Raphael Johnson: After prison, alum devotes life to helping troubled teens

When UDM graduate Raphael Johnson gives lectures to at-risk youth across the city of Detroit, they tend to sit up and listen because they recognize he knows what he's talking about.As a young man, Johnson committed a senseless crime, for which he was incarcerated for 11 years: He killed an innocent man.

Through his 180 Degrees of Change program, Johnson shares his story in an effort to keep others from falling into the traps that snared him.

Johnson and his twin sister were raised in a single-parent home while his father served time in the Jackson State penitentiary.

With no male guidance, he said he slipped through the cracks as so many other young black men do in the city of Detroit.

Johnson remembers when two close neighborhood friends showed him how to make crack cocaine – when he was 9 years old.

"I thought that I needed to be hard to be respected," he said. "I wanted to be a gangster. I thought these things would make me a man."

After learning how to make crack cocaine, Johnson was first arrested at the age of 12. He was soon kicked of out of public school for carrying a concealed weapon to school. He had stolen it from his grandmother's home.

Johnson continued to struggle in the streets of Detroit. But soon things began to pick up for him.

At a home for boys, Johnson earned a scholarship to University of Detroit Jesuit High School, where he was the captain of the football team and even prom king. But one senseless mistake altered his future, he said.

Like many teen boys, he enjoyed going out with his friends. But one night a fight ensued between Johnson and another male at the party.

Being pushed to the ground by the other man, Johnson felt embarrassed and angry.

In retaliation he retrieved a pistol from his friend's car. Johnson fired the weapon three times and hit an innocent bystander. He was later convicted as an adult and sentenced to 10-25 years in prison.

"I had some good people that supported me while I was in prison and without them I couldn't have done it," he said.

While in solitary confinement, Johnson made prison as 24-hour-a-day library. According to Johnson, during his imprisonment, he read more than 1,300 books, including "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

Johnson said he atoned for his offenses and developed genuine value for self and others.

Now he works to help others.

"When working with these young men, you have to know that you just don't become a man," he said. "You learn from others who show you to be a man. (You) interpret their actions into how you want to be a man," Johnson said.

After he was released from prison in 2004, Johnson received a scholarship to the University of Detroit Mercy, where he earned a degree in legal administration, graduating with summa cum laude honors.

Johnson said he was inspired by such UDM professors as Dr. Joan Isbey and Dr. Greg Sumner.

"These professors just did not teach a curriculum but they taught how to go out in the world and function as a completely human being," Johnson said. "I attended the university because I knew the value of a great education."

But when he returned to the campus recently, he said not all was perfect during his time here.

"There were a lot of people in the Jesuit community that supported me a lot – but not all. And as I walk through these halls I can still feel how some were unsupportive of me," he said. "We talk Bible, we talk Jesus, we talk Easter we talk all these theological terms and references to forgiveness but deep down inside people don't forgive.

"They're hypocrites, they're liars, deceivers," he added. "I'm a perfect example. If you will believe in your Bible and you really believe in giving people a second chances as long as God gives them a chance then you would have given me a chance."

Seventeen years after his conviction, Johnson is the owner and CEO of Total Package Lifestyle, which operates nationally and offers professional speaking, enrichment courses, workshops and fitness training. Johnson also has authored three books, including "To Pose a Threat: My Rite of Passage."

The book, which Johnson began to write while incarcerated, aims to guide young black males toward a holistic understanding of themselves and their community.

Johnson most notably deals with out-of-control teens on television's The Maury Show.

"The Maury producers called me in 2007 and we've had a relationship ever since then," he said. "They called me out to deal with the most out-of-control teens so I have a contract with him to do what I do best."

Johnson ran and lost in last year's city council election, but Detroit will remain his focus.

His favorite movie is "300" and it features a line that he feels represents his journey as a community activist: "Taught never to retreat, never to surrender, taught that death on the battlefield in service to Sparta was the greatest glory he could achieve in his life."

Johnson said he likens the line to his "unyielding service to the city of Detroit.