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One-on-one with Perry Johnson.

ACA President Perry M. Johnson is a true student of the Civil War--he has the entire PBS Civil War documentary series on videotape and he has read numerous books on the subject. He has an intense, heartfelt passion for that period.

"If you could just put yourself back into that time," he says earnestly. "We know of racial tension now, but racial hatred was so much more pervasive then. It was just an awful time. There was constant pressure from living in that hostile environment."

With his interest in the subject, it comes as no surprise that Johnson names Abraham Lincoln as one of his idols. He cites Lincoln's insight as particularly inspiring.

"Lincoln came from humble origins, but he was a genius in many respects," he says. "He suffered through this country's darkest hour, yet he was able to keep a vision and a focus. It's just extraordinary, his depth of perception."

Vision. Focus. Perception. These words offer an understanding of Johnson's fascination with Lincoln and his desire to emulate him, for he uses them again and again in describing his own goals. Whether discussing his former job as director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, his plans as ACA president or his work as a part-time criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, Johnson cites providing vision as his primary role.

As someone who likes to examine, analyze and ponder, Johnson says the complex nature of corrections is what draws him to the field.

"I owe a lot to corrections," he says. "It has forced me to deal with a lot of issues I might otherwise have dismissed with simple analysis when they really weren't that simple. If you want to be lazy in your thinking, you can push those things aside.

"A sergeant once said to me, 'A prison is just like a theater--every night a new movie.' And he was right. Corrections is an exaggerated microcosm of society. There are a lot of contradictions and a fair number of injustices, and this causes you to be troubled. You begin to have an awareness I don't think you'd have in other professions."

Johnson began his corrections career in 1955. He abandoned a career in law enforcement to try corrections work after one of his professors and mentors at Michigan State went to work for the DOC.

After attending the state's training academy and working for several years as a counselor at the maximum security State Prison of Southern Michigan (SPSM) in Jackson, Johnson became a supervisor at the minimum security camp in Waterloo.

After a series of promotions within various state institutions, including three years as warden at SPSM, Johnson eventually moved into the department's central office and was named DOC director. He served in that position from 1972 to 1984, when he became deputy director of the department's bureau of field services. In 1988 Johnson retired and took up part-time consulting work with a colleague, William Kime, a former DOC researcher.

During his tenure with the department, Johnson saw many changes in Michigan corrections. He witnessed the difficulties many prisons faced during the '70s as women and minorities struggled to become integrated into the workforce. He helped the department survive two economic recessions. He endured numerous inmate lawsuits. And, of course, he saw prison populations in his state rise in record numbers.

His most notable accomplishment, he says, was the development of the state's extensive community corrections program.

"We demonstrated with tens of thousands of prisoners that they could be managed in the community with relative safety as long as they are properly screened," he says. "We developed an excellent risk classification system--one that has been replicated and validated many times. The conventional wisdom was that you couldn't predict violence, but we showed that we do have tools to identify violent offenders."

Johnson's interest in exploring a full range of sanctions for offenders is a major factor in his current push to involve ACA in sentencing issues. In his address at the Association's Winter Conference in January, Johnson challenged members to become active advocates for fair, effective sentencing, and he made it a goal of his presidency to have ACA develop a policy statement on the subject. (The speech appeared in the April issue of Corrections Today.)

"The goal should be to develop a good sentencing program, one that is fair and that can be used nationally," he says. "What we are doing now is not reasonable, and it is not just. We need to develop a system that is reasonable and just."

Along with his service to ACA, which he says he is doing as a way of "giving back to the profession," Johnson teaches a corrections course for seniors at Michigan State and does consulting work with Johnson, Kime and Associates in Holt, Mich.

His consulting work, he says, is a "now and then" venture in which he and Kime work on the projects that most interest them. To date, the pair have handled several choice projects, including one in Israel and another in New South Wales, Australia. "If I had intended to work full time," he explains with a grin, "I would not have retired."

Johnson says his continuing involvement in corrections through his consulting work, teaching and ACA commitments have not stopped him from enjoying his retirement. A father of five and grandfather of 12, he says that in his free time he likes to go fishing, hunting and trap shooting. And, of course, he enjoys burying himself in a good novel on Lincoln and the Civil War.
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Title Annotation:the American Correctional Association President's goals and philosophy
Author:Acorn, Linda R.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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