt how to be more dangerous than ever. "In this world, violence is like a gold credit card that gets you resources and fear," he says. "In prison there is very little love, so all that’s left is fear and it commands attention.”

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