Curtis Johnson '75

 

Knowing the Drill

%330%left%Not everyone's courageous enough to earn a living inside a prison, especially when you're up to your elbows in scalpels, drills and other sharp instruments. But Dr. Curtis Johnson '75 has done it for nearly 20 years.

Johnson, who was raised in New York, worked as a dentist and situation controller for the maximum security Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. Other than a particular affinity for small spaces in which to maneuver his dental tools, Johnson's multidimensional job as a dentist and a prison situation controller requires an acute sixth sense of sorts-to look, listen and feel the temper of the facility.

The training for a situation controller certificate comprises a two-week intensive training course that teaches a gamut of negotiation and communication techniques as well as tools to detect potentially harmful behavior patterns. Though the training is critical for acquiring basic hostage negotiation techniques, the real rush comes during those adrenaline-filled moments inside the prison when controlling the situation is the only barrier to preventing violent escalation.

%331%right%"I practiced dentistry, but while I worked I was always listening, watching and feeling the mood inside the building. If there's going to be a riot, it's much better to know it before it takes place than after. My eyes and ears were always open," Johnson said. Translation:Johnson helped to keep the peace as well as assist in the preservation of an inmate's health.

Johnson stumbled into a job with state corrections just after graduation from the School of Medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He'd heard of an opening from his godmother, who also worked inside the prison system, and a part-time job with Sing Sing quickly expanded into full time-and then some.

In addition to a 40-hour week at Sing Sing, Johnson, the father of two girls, Janine, 12, and Jasmine, 8, also juggled running his private practice in Queens, N.Y. Weekends were a much-needed respite. Despite the schedule, Johnson was able to hone the time management skills he first acquired as a philosophy major and biology minor at Colby and apply them towards his family and work life alike.

Since childhood, Johnson had wanted to become a dentist, but he never imagined applying the majority of his time and dental skills for so long in a prison. The unique combination of dentistry and situation controller training, however, has yielded interesting results for Johnson-a keen ability to "see" the truth. In fact, one might call him a human polygraph test. "I can look at their [Johnson's patients'] eyes, body movements and expressions to see if they're telling me the truth," Johnson said. Nothing slips by him.

But the job has taken its toll. Johnson didn't always feel he could be himself when working within his own set of iron bars. The absence of personality that was required of him as a prison dentist simply wasn't fulfilling anymore, and that's one of the reasons he recently decided to bid adieu to state corrections and concentrate on his private practice in Queens. "You have to become a different person; you can't always be the same friendly guy, and that in and of itself makes it difficult to be yourself. That challenge begins to run its course over the years," he said.

Johnson anticipates a rejuvenation phase of sorts once he fully integrates himself back into private practice. "I really get a kick out of what I do. I have a ball meeting people, and I feel like it's almost new to me again because I've been doing the prison stuff for so long," Johnson said. ,Sara Blask '03