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Ohlone Student Plans to Create Some Major Changes in the Existing California Prison System

Photo by Roelle Balan

Photo by Roelle Balan

Roelle Balan, Staff Writer

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There is one way to describe Fiani Johnson and that is nosy. While laughing with peers, she said that she was so nosy she used to follow the ambulance,firetrucks and police cars when something big happened. She eventually stopped after getting a ticket for following these emergency cars. Her curiosity got the best of her because now she wants to change the lives of inmates.

Fiani Johnson is like most Ohlone students, she grew up in a home with parents and siblings and went to school, very eager to learn. There was one problem, she was caught up by the law and ended up going to jail for a year.

During her time in jail, her compassion for people in prison grew. Her observations while in jail inspired and moved her to try to help those who are incarcerated. “I just want to give them that opportunity to show they are good (people),” she said.

Fiani was born and raised in East Palo Alto. Fiani is a tutor at Ohlone’s Communication Labs and volunteers in a local state prison. Here she hopes to continue her research on services that are missing in California prison systems.

Education is where it Starts

 School was not in Fiani’s future at first. Before going to Ohlone, Johnson had only completed the 8th grade.

Johnson, a victim of violent crime, was stabbed when she was 14.

She thought of going school because of her kids. Johnson said her son was already thinking of college by the time he was in 5th grade. Fiani felt motivated by her children to “keep up” with her own education. “What a better way to get them interested lead them by example,” she said.

While Fiani was in jail, a woman there told her about Ohlone. She just finished her Associates in Human Development and is now taking classes to wrap up her Associates in Communications. Johnson also plans to major in Psychology at Holy Names University and eventually get a Master’s degree. Johnson’s plan is to become a Psychologist for the non-profit she plans to start.

Johnson uses Tools to Prevent Violence

She is passionate about learning. While finishing her Associates in Communication she took a 3-day course about violence prevention. The course is called “The Alive and Free Prescription Training,” and was developed by Dr. Joseph E. Marshall Jr.. Marshall also hosts a weekly 2-hour radio program on 106.1 KMEL called “Street Soldiers.”

The 3-day program is only one tool that helped her build her non-profit. When talking about her organization and her willingness to help the incarcerated she says it all starts with “Social AIDS”. The term, developed by Dr. Marshall means one can have social AIDS (Addiction to Incarceration and Death Syndrome) because she said, talking about her incarceration and living in East Palo Alto, “It’s easy to get infected. I too have been infected.”

The symptoms of “Social AIDS”, as Johnson explains, includes “Travelling in packs” and “going in and out of jail.” Phrases of “Social AIDS” included “Get thy respect” and “shall be no punk.”

Johnson said she can relate to these symptoms. “I wasn’t like a gang member or drug dealer.. but those are the people I associated myself with so their way of life is how I live my life,” she said.

This tool would help Johnson in her strive to find solutions for those who are incarcerated. “I’m using these steps to treat myself from this disease and to help others understand this is not the right way of life,” she said.

Serving Time

Johnson was sent to jail for carrying more than 28 grams of marijuana. The charge was formally called “marijuana possession for the purpose of sell in California.” At first she was sentenced to three years in prison but it was brought down to 1 year in county jail and a ten-thousand dollar fine.

Johnson describes her time in jail as a building full of supportive services for inmates. “It’s like another world, they have churches, they have hospitals, it was crazy, it was like a little town,” Johnson said.

Fiani shows that she understands those who are incarcerated. “Everything is an addiction, you don’t have to be addicted to drugs and alcohol.”

Johnson explained one can also be addicted to the “fast life” or the life of crime.

Becoming one of the Founders of a Non-Profit

Fiani’s plan is to start up her non-profit by this upcoming spring, either in East Palo Alto or Oakland. Her goal is to offer the post-prison services statewide.

She wants to call it “Prison to Productivity.”She is looking forward to being the psychologist more than one of the founders. “I don’t want to be the director..that takes me away from individually counseling these men and women, it takes me away from establishing a rapport with them,” she said.

Johnson is preparing for the start of her non-profit organization through research, volunteering at a local prison and with her upcoming Bachelor’s program in Psychology.

The main function of her organization she said, is to help inmates“..find other ways to help them cope with their reality, their stresses, their truth without re-offending.” The term “re-offending is to cause another offense on an existing criminal record.

Johnson mentioned how it’s hard, especially for men and women of color to accept therapy as a solution to their problems. “I want to offer therapy where they don’t know that it’s therapy,” she said about the services she plans to offer formal inmates.

Johnson’s plan is not only to help inmates, but stop the ongoing cycle of violence and crime in society. “When you’re walking on your way to school and you see a crime, your natural instinct is to turn your head..not doubt the police..but now we have to speak up, speak out and quit letting these people take over our streets,” she said “The only way I’m going to take it back is to help people coming home (from prison) that’s willing to learn.”

Fiani wants to change the way the public views prisoners. She said, “I’m looking for a way that these people can come home from prison and society won’t judge them based on their past mistakes,”.

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The student news site of Ohlone College
Ohlone Student Plans to Create Some Major Changes in the Existing California Prison System