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.
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 thats left is fear and it commands attention.
'Isolation is Hell'
Visitors are not especially welcome at Pelican Bay, and today only a few people have made the long journey from San Francisco or Los Angeles. Visitors have to hand in their ID before passing through a metal detector. Then they get an invisible Disney figure -- the prison guards have a sense of humor -- stamped on the back of their hand before they pass through two sets of locked gates and enter a prison bus, where a couple of gangsters' girlfriends and two elderly couples are already sitting waiting. "My son's a good boy," says one prisoner's father. Then he grins: "Just kidding."
Donny sits in his prison overalls behind the thick glass of visitors' cell number nine, smoothing back his shoulder-length hair. He admits that he's not all that well-informed about art, but he likes Joan Miró and Jackson Pollock. "And I love van Gogh, too, because he was also an outsider," he says.
He says he did a bit of drawing in the past, like most other prisoners. In the US, "Prison Art" is fairly well established. Many prisons run art courses and provide inmates with materials and there are even collectors who specialize in the genre. And there are good reasons why prisons should want to promote art. An evaluation of California's "Art Behind Bars" program showed that inmates who had taken part in the project were less likely to re-offend after being released.
But the powers-that-be in Pelican Bay see things differently. "Prison is a deterrent," says a prison spokesman coldly. "We don't want prisoners to enjoy being here." Nobody is going to offer inmates paint or paintbrushes at Pelican Bay.
An Antidote to Gray
One day, Donny's pen pal, a semi-retired psychoanalyst who works with prisoners, told him in a letter that he should do "something with color" as an antidote to his gray surroundings. Donny didn't have any materials to paint with, but -- necessity being the mother of invention -- he made his own paintbrush using strands of hair, plastic wrap, foil and a ballpoint refill.
Then he ordered a packet of M&M's from the prison canteen, added some water to the chocolate beans to extract the color from the outer candy coating and started to paint on the back of a prison postcard.
The first night Donny used his new paintbrush, he didn't feel tired. He forgot his cramped cell, the slow passage of time and the deadly monotony of prison life, and just painted for hours on end. That night, says Donny, he suddenly felt purposeful and more powerful than ever, "because I could express myself through colors and shapes and symbols like never before."
The next day, he sent the picture to his pen pal then immediately started working on a new painting. In the weeks and months that followed, Donny developed a range of painting techniques of astonishing ingenuity. He extracted a kind of glue from jelly beans and used it to stick eggshell pieces onto a postcard for a mosaic effect. He sprinkled pepper onto his pictures. His favorite color is a dark red-brown which is easily made from coffee.
He often starts a painting by biting off the tip of a ballpoint refill, blowing the ink onto the paper and using his perforated cell door to create a cross-hatching effect. Everything around him has become part of the creative process, and the boundaries of his cell are no longer the boundaries of his world.
Soon after sending off his first picture, Donny got an enthusiastic reply from his pen pal, who told Donny his pictures were "marvelous" and "fantastic" and urged him to carry on painting.
Donny produced one picture after another, full of exploding shapes and colors that stand in sharp contrast to the monochrome brutality of prison life. He sent them to his friend, who organized an exhibition of Donny's works in Mexico. The pictures were a big success, selling for $500 a piece. Even the New York Times wrote a report about the convict who "turns M&Ms into an art form."
But the prison directors weren't happy about the media attention being showered on their creative prisoner. His cell was searched and a paintbrush confiscated.
After the exhibition, the prison directors took disciplinary action against Donny for engaging in "unauthorized business from inside prison." He was no longer allowed to send pictures to the outside world. But the public interest was huge and a short while later he was allowed to post things off again. While some people may debate the artistic merit of Donny's pictures, few would deny he has a right to paint.
A Guarantee of Sanity
Renowned sculptor Louise Bourgeois famously said that "Art is a guarantee of sanity." Donny's case shows the slogan contains an element of truth.
Solitary confinement has driven many people insane. One disturbed prisoner in Pelican Bay covered himself with excrement in his tiny cell. Half a dozen prison guards hauled him out of his cell and dumped him in a tub full of boiling hot water. Then they rubbed away the excrement with wire brushes until the skin hung in flaps from his body.
The brutality of some prison guards is only exceeded by the mercilessness of the prison gangs. Inmates who break their rules or who are considered traitors pay with their lives. Only a few months ago, yet another prisoner in Pelican Bay was found murdered in his cell.
For years, civil rights' groups and psychiatrists have criticized the prison conditions at Pelican Bay. They maintain that the unlimited solitary confinement for inmates like Donny and the lack of sensory stimulation in this grim concrete gulag constitutes a form of psychological torture. His mother comes to visit him once a month but Donny hasn't touched her in 22 years. "I'd cut off my right arm to be able to hold my mother," he says.
Modern forms of solitary confinement were pioneered in the US. As early as 1842, after visiting a prison in Philadelphia where inmates were kept in solitary confinement, the English writer Charles Dickens wrote that he considered "this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."
Yet Dickens observed something else as well. He noticed that in one cell a prisoner had "extracted some colours from the yarn with which he worked, and painted a few poor figures on the wall."
A Creative Force
For Donny, after 25 years behind bars, time no longer means very much. "I don't know if I'll ever get out of here," he says. But if he does get out, he says he wants to open an art studio and work with prisoners' children.
He himself is the son of a convict. He's convinced that if he'd discovered his creative side when he was young, then he wouldn't have gone off the rails the way he did. In a letter, Donny once wrote: "The creative force used to be the destructive force that drove me."
But Donny still has hope, despite his ruined life. Suddenly his eyes light up and he starts talking about images of space viewed through the Hubble Space Telescope, exploding supernovas and star clouds -- the chaos and the enormous spaces he dreams about when he's painting in his tiny cell.
Then there's a click on the intercom -- time's up. Donny sticks his hands backwards through a slot in the door so the handcuffs can be put on. "Isolation is hell," he says. "But Im trying to do something with myself."
Outside, the sun has nearly reached its zenith. A seal has been washed up on Crescent City beach. Days later, it's still lying there, with its glossy coat and gouged-out eye sockets. Still life in Crescent City -- a perfect subject for a painter.
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