How one Baltimore journalist saved an inmate turned playwright from a lonely prison death

Mike Bowler, newspaper man for over 30 years, most of them with The Baltimore Sun, died the other day. There were tributes galore, especially for his work on education, both as a journalist for The Sun and as a Baltimore County school board appointment of Gov. Martin O’Malley. I remember, though, a less-known tale: Mike Bowler saved a man from a lonely death in prison.

As head of The Evening Sun’s op-ed page, Mike had made the unusual choice of publishing submissions from a certain Harry B. “H.B.” Johnson Jr. They were mailed in from the Maryland Penitentiary, then the oldest continuously operating penitentiary in the western world. It had first opened its doors (shut them?) in 1811. Though its nightmarish South Wing has been demolished, we still see its Gothic buildings off I-83 in downtown Baltimore.

H.B. had an 8th grade education when he was incarcerated in the mid 1980s in his late 30s. He had held up an insurance company while high on gin and cocaine, and he had been sentenced to 35 years for attempted murder and hand-gun possession. That’s a long time to serve — but he made his time serve him. He started reading the works of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Samuel Beckett. Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot,” he used to say, nailed it best. “That’s just what prison life is like. The endless waiting. The talking. The absurdity.”

He was inspired to become a self-taught playwright, and what an author he proved to be. H.B. won WMAR-TV’s Maryland Black Playwright’s Contest, and he was honored by the American PEN Center.

But eight years into his sentence, H.B. had developed AIDS — he said he contracted HIV from a dirty needle passed on by a guard. He had lived for so many years in a tiny cell in a locked tier; Mike Bowler decided he shouldn’t die there.

I agreed. I was a Loyola University Maryland philosophy professor who volunteer-taught at the Maryland Penitentiary. H.B. was one of my most talented students. I, too, wanted him out, but how do you win freedom for a maximum security prisoner when the political mood was lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key?

Mike had a big heart and a clever mind, one filled with contacts and connections like a human smartphone of the ‘90s. He and I created a petition asking for H.B.’s compassionate medical release. Who might have influence with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the one man who could grant it?

Mike contacted David Simon, The Sun reporter who authored or co-authored “Homicide” and “The Corner,” and later became show runner for “The Wire.” He was on board. So, too, Charles Dutton, the talented actor who starred in his TV show “Roc,” and directed the HBO mini-series “The Corner.” Charles had known H.B. when he, too, was serving time at the Maryland Pen for manslaughter and possession of a deadly weapon. After release, Mr. Dutton went on to major in theater at Towson State and then earn a M.A. at Yale University School of Drama. Yes, such journeys are possible.

Mike knew Charles Dutton; Charles knew H.B. and, moreover, he was a friend of Governor Schaefer. Of course, politicians hate to release people with a history of violent crimes. A single re-offender can bring down a politician’s whole career. But Governor Schaefer, confronted with a long petition and the facts of the case, did something very unusual. He granted H.B.’s medical release shortly before Christmas in 1993, nine years into his sentence.

The Arena Players, a talented local African-American theatre group, produced one of H.B’s plays at Loyola University’s theater. Mike Bowler, myself and other friends and family, were ferried there in style: a series of white stretch limousines. I was scandalized by the expense. But H.B. just said, “This is special. I’m going to celebrate the moment.” The miracle was not the play itself, excellent as it was, but that H.B. watched from the audience, a free man. Well, not totally free — still on house arrest, he wore an electronic ankle brace. Be home by midnight or he risked re-incarceration. He lingered until 11:30, savoring the moment, while Mike and I bit our fingernails. But H.B. jumped in his coach, arriving home moments before he would turn into a pumpkin.

While out, he would go on to win WMAR-TV’s playwright contest a second time. H.B. died two and a half years after his release; Mike Bowler wrote the obituary.

Mike cared about prisoners and passionately about education. Put the two together and golden things can happen. A Rand Corporation report shows that taxpayers are saved $5 in re-incarceration costs for every $1 spent on prison education. Lives, too, are also saved. On average, those who participate in prison education are 43 percent less likely to re-offend, dramatically improving public safety. I continue to teach in Maryland prisons —when permitted. Punishment, security, even solitary confinement, still often win out over “rehabilitation” in Maryland, which is not the most progressive state in this regard.

So it’s an appropriate time to remember Mike Bowler’s passion about justice, about writing, about education, about H.B. I will always remember that night Mike made possible, that night with the white stretch limos.

Dr. Drew Leder (DLeder@loyola.edu) is professor of philosophy at Loyola University Maryland and author of many books including “The Soul Knows No Bars: Inmates Reflect on Life, Death and Hope” and “The Distressed Body: Rethinking Illness, Imprisonment, and Healing.”

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