Johnny Outlaw

Johnny Outlaw was a prisoner at the Dixon Correctional Center in Dixon, Illinois, and also served time at Stateville several years before that. While at Dixon, he served on the board of the Prison Action Committee (PAC), the ex-prisoner organization that deals with recidivism issues.

Outlaw’s very name is intimidating, of course, suggesting it was perhaps adopted to convey a tough persona, but it’s his real name, one quite common in the south. Outlaw needs nothing to enhance his aura. He’s in his mid-50s, stands six-foot-two or three, but seems even larger because of his impressive physique. His complexion is very dark, his head shaved, his posture straight and strong. He’s always neatly dressed, and speaks softly, exuding self-confidence; prisoners who fare well while serving time must have a high degree of self-respect, which to some often seems like arrogance.

He was born into a stable family on Chicago’s South Side. He has at least three sisters, one of whom recently retired as a vice president of a bank in the city and now operates a convenience store in the Lake View neighborhood on the North Side. Another sister, also bright, articulate and friendly, recently retired as a manager for the Chicago Housing Authority. She lives on the second floor of a nice house in the Rogers Park neighborhood that is owned by the retired-banker sister; Outlaw lives on the first floor. The third sister lives in Michigan.

Outlaw’s formal education is no more than high school; his intellect is perhaps better reflected by his position, among others, as head of the prison law library, where he did some very good legal work for other prisoners as well as himself. One of 10 prisoners hand-picked by prison authorities to participate in a paralegal certification program from Illinois State University, Outlaw earned his GED and a degree in Political Science, and took additional courses offered by Roosevelt University and Lewis University, all while still incarcerated. He ultimately found himself mentoring fellow inmates, tutoring classmates and teaching law courses. Much more than a model prisoner, he not only stayed out of trouble, but played a role in helping to set up a restaurant operation for visitors, started an active Junior Chamber of Commerce chapter and other progressive ventures at Dixon. Significant monies were earned for the prison as well as several local charities as a result of his activities. At the time of his release in 2007, Outlaw had gained an important position in the Dixon motor pool, which permitted him to leave the prison by himself. The prison staff had that much trust in him. He could easily have walked away, but he didn’t.

After 19 unsuccessful tries (he served nearly 30 years of a 100- to 300-year sentence for murder), the PRB voted to parole Johnny Outlaw in February 2007. The Cook County State’s Attorney objected strenuously, charging (utterly falsely) that the PRB never met a murderer it didn’t like (remember, nobody wants to be labeled soft on crime). His outrage, predictably, subsided quickly once it was satisfactorily noted in the press.

Outlaw was released almost the same day the PRB decision came down, a reflection of the prison administration’s willingness and desire to help him.

As agreed, Outlaw soon began to work, primarily handling prison correspondence at the Illinois Institute. He was a serious, energetic worker with a short learning curve. He averaged about $250 a week, which allowed him to help his sister pay bills, leaving him some walking-around money for incidentals. He knew how to get along with his parole officer. He was on the ankle monitor and had to be home every day by around 5pm except when his PO gave him permission for extended hours, which he did quite generously.

Outlaw worked through the myriad obstacles, eventually landing a second job with a law firm, applying his legal acumen and counseling skills filing motions, making court appearances and performing pro bono services ranging from family court to small claims. In addition to helping former prisoners find employment, he counsels battered women and senior citizens and even finds time to do Easter Seal charitable work and make hospital speaking engagements.

While working with the New Life Organization in Chicago, Outlaw developed positive relationships with both staff and inmates, all, he says, with the help and the inspiration to persevere of his family, friends and the advocates he left behind in prison. “Down the road someone looked out for me,” he says. “Now I’m trying to do the same.”

He works non-stop 16-hour days, rarely allowing himself even the luxury of watching a football game. He has authored four books, now pending publication, and hosts a monthly radio talk show in Chicago in which he and his guests – many prominent figures, including Congressmen and State Legislators – explore social and political issues. “I’ve been blessed by God Almighty to do these things,” he says, “so I’m relentless in my determination to do good. You do good things, you draw good things to you.”

His fellow C-number prisoners still awaiting parole are never far from his mind, but he doesn’t feel the need to tell them the obvious. “Man,” he emphasizes, “I don’t have to tell them nothing…all these guys are doing the same things I did. They’re pursuing their education. They’re doing the right things. Rehabilitation,” he adds, “is a state of mind.”