On Nov. 21, I went to a holiday card signing event put on by Restore Justice Foundation, an organization focused on youth impacted by the Illinois criminal legal system’s most extreme prison sentences. Restore Justice hosted a family support group, called Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children (CRIIC), at the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation to sign holiday cards for people who are incarcerated. 

At the event, cards were passed around to be signed, conversation filled the air, and the overall energy was uplifting. I was able to chat with attendees and hear stories about their incarcerated loved ones. In these conversations, I learned of the challenges that family members of incarcerated loved ones encounter and experience, down to the strict requirements implemented for those sending holiday cards to their incarcerated loved ones. Letters cannot be written with gel pens, felt tip markers or pencils. They cannot contain any glitter, embossment, embellishment or labels. And all the envelopes have to be stamped, and hand addressed. 

Many loved ones go the extra mile for their family, such as Johnny Johnson, a South Side native who has three family members currently incarcerated: his son Johnny Johnson, Jr., his brother Billy Johnson who is deaf and mute, and his cousin Allen Johnson.

Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children (CRIIC), a family support group hosted by Restore Justice Foundation, is organizing a Christmas card signing event. Johnny Johnson is writing his message on one of the 150 cards passed around by the incarcerated individuals' family members and loved ones. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®

Johnson is very active in keeping in touch with his family behind bars. This year marked his second Christmas card signing with Restore Justice, and works closely with them throughout the year. Restore Justice has helped tremendously with his son’s case.

On November 22, the day before Thanksgiving, Johnny Johnson drove three hours in one direction to Danville Correctional Center to visit his brother Billy Johnson, a deaf-mute who is serving a 53-year sentence. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®
Johnny Johnson takes a moment to look at a photograph of his son, Johnny Johnson Jr. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®

Currently his brother Billy Johnson is at Danville Correctional Center. which is a three-hour drive from Chicago. His son Johnny Johnson Jr., is at Vienna Correctional Center, which is about a five-hour drive. Johnson makes it his priority to support his son, brother and cousin with frequent phone calls, mail and regular visits despite having to travel hours away. He values any time he can get with them and doesn’t take it for granted. 

“Billy has been gone for 23 years and it brings me hope by talking to him and knowing that he’s standing strong so that picks me up. You know what I mean? And he puts fire under me to keep going, keep knocking on these doors and keep calling,” Johnson said about his brother who is currently serving a 53-year sentence at Danville Correctional Center.

In the forefront is a photograph of Billy Johnson, Johnny Johnson's incarcerated brother, who is mute and deaf, with his fiancé, Tillie Lloyd. In the background is Johnny Johnson sitting near his Christmas tree
Johnny Johnson says "What brings me hope with my brother Billy is him wanting to just get an education and to have equal opportunity of schooling." Billy Johnson, who is mute and deaf with his fiancé, Tillie Lloyd are pictured together. Billy has served 23 of his 53-year sentence. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®
In the forefront is a framed photograph of Johnny Johnson Jr., Johnny Johnson's incarcerated son, who is mute and deaf, with his fiancé, Tillie Lloyd. In the background is Johnny Johnson sitting near his Christmas tree
Johnny Johnson Jr. (framed photo) was incarcerated at 19 years old & is serving a 15-year sentence. Johnny Johnson, pictured in the background, ensures he communicates via phone and mail as frequently as he can. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®
Johnny Johnson is holding up family photos. His son and brother, who are in the photographs, are incarcerated.
Johnny Johnson is holding family photos of both his son, Johnny Johnson Jr., and his brother, Billy Johnson. The photos include Johnny Jr. attending prom and graduation, as well as photos with his grandmother and Billy. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®

“And if I hadn’t found Restore Justice, I’d probably be sitting somewhere in a depression and a bad state of mind, not feeling like continuing and [feeling] like there isn’t any hope. But ever since I came upon Restore Justice, I feel like there’s some hope left,” Johnson added.

Pictured on the left is a current framed photo of Johnny Johnson Jr. with other photos of family. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®
Johnny Johnson is holding two photos of his son and his brother. They are both currently incarcerated. Johnson is also holding his grandmother's urn.
Since Billy's incarceration, his mother & grandmother have passed away. Pictured is Johnny Johnson Jr. (right), Billy Johnson (middle) and the ashes of Johnny Johnson's mother. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®
Johnny Johnson is laying out printed photos of his family.
With the help of Restore Justice, Johnny Johnson continues to fight for his incarcerated family members. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®
is currently the art director for The TRiiBE.