Last week, Michael Johnson, a young black gay man, was released earlier than expected from Boonville Correctional Center in Missouri. In 2015, he had been convicted of “recklessly infecting another person with HIV” in the cases of two men, and exposing four others to the virus. He was sentenced to 30 years.
The initial conviction was overturned in 2016 and described as “fundamentally unfair” by the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District. Rather than go through another trial, Johnson accepted a plea deal in 2017, and had been expected to get out of prison in October 2019.
Johnson’s case has attracted widespread media attention to Missouri’s draconian HIV criminalization laws. Filter caught up with Johnson, and his publicist Akil Patterson, to discuss his struggle to access HIV-related care, the threats he faced from fellow incarcerated people in pretrail detention, his reaction to how social and news media discussed his case, and his plans for the future.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Filter: Before you were charged and convicted, how did you process your HIV diagnosis?
Michael Johnson: For me, I was a student athlete in college. I was going into my wrestling season to compete and I wanted to make sure I was healthy. That’s what made me get tested, in January 2013. I was 21 when I found out I was positive. For me it was a lot of fear and confusion. That came from [the fact that] I now knew that I was HIV-positive. I didn’t know much about it and I didn’t know if I could finish college. So the fear [made me think,] “Does this mean I lose everything I ever worked for?”
How would you characterize the public’s reaction to your case?
Johnson: I feel like the news media in the area that I was in was trying to spin my case around the fear of homosexuality and black men living in America who is HIV-positive. They wanted to spin that fear because if they’re able to get as many people as they can to testify, and people who can be on my jury, they can all be afraid of the person that [they’re] making a judgement on.
To be honest, for me, I shouldn’t have been reading the [social media] comments of what people were saying to me. That would have been the smartest decision because there was a lot of negativity based off [when the] decision came out. And in terms of what was actually shown in the trial.
Patterson: For context, Michael’s trial was going on right around the time of Ferguson. You’ve got to understand that there was this natural built-in fear of Ferguson, Missouri which was only like 25 miles from where he was at. There’s this fear of, “these people in Ferguson who are African American and burning down the city” and “here’s this black kid in our wonderful little [89.9 percent] white Christian town in St. Charles, and here’s another one of them trying to come in and start something.” That’s how it was painted initially. And it sullied the jury pool, essentially. And they literally asked [people being considered for the jury], “Do you think homosexuality is immoral?” When people said “No,” they were off.
What was your experience during your pretrial incarceration at St. Charles County Department of Corrections (SCCDOC)?
Johnson: When I was first charged and starting in the county jail, I was in solitary confinement in the medical ward of the facility [in order] to be away from general population. That was my first time being incarcerated and I didn’t know anything about the law and so my initial reaction to doing time in a jail was fear and anxiety.
Patterson: They put him in solitary confinement because there were people who made false accusations that Michael was going to spit on them [and “throw blood” on them].
Johnson: Because of my trial and world news and how they talked about my conviction, they pretty much let the prosecutors say whatever they wanted in terms of spreading the fear. And when they were spreading the fear, everyone in the jail watches the news on the TV and there were threats against my life if I was to be in general population in a certain pod.
[The threats were motivated by my being] gay and because I was positive. They wanted to make themselves seem superior or better than me and what I was in there for. Because I was always vocal about fighting my case and there were those who were saying that, “I think I’m better than you,” because of what I was doing before I was charged and convicted.
Were you able to access HIV-related care during your pretrial incarceration?
Akil Patterson: During that period of time, Michael was not receiving treatment. His viral load was high. So that’s where he was at.
Johnson: Well when I first started in solitary when I was in their medical facility in St. Charles, they actually blamed me for me not having my medication and them not being able to find it and not being able to give it to me. They were saying that I should have known this, I should have given them this in order for them to give me the help that I needed.
From January to October 2013, [the period before Johnson was charged], I was talking to care providers but there was no linkage [to care], because I was going from Indiana to Missouri for college.
Patterson: So the funding mechanism between St. Charles and St. Louis sometimes works well together. But for people with low or no transportation abilities, to get treatment for HIV in rural Missouri is very difficult. Michael was unable to get treatment because of the transportation issues that existed in Missouri. He was in St. Charles, and the treatment was in St. Louis.
Johnson: [Staff at SCCDOC] blamed me for their mistakes. They knew I was positive. The charge said it and I told them. Before they can give you the [HIV] medication, they have to have proof of status, and they blamed me for not knowing how to find that out.
Patterson: The state was charging him for HIV-related crimes but the state was saying, “We don’t know if you’re positive or not.” They told him that it was his fault that he didn’t know what medications [he needed].
Johnson: I did end up receiving [HIV-related] care because I was there from October 2013 to 2015, [the year of] the trial. So I ended up receiving care but it ended up taking a lot longer than it should have. I got care around June or July of 2014.
I wasn’t having any complications but the only thing that was going on the fear of not being on medication. I was fighting the case and not being on the medication that would save my life.
Once you were convicted and sentenced, and as news and social media was going on about you, did your relationship with your status change or stay the same?
Johnson: For me, I was always educating myself as much as I possibly can. The more I educated myself about HIV and HIV law, the stronger I became. I wasn’t becoming weaker with the knowledge; I was becoming more powerful.
How are you anticipating on spending your time now that you’ve been released?
Johnson: My plans [sic] is to get a job, finish my education, and finish getting my bachelor’s degree, and further educate as many people as I possibly can. If I don’t start talking about it, it could happen to people who are younger than me. To stop it is my goal, and to educate the public is my mission.
What do you think needs to change in Missouri?
Johnson: My number one thing is more education for the public, and that includes teaching people in high school and middle school about HIV so they do not run across contracting the virus. Or if they encounter someone who is HIV-positive, they know how to handle themselves in the situation that they are in.
Not knowing just spreads the fear of what you don’t know. I want people to know that the laws do not represent the medical science evidence that we have today. And we need to repeal and replace the HIV laws so that they do not continue to harm people in the way that I was harmed.
Photograph of Michael Johnson (center) moments after being released from Boonville Correctional Center, courtesy of Akil Patterson and edited by Filter.