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Ex-convicts finding a roadmap to lasting freedom

Clifton Johnson wipes down his used Lexus once a day with a carefully folded white towel. A mango-scented air freshener hangs from the rearview mirror. The car's polished wood paneling gleams from the rays shining through the sun roof.

The car has more than 119,000 miles on it, but Johnson treats it like it's brand-new. Both are on their second lives.

At 45, Johnson is trying for a fresh start after spending most of his life dealing drugs, in jail or imprisoned. During his days as a drug dealer and supplier, Johnson owned a white Lexus and a green Pathfinder that were confiscated or repossessed. Now he has a 2006 metallic Lexus LS 430, a job and a place he shares with his girlfriend.

"I'm proud of the car, proud of what I got," Johnson said. "I got it legit. I didn't get it from selling no drugs, I didn't get it from anything illegal. I don't have to worry about police come taking it."

Johnson illustrates a trend in the Maryland corrections system — fewer ex-cons are returning to prison as repeat offenders. The state's recidivism rate — the percentage of inmates who are returned to prison or put on probation for new crimes within three years of release — has plunged from more than 51.4 percent in 2000 to about 40.5 percent nearly a decade later, data released Monday show.

The challenge for many ex-offenders, job counselors and substance abuse treatment providers repeatedly tell them, is to stay away from "people, places and things" associated with their past lives. While Johnson, has only been out of prison for one year, those who know him say his success provides a road map for ex-offenders.

Johnson, who has been incarcerated three times, was last released on Oct. 2, 2012, after serving seven years of a 20-year sentence for drug distribution.

He was granted early release to the Jericho Reentry Program, which helps ex-offenders transition back into society. Jericho helped him find temporary housing, put him through a conflict resolution program and taught him computer skills. Before his program "graduation" in August, a nonprofit that offers transitional housing to ex-offenders hired him as a housing coordinator.

Johnson spends much of his work time in his car, driving between the organization's four halfway houses, where he checks on residents and makes sure the cable TV and utilities are on. He also takes tenants to medical or rehabilitation appointments and runs a food pantry he started himself.

The constant shuttling suits the energetic 5-foot-10, 172-pound Johnson, a speed talker whose hands gesticulate like a conductor to emphasize his points. The first time he walked into the nonprofit Together We Can, his boss recalled thinking to herself, "We've got a live one." His energy filled the room.

His nickname is "Man," probably from his mother calling him her "little man," he guesses.

As he drives to and from the halfway houses, he often passes his old haunts and reflects on how far he's come.

There's Easterwood Park, where he started drinking beer and selling marijuana at age 12 because he coveted the new shoes he saw drug dealers wearing. He points to where Ben's Bar, now torn down, existed — a place where he used to set up shop. He drives past the corner of Westwood and Ruxton avenues, where teddy bears hang from two light poles, marking where two young men were killed this year.

His aunt's boyfriend was fatally shot on a nearby corner, he said, and yards away, he once engaged in a gun battle with "stickup boys" who came to rob him. There's the hole in a retaining wall in an alley where he hid his stash and served customers.

"See that pay phone right there?" he said. "We used to run up these alleys there."

He does not romanticize his past, nor does he stop on these streets for long to chat with old acquaintances — one of his self-imposed rules.

"Ain't no standing on the corner talking to them," he said. "I see guys now sometimes when I ride that I used to roll with back in the day. I tell them I'm not in it."

He's respectful, he said, and he doesn't judge what they're doing. He even hopes they respect him. He may give old friends a pack of cigarettes or a few dollars, but he doesn't trade phone numbers or make plans to meet up.

"Ain't no riding in my car, none of that," he said. "I just cruise on through. I just keep it going."

On a recent afternoon, he drove his Lexus along North Bentalou Street and turned onto Riggs Avenue, where he rolled to a stop at the site of an apartment complex where he once lived — and nearly died.

In 2005, he was in an argument with a man who ended up dead the next day. He said the man's friends suspected he was responsible, and one day, while Johnson was involved in a drug transaction, he was ambushed as he tried to run into his apartment.

Four bullets struck him. They broke his left femur and pierced his right forearm, foot and right leg. He underwent surgery and had plates and rods inserted in his leg, leaving him with leg-length scars and pain he routinely tries to beat back with Motrin.

But the near-death experience didn't change him, he said. He dealt drugs on crutches, hobbling from car to corner, until the police caught him again. He stood in front of the judge on crutches.

The judge took note that arrests and bullets didn't seem to be enough to reform Johnson, so he sent him to prison for 20 years.

He saw the shooter a few months ago when he cruised by a corner. The man wasn't charged in the shooting; Johnson had refused to "snitch." Still, for years, he had contemplated revenge.

But something was different. He felt at peace, he said.

"He turned around and saw my face, and I saw his," Johnson said. "I knew right there I had changed."

Those who have watched Johnson over the past year point to his willingness to work on his anger as another factor in his success.

"A change must be made or else they will not survive," said Derek Neal, one of Johnson's caseworkers. "It's that desire to live again that brings people to a realization. With Clifton, [it was] 'How many times am I going through the same cycle? How many times am I going to get shot? How many times am I going to stand in front of a judge? It's time for a change.'"

The apartment complex where Johnson was shot no longer exists. It's now a parking lot. So too with the buildings on much of the block of Thomas Avenue where he grew up, replaced by new construction and cranes expanding Coppin State University.

"All of it's erased away," he said. "So I look at it like something good. Where I got shot at. The block where I was born and did all my dirt at. All of it's washed away."

Driving past the Can Do Fuel Oil Co. on Baker Street, he spotted an old friend. He slowed, and the pair exchanged pleasantries. Before Johnson moved on, the man yelled out, "Proud of you, Man. I know where you came from. You keep up the good work."

Johnson smiled, embarrassed but proud. He feeds off the affirmation and said he seeks out the "good vibes," choosing these days to associate himself only with positive influences — another reason he says he will not return to crime.

One of those influences is the Rev. Keith Bailey, whom Johnson often visits in the 1800 block of W. North Ave.. Bailey operates a food pantry and soup kitchen with the help of parolees who want to work off community service requirements. That's how he met Johnson, who showed up "every day on time." He now refers to him as his "godson."

"Some of the volunteers that come, they have their little problems, but they're not dedicated," he said. "They don't want to change. Then you got Cliff. He wanted to make a change in his life."

That realization came during his last stint in prison.

He watched older inmates limping around their cells with canes and understood a truism of the street: There are no old drug dealers.

"Two things are certain in this rough city in the drug game: prison or the graveyard," he said. "I was just thinking of how I was growing old in there, how I'd been there since I was 14. Man, I'm 40-something."

His grandmother's death in 2011 also played a role. She raised him, but he couldn't be at her side when she died because he was behind bars. He learned about her death from a niece, who visited him with tissues in her hand.

"I just wish my grandmother was living to see," he said. "She told me I needed to get my life together, and I did."

At the end of the day, he drove toward home. He lives in the Woodlawn neighborhood with his girlfriend in an immaculate home with porcelain cats and leather couches and a mantel filled with photos that include one of his girlfriend's nephew, who was fatally shot a few years ago, another victim of Baltimore's streets.

The home has the trappings of a middle-class family. It's a far cry from where he envisioned himself when he was flashing cash and selling "weight" or large amounts of drugs to street dealers that brought him about $5,000 a day, he said. But that's all right.

"I work, she works, so we're good," he said. "This is the first time I have everything legitimately."

He is proud of the credit cards he keeps in his pocket because he is establishing credit for the first time. He hopes to one day buy houses and start a transitional housing service for ex-offenders like himself. While his job doesn't pay as much as crime did, he's proud of his job title, bragging that he is "chief coordinator."

"I'm on top of the other coordinators," he said. "I'm like the boss."

For the first time, he said, he feels in control of his life. He isn't looking over his shoulder for bullets or police — just at all he says he's left behind.

"I just keep it moving," he said.

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