Demian Johnson knows he has to be extremely cautious when he's around his fiancée. He can briefly hug her when she arrives and maybe give a short kiss before she leaves. Sometimes, he can hold her hand, but they can't have any other physical contact.
Johnson is 51 years old and is currently incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison, a men's correctional facility in Ione, a small city in Amador County, two hours east of Oakland. His fiancée, Hilda Wade, a retired home health aide, tries to visit him every Saturday and occasionally stays overnight in a nearby hotel when she doesn't want to do the ninety-minute drive to and from her Oakley home twice in one day.
Wade told me in a phone interview that they are careful not to break any rules when they talk in the waiting room of the overcrowded prison, which currently houses roughly 2,800 prisoners in a facility designed for 1,700 inmates. "We're very respectful in there," she said. "We don't want him to get no write-ups."
Wade and Johnson started dating in the summer of 2014. One of Wade's friends, who is engaged to a fellow inmate of Johnson, suggested the two meet at Mule Creek. When Wade's friend originally asked Wade to come with her to prison to meet Johnson, Wade scoffed. "I don't want to be with no guy in jail!" she recalled, with a laugh.
But her friend spoke very highly of Johnson, and eventually Wade decided she would tag along. The connection between the two was strong from the beginning, Wade said. "When I first met him, it was like I've been knowing him for years. It was like this instant attraction."
After regular visits, it became clear to Wade that she wanted to marry him — once he is finally released. "He is the best man I've ever met in my lifetime," she said. "I love him to death."
Johnson told me in a recent phone interview from prison that their time together means the world to him. "Whenever I get a visit," he said, "it's the closest I get to feeling free."
After she got to know Johnson, Wade figured he would be released soon enough given his extensive progress and long list of accomplishments during the 33 years he has spent behind bars. Johnson has worked as a program office clerk, a chapel clerk, a law library clerk, and a tutor. He has received his GED and certificates in electrical works, paralegal studies, vocational screen-printing, and office services. Johnson also co-founded and ran a diversion and education group for convicts and has counseled at-risk youth inside prison as part of a program that was featured on an MTV show. He has completed a victim awareness class, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, anger management and stress management courses, criminal behavior therapy groups, and many other self-help classes.
Additionally, Johnson has solid plans for his life after incarceration, including a standing job offer at a cleaning company in the East Bay and an acceptance letter from an Oakland-based program called Men of Valor, which provides transitional housing and other support services for people reentering society. He has several backup housing options and official letters of support from relatives and community members who have praised him extensively and written about the ways in which they would help him during the transition.
In short, Johnson's prison case file shows that he has come a long way from the reckless eighteen-year-old boy who was arrested for murder on a rainy night in October 1982. Johnson, along with two teenage friends, who were drunk at the time, hopped in a cab in downtown Oakland to get back to his home in East Oakland, not far from the Coliseum. Their plan was to jump out of the cab before paying, according to Johnson's later testimony. But just as they were getting ready to ditch the car, his friend, also eighteen, pulled out a .357 Magnum revolver — allegedly to intimidate the driver so he wouldn't chase after them.
In an instant, Johnson saw a flash next to his face: The friend had fired a bullet, killing the driver. Hours later, Johnson was arrested, and eventually he agreed to a plea deal of second-degree murder, even though, according to official court records, he was not the one who had fired the weapon. A judge sentenced him to fifteen years to life in prison and he became eligible for parole — meaning a release back into society — on May 28, 1995 when he was thirty years old.
Twenty years after that eligibility date passed, and many unsuccessful parole hearings later, Johnson is still locked up — with little hope of finding freedom anytime soon. He is one of roughly 34,000 prisoners in California currently serving life sentences with the possibility of parole. Known as "lifers," these inmates represent about 25 percent of the entire prison population in the state. Many lifers are men serving time for first- or second-degree murder convictions. Some have committed heinous acts of violence. Others were caught up in gang- and drug-related crimes that resulted in a homicide that they did not directly commit. And others were convicted under the state's three-strikes law, which, for some offenders, mandates life sentences after three felony convictions. Lifers typically face sentences of a minimum of 7, 15, or 25 years, and many who serve those full sentences end up incarcerated for much longer. According to UnCommon Law, an Oakland-based nonprofit that supports California lifers and is representing Johnson, there are currently about 10,000 lifers in the state who have served their minimum sentences and are eligible for parole. But they remain confined to prison, trapped in a system that critics say is unnecessarily cruel.