The Johnson Treatment

For the last four years, Richard Johnson has cut quite a figure at City Hall as chief of staff for District B Councilman Michael Yarbrough.

At the weekly Council meetings, Johnson parks his impeccably dressed, six-foot five-inch, 230-pound body just behind Yarbrough. With his arms crossed and his face void of expression, Johnson looks as if he's ready to catch a bullet for his boss.

Since taking a leave of absence from the city to run for an at-large Council seat --he faces Position 4 incumbent Chris Bell in the December 6 runoff --Johnson has tried to appear less imposing. But with eight years in the U.S. Army on his resume, the makeover has proved difficult. Even Johnson's professional pursuits away from City Hall seem to be shaped by his experiences as a soldier.

A licensed chemical-dependency counselor, Johnson is founder and president of the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy, a strictly regimented program for teenage substance abusers that emphasizes military-style discipline and individual responsibility. One of three treatment programs housed at the Barbara Jordan Recovery Center in the Fifth Ward, the Golden Eagle is funded by the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, or TCADA, to run a 30-bed in-patient program for boys ages 13 through 17.

But according to current and former staff members and residents and parents of residents, the taxpayer-funded academy has another purpose --to recruit African-American youths into the MFOI, an organization formed by Quanell X, the Golden Eagle's program director and a former youth minister with the local Nation of Islam mosque.

Moreover, at least one teenage resident of the Golden Eagle and two parents of former residents have written letters of complaint to TCADA, alleging that white and Hispanic youngsters in the program have been physically abused by MFOI members. While none of the half-dozen or so residents interviewed by the Press for this story said they've been subjected to an assault at the Golden Eagle, they all professed to be familiar with what's known inside the facility as a "blanket party."

"Usually, it happens after somebody messes up," says one boy who is still a resident of the academy. "Sometimes they lock us down, put us in our rooms and then do it, or they wait until most of the other kids are off the unit."

Allegations of abuse and intimidation at the Golden Eagle have also reached the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, which refers adolescent probationers with drug and alcohol problems to local treatment programs. More than a year ago, the department stopped sending its probationers to the Golden Eagle after complaints about the facility, and Quanell X in particular, began to mount.

"All of our kids have identified [Quanell] as being the instigator of racially based retaliations," says executive director Elmer Bailey. "And we established quite a while back that there were very well-founded complaints against specific staff members. It's a community-based agency, so we tell families about the facility. But we do not place the children in our custody there any longer."

As described by Quanell X, the MFOI --which stands for Mental Freedom Obtains Independence --is a "paramilitary" organization for young African-American males formed to combat police brutality and other manifestations of white oppression. As on-site director of the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy, Quanell is in daily contact with any number of blacks kids who, in the tradition of Malcolm X, could decide to quit drugs and alcohol, accept the teachings of Allah and dedicate their lives to saving the black man.

But parents of Anglo and Hispanic residents say the Golden Eagle offers little for their sons other than an opportunity to "dry out." The quality of treatment is poor, they say, and the all-black staff indifferent. Meanwhile, all the residents, who attend an HISD alternative school on-site, are enveloped in an Afrocentric environment saturated with the culture of the Nation of Islam, whose leaders, from Malcolm X to Louis Farrakhan, have denounced white people as devils.

"On the anniversary of the Million Man March," recalls one recently discharged resident, a 16-year-old Anglo boy, "the black kids were allowed to skip school. Mr. X told us we had to go to school because of what our ancestors did."

Richard Johnson initially agreed to be interviewed for this story by the Press and suggested a breakfast meeting at the Wyndham Warwick Hotel. But he failed to show for the appointment, and he did not respond to subsequent repeated calls to his pager number and to his campaign headquarters. Likewise, the Press was unsuccessful in trying to reach Quanell X at the Barbara Jordan Recovery Center and through the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy's corporate offices.

That would come as no surprise to the parents of residents who spoke with the Press. They say that they, too, have been unable to find out exactly what goes on inside the Golden Eagle Leadership Academy.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brian Wallstin