Exit to Freedom by Calvin Johnson Essay example

Exit to Freedom by Calvin Johnson Essay example

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During the summer of 1984, Calvin Johnson trudges knee deep through a swamp in the wetlands of South Georgia. As snakes brush past his legs, he marches in line with nine other men, each dressed in an orange jumpsuit, swinging a razor sharp bush axe in collective rhythm. His crew entered the swamp at dawn and they will not leave until dusk. Guards, armed with shotguns, and equally violent tempers, ignore the fact that the temperature has risen well above 100 degrees and push the men even harder. Suddenly, an orange blur falls to the ground and a prisoner from Wayne Correctional Institution lies face down in the swampy floor. As guards bark orders at the unconscious, dying man, Johnson realizes "the truth of the situation, and the force of injustice just incapacitates" him. It is then he decides he does not belong in the swamp.

Calvin Johnson (along with co-writer Greg Hampikian) begins his memoir, Exit to Freedom (The University of Georgia Press; 2003), with this inhumane description of prison life. He finds himself in this situation one year after being wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Clayton, GA. His story, the self proclaimed “only firsthand account of a wrongful conviction overturned by DNA evidence," soon leaves the swamp and takes the reader inside the prison itself. The “code of prison etiquette” is related through adages such as “never to get between fighting dogs” and “only dead men broke up fights, and only snitches talked to guards.” These jailhouse proverbs are backed up by anecdotes of brutal fights, broken prison rules, and punishments, such as a transgressor who is brutally stabbed in his sleep. Characters such as Lefty, a prisoner who signals a fight by removing his glass eye and placing it on the sink,...


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...the reasoning behind it soon becomes apparent. As Johnson talks more and more about his gradual distancing from God, I realize that I am being set up for a miracle.

I was a little taken back when I realized that the entire book is a Christian testimony, following the familiar pattern: man experiences trials, man denies God, man finds God. The focus on spirituality overshadows the cold case study and hard facts on DNA evidence that the reader expects. Even so, the sheer power of Johnson's story overcomes the narrative flaws and keeps the reader interested throughout. Plus, the sincerity of his Christian beliefs adds a completely different level to his compelling story. It becomes an account of a man, not just finding truth in the legal system, but also discovering a spiritual truth which guides him out of the darkness of captivity, freeing him mind, body, and soul.

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