A Time Before George: The Case of Johnny M. Ruffin

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The true story of a man shot 7 times by the police and beaten while handcuffed, diagnosed a quadriplegic, recovered 85% of motor function, and leading a campaign for sentencing forms in IL.

A Time Before George: The Case of Johnny M. Ruffin, Jr. 

By: Athena Williams


The I Shall Be Released website was created during a discussion (and interestingly enough, shared dream) between Nell and Athena about a way we could help African-Americans fight racial injustice in our American judicial and penal systems, and help them better prepare for reentry and release.


Over a year later, we’ve seen several Restorative Justice laws passed, been mentioned on radio and podcast news programs, had our articles reprinted and gone viral, helped advocate for others in court, gave people hope, and our fight is just beginning as we seek to change current laws that unfairly punish African-Americans, and prove all humans are equal, have the right to freedom, and are valid and worthy of rehabilitation and redemption.


Even activists, however, take the day off.  My life suddenly became so full.  My children were growing up and looking into the colleges they wanted to attend.  My aging parents wanted to spend more time together as a family.  My friends were going through so many changes, and needed me to be there as an emotional support system.  I had several deadlines for magazine articles looming.  I was leading several community events, and my responsibilities were never-ending.  Exhausted, I decided to retire my Racial and Restorative Justice project.


Nell knew I couldn’t stay away forever.  He sent me a few cases as bedtime reading; he knew I wanted to help African-Americans who had their civil rights violated by the authorities and share their stories.  I was given the files of Johnny M. Ruffin Jr., and knew I had to reach out.  So much for retirement, but I firmly believe if we have the ability and opportunity to help someone in matters of discrimination - especially that affects their personal safety, then we are morally obligated to do so.  Excessive force used against African-Americans by the police is not by any means a contemporary story; yet we live in a time where we are expressing our most prominent outrage as a society.  Abuse and assault changes people.  Many people, at best, learn to survive and bury away the pain they have experienced.  African-Americans experience this systematic abuse by those who are put into the role of helping us stay safe.  And the horror story doesn’t end there.  One in three African-American men will be incarcerated in his lifetime, and prisoner abuse is rampant.  Prisons have a lot of in-house power to cover up these abuses.  In 2018, 3 Illinois correctional officers beat a handcuffed elderly black man to death, and attempted to cover up the murder they committed by providing misleading information in the investigation.  Lawmakers are demanding changes in the prison system, guards are not executioners, and we need more accountability for incidents that violate the civil rights of people incarcerated.  Now is a time in our society where we must fiercely protect black men.  We are aware of what has been and is being done to them in our country, and we must speak out against their abuse by the judicial and penal systems, and work with our lawmakers to reform policies and hold those in authority accountable to the same laws as everyone else.


Athena: After reading your case files, I couldn’t help but wonder.  You were subjected to excessive force by the police during your arrest, and during a time we didn’t have the same fury over the brutality against what the police have done to black people.  Did you ever feel as though the movement came too late?


Johnny: Before I get into the gist surrounding excessive use of force against me, I would like to mention I have the utmost respect for many police officers, and do not paint all police with the same broad brush based on a faction of bad apples amongst their ranks.  However, I do have some criticism for so-called good police officers who cover up the unethical behavior of these bad apples.  Twenty years ago, I was the victim of excessive force by Kane County Sheriff Deputies.  My case is not clear cut as the excessive use of force against Mr. George Floyd.  In 1999, the year of my arrest, there were no body cameras and it was a rarity for a squad car to have a dash cam.  I must admit on that fateful day I made some mistakes.  I admit I did lead the sheriff deputies on a high speed chase, which led them to ramming the back of the SUV I was in, which flipped onto its roof.  On impact, I hit my head on the vehicle’s dashboard and windshield rendering me temporarily unconscious.  At this point, there was no need to use force.  However, as I regained consciousness, one of the deputies began to fire at me through the back window, some of those shots finding his intended target.  30 to 40 seconds later, another deputy began to pump bullets in my back.  After the shots ceased, I was pulled out of the vehicle by these deputies, handcuffed, kicked in my injured areas, and subjected to racial slurs.  In the aftermath, I was diagnosed as a quadriplegic.  After years of physical therapy, I miraculously regained 85% of my mobility.  However, I still suffer from chronic nerve damage pains stemming from my c-spine fracture.  I later discovered the sheriff deputies involved in shooting me conspired with the Kane County Sheriff Investigators in an attempt to cover up their use of excessive force.  The investigators submitted false reports to the Kane County State’s attorney, to indict me on trumped up charges.  One of these reports claimed I had fired a weapon at the officers.  Another report claimed I had pointed a gun at them, provoking them to shoot me.  The state’s attorney office recognized these blatant contradictions, and dropped the original indictment against me.  After the conclusion of my Winnebago jury trial, and my filing a notice of intent to sue, the state’s attorney reindicted me with key omissions to clean up the aforementioned contradictions.  I sought legal help from several civil rights attorneys, none wanted to touch my case.  So I had to file a pro se federal civil rights lawsuit.  After several years of litigation, I settled the case.  While I did not get a major award for damages, I did get some form of justice.


Athena: There’s a lot in the news about excessive force being used against people incarcerated - especially African-Americans.  Is this something that could possibly change within prisons, is there a movement towards de-escalation training, more mental health interventions, and assisting people incarcerated onto paths of proper rehabilitation?


Johnny: The major obstacle is that any excessive force complaint made against correctional officers is investigated by fellow correctional staff.  They will rarely side with people incarcerated.  This was confirmed to me by one investigative officer who told me, “All inmates are liars and con men.  We will never take an inmate’s word over our fellow officers’.”  The only recourse we have is to file a grievance and then file a civil rights violation lawsuit.  Over the years, I’ve witnessed correction staff brutally beat handcuffed prisoners who have just been pepper sprayed.  I have been beaten by correctional officers.  This incident occurred twenty years ago, while I was handcuffed to my wheelchair in segregation.  The officers who did that assaulted me out of rage over something that I said.  I posed no threat.  After the incident, I was denied medical treatment.  Note - this is a recurring theme, where a prisoner will claim to have been assaulted by an officer, and their plea for immediate medical attention will fall on deaf ears.  And when prisoners do see the nurses or doctors, they often water down the medical records to show injuries to the minimum, to protect officers from a future lawsuit.  Another key tactic correctional officers use to cover up excessive force is the intentional suppression of surveillance videos.  For example: say a prisoner is having a mental breakdown and refuses to leave his cell.  Correctional officers will conduct a call extraction to the tactical team, Orange Crush.  Imagine six officers dressed up in riot gear, with large oak sticks and shields, rushing into a small cell.  The problem with tactical teams is that after they have the prisoner handcuffed and under control, they will beat the prisoners with their sticks, including hands and feet.  They will take the prisoner to a segregated shower area and continue to beat him.  All of this is done outside the view of a surveillance video.  IDOC institutional directives are that all cell extraction is to be videotaped, however, this policy is not often properly followed.  This makes it easy for correctional officers to cover up excessive force.  Another tactic is the suppression of surveillance videos that capture excessive force from cameras on the housing wing units.  A prisoner will be charged with assaulting an officer, to justify the use of force.  At the prisoner’s disciplinary hearing, he will make a discovery request for the surveillance video to be reviewed, proving he did not assault the officer.  Those requests are met with deaf ears, or claims the camera was down and the tape was accidentally erased.  To truly set up a just system where prisoners get a fair hearing on excessive force allegations, we must set up a civilian disciplinary board, who would have investigation and subpoena powers, taking this out the hands of the staff.  However, I believe politics will prevent any of that from happening.  The Correctional Officers Union is very powerful in Illinois.  Earlier this year, the governor omitted a rule from the Racial Justice and Police reform bill to revoke the license of law-breaking IL officers.  Preventing them from working as officers in IL would have been a huge step.


Athena: We’re starting to see some support for Parole in IL, and various groups marching on Springfield to protest the racial injustices and inequality in the system.  And laws have been passed on Restorative Justice, and there’s support for new bills that could help a lot of people incarcerated.  How do these organizations and new changes in the law affect you and your case?


Johnny: I’m very interested about the “Get on the Bus” March on Springfield.  Grass root protests are the key to racial justice.  Keeping the politicians’ feet to the fire is necessary to get anything done.  Luckily, the winds are blowing in favor of racial justice and criminal justice reform.  There is one issue that is very personal to me and that is sentence reform.  The Governor made a good faith effort to rectify the draconian Illinois sentencing statutes when he signed two sentence reform bills on July 15th.  Particularly with his signature of establishing the Sentencing Task Force to conduct an investigation to see what laws can be changed to reduce the prison population.  In the past, there were other such task forces and nothing came to fruition.  In the world we live in now and the George Floyd tragedy, I believe this time may be different.  I, myself, hope the IL politicians will address the following illogical sentencing: I was sentenced to 19 years for second degree murder to be served at 50% (9 and ½ years) and 25 years for 2 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm at 85% (21 years and 10 months a piece.)  Does this sentencing scheme make sense?  Well, the judge in the Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke case answered this very question.  Van Dyke was convicted of 2nd degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.  When it came down to sentencing, Judge Guaghan, asked the prosecutors the following question, “Is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be shot by a firearm or is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be murdered by a firearm?”  He continued to say, “Common sense comes to an easy answer in this specific case.”  The funny thing is, I and many similar-situated prisoners have asked the courts the same question, only to have our appeals denied on the grounds of legislative intent clause.  Judge Gaughan went on to sentence Van Dyke to the sentence of 6 years for second degree murder, and ignored his obligation to sentence Van Dyke to more severe sentencing for aggravated battery with a firearm.  This is a class X felony, with a sentencing range of 6 to 30 years (second degree murder is probation, or 4 to 20 years).  In addition, a prisoner who has been convicted of 2nd degree murder can receive good-time for attending school and work, but prisoners who have a charge of aggravated battery with a firearm are denied good-time eligiblity.  Does this sound right to you?  Now, I agree there must be sentencing to deter shooting crimes, but there must be fairness in place with the sentencing statutes.  The Illinois Constitution of 1970 retained the proportionate penalties clause.  The current clause states as follows: “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.”  With that constitutional clause in mind, here is a solution to rectify these disproportionate penalties and live up to the legislative intent to deter future gun crimes.


If you can assist Johnny and would like to get involved in the campaign for sentencing reform or wish to send him words of support, he may be contacted through the Connect Network App under the State of Illinois, the Facility: Illinois Department of Corrections, and his name and DOC number: Ruffin, John, #K80541.  You may also send a letter to:


John Ruffin #K80541

5835 State Route 154

Pinckneyville, IL 62274





Submitted: October 22, 2021

© Copyright 2021 athena williams. All rights reserved.

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