What does it take for a man coming out of prison to be successful in society?
It took moral support from community members for formerly incarcerated Nathaniel A. Johnson, support such as that from Pastor Steve “Big Red” Sanderson.
Without this kind of encouragement, Johnson might have ended up back in prison. He is now a production associate at Tesla, making enough money to afford season tickets to the Oakland Raiders.
“The struggle for him was off and on,” Sanderson said. “The temptation was largest when he couldn’t find work or when his hours were cut. I knew his heart, his character, how hard a worker he was. [His struggle] opened my eyes to just how hard it is for former inmates to get jobs.”
While serving 26 months at San Quentin State Prison for drug trafficking, Johnson faced Sanderson, known as “Big Red,” on the basketball court through Prison Sports Ministry. San Quentin allows teams from the community to visit the prison for sports activities with incarcerated teams.
“I thought, ‘Prison ministry and also getting to play basketball?’” Sanderson said. “This is a combination of my two favorite things. I played on the team Imago Dei—‘the Image of God.’”
Sanderson described Johnson as the SQ Warriors’ best player back in 2011. Sanderson was pretty good too, so they matched up.
“It made my time (in prison) go by hecka fast,” Johnson said. “It was my version of the NBA.”
With them being the same age (both now 32) and having similar skill levels, they gravitated toward each other and bonded.
In between lay-ups, the Warriors shared stories about their lives, and the visitors got to know them. Johnson expressed his desire to pursue higher education.
“I told him that I worked at colleges in Oakland,” Sanderson said. “I told him he should get in touch when he got out; I would try to help him.”
Johnson described paroling on Jan. 13, 2012, into a world reluctant to employ a formerly incarcerated person. He came home to a sick grandmother, who told him he couldn’t live with her. Shortly after returning to society, he got his girlfriend, Shani, pregnant with twins. With nowhere to live, he needed a job badly and this allowed employers to take advantage of him.
“I was working doing janitorial stuff but a lot of mischievous stuff was happening,” Johnson said. “The people who do hire you, reluctantly, they’re sort of shady. I got cheated out of a lot of my money.”
Johnson used what little he made from the janitorial job to get his first apartment but had no furniture.
Johnson, remembering Sanderson’s offer, reached out to him. Sanderson helped Johnson enroll at Alameda College in August 2013. He only stayed in school for one semester.
“I was getting discouraged, walking everywhere, BART every day, my grandma was really sick, and I couldn’t get the financial aid for school so I dropped out,” Johnson said.
Then his grandmother died.
“At that time, I thought the reason my grandmama had passed away was because I didn’t help her enough,” Johnson said.
He struggled to find a career, while raising twins that were born three months premature.
“There were hecka problems with the pregnancy,” Johnson said. “My wife went to the hospital one time at like 22 weeks, end of the second trimester, stayed in there 4-5 weeks. One baby was born 1 pound 13 ounces and the other, 1 pound 6 ounces.”
Sanderson continued to meet, encourage, pray and play ball with Johnson. He would pick Johnson up on Thursdays, and they would have coffee or go to a high-school gym and play basketball with buddies.
They became buddies, too. Sanderson performed Johnson’s wedding ceremony to Shani. Johnson went to Sanderson’s wedding. Sometimes they double-dated.
“I would look at it as he was my friend; he was my brother—no helper mentality or ulterior motive for me,” Sanderson said. “I wasn’t going to let him navigate his situation alone: I was looking for job opportunities for him, too. Even though I might not always be available, I was always accessible.”
Things got so bad for Johnson, he planned on stealing. In that moment of weakness, he reached out to Sanderson.
“I called Sanderson, and he wasn’t picking up his phone,” Johnson said.
In the vacuum of a missed phone call, other community members, including a complete stranger, stepped up.
Johnson headed to a Walgreens with bad intentions. As he walked around the outside of the establishment, hesitant and looking shady, a man called out to him, “Are you here to work?”
“If it’s work, I’m always here to do it,” Johnson responded. “Are you paying?”
“Hell yeah, I’m paying; get over here and get to work!” said Gary, a New Yorker in California to do some demolition work.
Johnson said, “It was one of those God moments. Afterward, he told me, ‘I knew that you weren’t here for work, but you looked like you could use something to do.’”
As Johnson searched for a career to feed his family, a nurse bought him auto mechanics textbooks for school. He used the books to pass auto mechanics and an introduction to engines class.
In 2014, he graduated at the top of his class from Cypress Mandela, a vocation apprenticeship program that includes a life skills course.
When he was growing up, Johnson didn’t have any community support. When he was born in 1985, his mother was addicted to drugs, and his father wasn’t around.
“In the crack era, she got caught up into that party lifestyle,” Johnson said. “I had no potty training. I was 6, 7, 8…getting woken up and kicked out of the house at 1 a.m. so they could have crack parties. So I had this attitude ‘I’ma f*&# you up if you say the wrong thing.’
“When you look at the movies, you always see someone along the way who comes up and says, ‘Don’t do that.’ I was in the middle of the jungle and no one came along and said, ‘Don’t do this.’”
On parole, Sanderson became the voice of reason that kept Johnson out of trouble.
“We would talk about what ‘right decision-making’ looks like for him,” Sanderson said. “It was great to see the transformative work that Jesus was doing in his heart and mine as well—it was a really transformative experience for me.”
Johnson tried various careers, including as a laborer—ignoring his fear of heights to climb telephone poles for a wireless phone company and cleaning a bank.
Now Johnson’s twins, Naomi and Sheyane, are healthy 4-year-olds. Additionally, on March 1, Tesla hired Johnson to put together seats.
Johnson said, “I’m 10K good; I’m forward progression right now.”
One of the first people Johnson shared his success with was Sanderson.
With his brand-new Raiders season tickets, Johnson told Sanderson to pick a game to attend.
“That was a really special moment for me,” Sanderson said. “This friendship that God really gave us…It all was the product of God, but also the recreation ministry and the ability and opportunity to go into San Quentin.”
Johnson continues to play basketball when he can and Sanderson continues to play basketball at San Quentin.
“God reminds me of the fruit of this ministry. And really the story with Nathaniel reminds me that going in there regularly is important,” Sanderson said. “We met through the basketball ministry, through recreation. We get to remind them that there are guys out there that care about them. To show them healthy, fun competition as well—to bring some of that back into their lives.”
–Kate Wolffe, U.C. Berkeley student contributed to this story