A Black Army vet spent 16 months in solitary — before facing a jury
The Washington Post June 13, 2022
The cell was smaller than a parking space, bound by three dirty beige concrete walls and a steel door with a narrow slot to push in meals and shackle hands.
There was a narrow cot, a toilet, a sink. The filmy glass on the barred window allowed little sun; the always-on fluorescent ceiling light allowed no darkness. Each day brought the clanging of chains, the shuffling and shouting of guards and inmates, the threat of violence or the reality of it. Each day poured itself into the next.
For 16 months and all but a random hour every other day, Andrew Johnson languished in solitary confinement in a California jail. The first day - Nov. 12, 2014 - was hardly different from the 479th day.
"When they put you in solitary confinement, you're no longer thinking clearly," Johnson, 33, says now. "You're thinking 'Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God. I'm trapped.' "
Johnson, an Army veteran who'd undergone Special Forces training, knew how to endure hardship. He'd carried 120 pounds in a rucksack for days, he'd overcome a lifelong fear of heights to parachute from planes, he'd fought his way back from a coma after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning. He had a military diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury to show for it.
But Johnson had never been isolated from the world like this before. He had grown up in a comfortable Washington, D.C., suburb, the adored only son in a deeply religious Black family. He had never been incarcerated before.
Then a nighttime encounter with two strangers in San Jose, Calif., led to his arrest for attempted murder. Johnson insisted he was defending himself and had done nothing wrong. But at 26, he was sent to solitary immediately after he was booked into the jail to await trial.
No one ever explained to Johnson, his parents, William and Angela Johnson, or Johnson's criminal defense attorney why he was put in isolation, they said. The Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the jail and was responsible for the decision, did not respond to several requests for comment.
Between 2014 and 2018, Johnson was among about 735,000 people who were being held at any given time in the nation's 3,000 jails, most of them awaiting trial, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Yet there is no systematic attempt by the federal government to track the use of solitary in jails, experts say. The bureau's last survey on the subject was a decade ago. In a sample of 357 jails housing almost nearly 53,000 inmates, it found roughly 2.7 percent were held in solitary — some for 30 days or more.
People of color were overrepresented in that count, as they are in the nation's prisons.
As evidence has mounted about the long-term mental health damage caused by solitary confinement, there has been a "seismic shift" in the willingness of federal and state authorities to reform or eliminate its use in prisons, said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberty Union's National Prison Project, which focuses on defending inmate rights.
But the anti-solitary movement has had far less success curtailing the practice in locally controlled jails, where it is particularly egregious because most people being detained haven't been convicted of the charges against them, Fathi said.
Santa Clara County would eventually become an outlier, reforming its use of solitary and greatly reducing the number of detainees it isolates. But not soon enough to help Johnson, who was facing a sentence of up to 85 years to life if convicted.
He and his parents were so traumatized by what happened to him that they've never spoken publicly about it as a family.
While Johnson was being held, he witnessed fellow inmates being beaten by guards and was beaten himself, according to a lawsuit he filed in 2018 alleging his civil rights were violated. From his tiny, barren cell, he listened to the cries of a mentally ill inmate as he was pummeled by three sheriff's deputies, who were later tried and convicted in the man's death.
Prosecutors offered Johnson a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, but he refused to accept a deal.
"My frustration with my case will not allow me to consent to a lie," Johnson wrote his mother in a Nov. 15, 2016, letter. "I am a warrior until my death and I must stand [up] to injustice no matter how dismal the odds."
It would take three years — almost half of it in solitary — before Johnson got the chance to testify in his own defense. It would take just two hours for a jury to acquit him.
Andrew Johnson's path to solitary began in a crosswalk at a busy San Jose intersection four days before Halloween in 2014.
After his honorable discharge from the Army, he had moved from Northern Virginia to California to become a full-time certified caregiver to his best Army pal, who had been left a quadriplegic after a vehicle accident in Afghanistan.
Johnson testified that he had given Ignacio Arriaga, whom he affectionately called "Nacho," his sleep medication and hoisted him into bed as usual around 9 p.m. before deciding to walk to the Bonfare Market an hour later. He frequented the corner store a short walk away from his home in the Bella Villagio Apartments, to buy snacks, beer or cigar blunts to empty and then refill with the marijuana he purchased legally as a treatment for his PTSD.
Johnson, a lean 6-foot-4 with light brown eyes, donned his military-issued head covering, known as a balaclava, to keep his face warm in the chilly night air and then wedged Arriaga's Glock pistol inside his zipped vest in the event, he said, that he needed to protect himself.
As Johnson began to make his way across the busy intersection of Capitol Expressway and Vistapark Drive, two men approached in the opposite direction. He'd seen Alvaro and Bicente Castro earlier in the day during another trip to the market. They were staggering drunk, Johnson testified, and smashing their beer bottles on the sidewalk.
That night in the crosswalk, the Castro brothers were again drunk. Alvaro's blood alcohol level would test at 0.20, more than twice the legal limit, at the hospital that night. Bicente's was even higher, according to court records.
Johnson moved to the edge of the crosswalk to allow them to pass. Alvaro Castro turned to him.
"What the f--- are you staring at," Johnson recalled him saying.
"Where are you from?" Bicente Castro demanded.
Johnson shrugged with his palms up and kept walking, he testified. Behind him, he said he heard one of the brothers yell out "Do we have a problem?"
Inside the Bonfare, Johnson chatted with the shift manager, Naresh Sharma, both men recalled in court. He left with a beer and a pack of Swisher Sweets cigar blunts.
After returning to the apartment to smoke and finish class work for his online undergraduate degree, Johnson said he decided to make a return trip to the market around 11:30 p.m. As he approached, he could see that the Bonfare appeared to have closed early, the neon sign turned off. So he headed back to the intersection to return home. As he pushed the button to prompt the light to change, he testified that he could hear male voices getting closer.
"Hey, it's that f-----g guy," one of the men said loudly, Johnson recalled.
"Where are you from?" Bicente Castro asked again.
"This is the south side. You're on the south side," Alvaro Castro yelled.
Suddenly the men were less than an arm's length from Johnson. He put his hands in the air.
"I don't want any trouble," Johnson recalled saying.
At that point, Johnson testified, Alvaro instructed Bicente: "Take everything he's got."
Bicente lunged toward Johnson and grabbed his vest. Johnson said he saw the glint of a knife in Alvaro's hand. Fearing he would be stabbed or pushed into traffic, Johnson testified he reached for the Glock.
He fired two warning shots into the concrete sidewalk, he said. In the Army, where he was rated an expert marksman, he was taught to shoot lethally in the chest and head. This time, he purposely aimed his weapon at Alvaro's left shin and fired and then fired into Bicente's hip. The brothers both fell to the ground.
"As soon as I saw the weapon, I moved in like a flash," Johnson said in an interview with The Washington Post. "All that weapons training, all those things I learned to do. It was like muscle memory."
Instantaneous reactions are common among the growing number of veterans who have become involved with the criminal justice system over the last 20 years, said William Brown, a sociology professor at Western Oregon University and an expert on the effects of military training on veterans. Responding quickly to threats is part of that training, he said.
Alvaro Castro told the jury that Johnson had confronted him and his brother, according to the trial transcript. But he also acknowledged they'd been drinking and struggled to recall key details, including where they'd been shot.
After he fired, Johnson testified that he crossed the street and headed back to the apartment complex. In the growing distance, he said he could see two people, one of whom turned out to be an off-duty EMT, stop to aid the men before police arrived.
Johnson later regretted not calling 911 because it might have saved him the ordeal of the next three years, he told The Washington Post. At the time, he worried about how police would interpret the situation given his race. Would they believe he was defending himself?
Two weeks later, on Nov. 12, 2014, Johnson again returned to the Bonfare Market to buy some beer. As he left the store, police, guns drawn, surrounded him.
Over the next three years, two judges would toss out the attempted murder charges against Johnson. Prosecutors got them reinstated on appeal.
The county district attorney's office declined to comment, citing Johnson's civil lawsuit.
With his bail initially set at $2 million, Johnson's parents said they were forced to choose between paying it to free him from solitary or hiring the best lawyer they could find. Johnson insisted they invest in the fight so the family hired a veteran San Jose criminal defense attorney.
Angela Johnson, a research analyst, had been battling for her son's well-being and safety since the day he was born. She and William, a product manager, thought they were having a girl up to the moment Andrew emerged. There was shock, joy — and then worry.
"I had a little Black boy," she said. "I had to protect him differently."
Andrew was a good kid who did well at school, but was full of rambunctious energy, his mom said. He bent the frames on his bikes, broke a window with a Wiffle ball, and, after smelling gas, Angela caught him singing "Happy Birthday" to the pilot light on the broiler before blowing it out.
In high school, he joined the junior ROTC and set his sights on enlisting while the nation was at war. Angela believed her son was too young to make such a life-altering decision. She would run out on her front lawn to yell at the recruiter as soon as she saw his white SUV approaching. The first time Andrew joined the Army, she managed to get the contract voided on a technicality. When she learned he had enlisted a second time, in 2008 at the age of 19, it was already too late.
Johnson was stationed in Germany when he was recruited to take the qualification course to join the elite Special Forces unit, also known as the Green Berets.
Eighteen months into the grueling two-year training, he collapsed from heat exhaustion while carrying extra weight in his rucksack. He wound up working in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based in Fort Campbell, Ky., as a mechanic on vehicles for Special Forces units.
In 2012, the family got an urgent phone call. Johnson had been working on a vehicle off base when he collapsed from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was rushed to the hospital and put into a coma so doctors could treat him.
The Army later approved Johnson's military disability application while he was in jail based on the chemical injury to his brain, which had impaired his memory and moods, as well as an earlier PTSD diagnosis.
Angela, 60, was frustrated by how blind the criminal justice system seemed to be to her son's needs as a veteran. Jail administrators failed to provide Andrew's prescription medication to treat the depression and anxiety caused by his brain injury and PTSD, she said. She and William, also 60, had to fight to get it for him.
But efforts to get his case referred to a veteran's treatment court were opposed by prosecutors.
And the isolation in jail was making everything worse for him.
The consequences of prolonged periods of solitary confinement can include self-mutilation, suicidal depression, explosive anger, hallucinations and catatonia, according to Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on the practice.
The United Nations has equated the use of isolation beyond 15 consecutive days to "a form of torture."
Even as it is frequently cited by reformers, the 15-day limit has no scientific basis, Kupers said. "I've seen people become psychotic or commit suicide after one day."
Defenders of solitary confinement - also known as restrictive housing and administrative segregation - assert that it can be necessary to keep other inmates and correctional employees safe from harm.
But many correctional officials have come to agree that the practice has limited utility. So have elected officials.
In the last five years, at least 78 laws have been passed by state legislatures to limit solitary for many prison inmates, according to Fathi. Last year, New York became the first state to pass a law eliminating its use for more than 15 days in prisons and jails.
Santa Clara County, which at one point held up to 400 jail inmates in solitary, agreed to major changes in 2019 after settling a class-action lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Prison Law Office.
But many who spend time in solitary confinement continue to suffer profound psychological damage after their release, often unable to be in close proximity to others without great anxiety, said Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who has studied the long-term effects.
""I've had people call who were having panic attacks in grocery stores," he said. "I've heard from people whose spouses were locked in their bedrooms" unable to come out.
To survive months without human contact, Johnson tried to schedule every minute of every day, he said. He exercised constantly in his cell — shadowboxing, running in place, sit-ups. Never a big reader, he became engrossed in books, purchased for him by his parents through Catholic Charities. The guards eventually entrusted him with performing chores outside his cell because of his good behavior, though that provided little respite.
He was plagued with longing for his 3-year-old daughter from an early marriage that had ended in divorce. During his first months in jail, Johnson's new girlfriend, a woman he'd known since they were both was 15, came to visit, and he lived for her letters, he said. Then the letters trailed off and she broke off the relationship. She later married another man.
"She thought I would be in jail for the rest of my life," he said.
The visits by his parents were wrenching.
Separated by a thick glass partition, Angela had a hard time looking into her son's eyes.
"I just wanted to preserve his dignity," she said. "He's a detainee. He's not convicted of anything, right? He's sitting there in chains because we don't have $2 million."
By the time Johnson's case finally went to trial on Jan. 24, 2018, he had endured far more than isolation.
In his civil rights lawsuit against Santa Clara County, the city of San Jose and individual police officers and jail guards, Johnson alleges that he was handcuffed and then punched and kicked in his cell and in a private interview room in 2015 by three guards.
Five months later, Johnson said he heard a man screaming loudly through the concrete floor below him. It was Michael Tyree , a 31-year-old inmate with bipolar disorder, who was being attacked by three guards. The three men were sentenced on Jan. 5, 2018, to 15 years to life in state prison after a jury convicted them of second-degree murder in Tyree's killing.
Johnson carried all that with him when he took the witness stand in his own defense on Jan. 31, 2018. His parents, watching in the courtroom, knew how high the stakes were. But Angela had never wavered in her belief that Andrew would be acquitted.
"You've been waiting for a while to tell your story, correct?" Johnson's lawyer, Cameron Bowman, asked him.
"I've been waiting for years," he replied.
Bowman, a former prosecutor-turned-defense attorney, had been reluctant to let Johnson waive his Fifth Amendment right in an effort to defend himself - for good reason.
"It's a risky strategy to go tell a jury that 'Everybody's lying to you except me and my client,' " Bowman said in an interview. Johnson's race made it more so. It was possible jurors could perceive Johnson, now 100 pounds heftier and heavily muscled from jail, as the stereotypically threatening Black man, he said.
Bowman changed his mind when it became clear that the prosecution's case was unraveling. Evidence had gone missing or was easily refuted. The Castro brothers were awful witnesses, struggling to get basic details right about the shooting, the court transcript shows. Alvaro Castro confirmed on the stand that he had a felony robbery conviction, often carried a knife and may have had one that night, and had been shot in the same leg again since the confrontation with Johnson.
Now the jury — nine white people and three people of color, none of them Black — listened as Johnson recounted his final, aborted trip to the Bonfare Market on Oct. 27, 2014, and his confrontation with Alvaro and Bicente Castro.
"Was your intent to murder these guys?" Bowman asked, according to the trial transcript.
"My intent was not to commit a crime or a felony," Johnson testified. "My intent was to get these guys off of me in a manner that is going to stop the threat to my life so I can continue and live another day."
In her cross-examination, Deputy District Attorney Judy Lee pressed Johnson on his behavior after the shooting.
"You don't think you did anything wrong. Is that correct?" Lee said.
"I think that as an American you should be able to defend your life. And that is not something wrong," Johnson said.
"And what about telling the police?" Lee asked.
Johnson had already explained to the jury that as a Black man, he feared how the police might interpret the situation.
Lee asked Johnson if he considered yelling for help or punching or kicking Bicente Castro as he was clutching Johnson's vest.
"I'm being pushed towards moving traffic," Johnson replied. "I want to make that as clear as I can, that the light is green. There are cars coming at a fast pace ... my primary threat was the cars that I'm being pushed towards and then the knife."
He fired, he said again, in self-defense.
On the evening before the jury began to deliberate, Angela wanted to be near the water to pray. She and William drove to the beach in Santa Cruz.
Reflecting her faith, she had already purchased a one-way plane ticket for Andrew to return to Virginia with them. She also bought copies of "Just Mercy," civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson's account of racial inequity in the criminal justice system, to pass out to the jurors after her son's acquittal.
Angela and William were walking along the glittering ocean when Angela noticed that someone had drawn the outline of a flower in the sand. She picked up a twig, crouched down and in large block letters in the center wrote "Not Guilty."
The next day, on Feb. 6, after deliberating just over two hours, jurors pronounced Johnson not guilty of attempted murder.
After the verdict was read, William and Angela began sobbing. Bowman felt the tension leave his body. But Johnson neither cried nor felt great relief, he said. He had lost part of his life. He had been abused. He was angry.
There was no time to celebrate anyway. Instead of freeing him immediately, deputies escorted Johnson back to a jail cell and he waited there, furious, for five hours until he was suddenly released into his parents waiting arms.
The next day, the family boarded a plane for Virginia.
Johnson now lives with a therapy dog on five acres in southern Virginia — he won't say where.
For a long time, he had his mail sent to his parents' house because he didn't want anyone to know his address. When he eats out, he always sits facing the door of the restaurant. He still fears the police.
His hypervigilance may never recede, which makes what he's accomplished more remarkable.
Johnson has spent the four years since his acquittal trying to move forward.
He received his undergraduate degree from Grantham University (now the University of Arkansas Grantham) with his family gathered around and Asha, his American Staffordshire terrier, guiding him through his anxiety across the stage. He went on to earn an MS in leadership and is in the midst of working on his doctorate in organizational development at the University of Arizona Global Campus.
He's managing a for-profit company that hires and trains formerly incarcerated people to clean carpets and work on construction projects. He also runs a nonprofit based in Stockton, Calif., Transition U, that provides housing, services and business coaching for veterans.
His parents, too, have used their experience to help others. After starting a support group and help line for families of incarcerated veterans, they bought a historical house in Newport News, Va., at auction in 2018 to serve as a free overnight haven for court-involved veterans and their families. They renovated the Colonial, with local vets pitching in to bring down expenses.
The home now has a name: Valor Village.
Its five bedrooms are decorated to reflect each branch of the U.S. military. Many of the windows offer sweeping views of the Chesapeake Bay. Just before the pandemic descended in early 2020, Valor Village hosted its first family.
Every month or so, Angela and William drive down from Northern Virginia to manage the property, and Andrew meets them there to help.
One Sunday, he slouches in an armchair in the sunroom, a mane of dark locks framing his face. He and his parents begin debating the meaning of faith.
"You have to call what you believe into existence," Angela says. "You have to claim it."
Andrew agrees: "We didn't sit there and hope that something was going to happen. We made it happen. Faith without action is nothing."
His lawsuit against Santa Clara County has yet to be resolved. In the seven years since he was isolated and beaten, more human rights abuses have been alleged in Santa Clara's jails.
In January, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced he was opening a civil rights investigation into the management of the jails and the operation of the county sheriff's office.
Sheriff Laurie Smith, who has run the jails since 1998, did not respond to three requests for an interview made through her office. In March, she announced that she would not seek another term in office and accused her critics of making her a scapegoat.
Even if Johnson wins his civil case, it can't erase what he endured.
At times, he imagines himself taking the stand again in a civil trial, a jury weighing his accomplishments as evidence of his character. Other times, he hopes for a settlement to come quickly, so he can finally find a refuge from the past.
He has purchased land in Ghana, where he's engaged to an African woman. He feels safe there.
"There's no way I'm going to stay in this country after what it's done to me," he says. "I'm not going to wait for the police to come and shoot me after I win."
For now, he says goodbye to his parents. Then he and Asha climb into his pickup and start driving to the place where no one can find him.
The Washington Post's Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.