Imprisoned writer hopes AIDS can free him Many admirers press for commutation Holly Selby


In his prison cell, H. B. Johnson Jr. chips walls away, not with a pick but with a pen.

Bit by bit, he creates openings to see into the minds and souls of the characters in his plays and poems -- and far beyond.

At the Maryland Penitentiary, Johnson, 46, is serving the ninth year of a 35-year sentence for assault with intent to murder and a handgun violation.

A river of words flows from him: plays, poems, essays, parts of a novel.

Johnson knows there are limits to life far more immutable than prison walls: In January, he was diagnosed with AIDS.

Last year, one of his plays won the WMAR Drama Competition for Black Playwrights; the year before he won third place. His essays and stories have been published in small literary and regional magazines.

This recognition outside the penitentiary walls has drawn attention to his plight. Some 60 citizens have petitioned Gov. William Donald Schaefer to commute Johnson's sentence because of his fatal illness. Signers include college professors; a state senator; a nun; Charles Dutton, producer and star of the TV show "Roc," himself once incarcerated in Maryland; and Mike Bowler, editor of the Other Voices Page of The Evening Sun, where Johnson's work has appeared.

As a writer and as a person, Johnson has impressed them. "He wants to make something of himself and make people proud of him," says Dr. Drew Leder, a philosophy professor at Loyola College who also teaches a class at the penitentiary.

"I think he would like to use his very dying as a lesson about how a man faces death," Dr. Leder says.

Johnson recognizes the irony of a request for freedom based on the disease that is taking his life. As he waits for word of the governor's decision, he writes faster and faster and with increasing selectivity. "I know I am not going to be able to get it all down," he says of the work he wants to complete. "But I am going to try."

Harry B. Johnson Jr. grew up with six sisters in a house with a porch on South Lexington Street. His father, Harry B. Johnson Sr., assistant pastor of the Wilson Park Holy Church of Power, worked during the week as a Sparrows Point laborer and preached on Sundays, says the son. For many years before she died in 1987, his mother worked as a domestic.

His family wasn't rich but he never thought they were poor, Johnson says.

A salient childhood memory is how, on days when money was tight, his father would bring home a sack of white potatoes, some day-old bread and a chunk of fatback.

"My mother wasn't too crazy about the fatback. But she'd make jokes, saying, 'Well, now I don't have to buy any starch for your shirts this week,' " he says.

But there are some painful memories. Johnson remembers his father, "a very, very strict Pentecostal," punishing him for playing a Ray Charles song on the piano.

"My father is not a man of words. I think he was trying to teach me what he thought were important lessons," Johnson says. "I know he loves me. I saw him cry at my sentencing when he couldn't find the words to speak for me."

The journey downward

During his teen-age years, Johnson became wild and reckless. As an eighth-grader he was expelled from Booker T. Washington Middle School for skipping classes.

At 17, he was in a group of boys that broke a store window and took what they wanted.

He was caught "walking down the street with a bunch of radios," Johnson says, and was sentenced to two years. That was his first stay in prison, and it was the first time he tried heroin.

"Then I got out [of prison] and got arrested again for joy riding in a stolen car," he says. He was 20 years old, and served four months.

Years of drug abuse followed his release from prison. "Things get foggy. There was a lot of dope, drinking, lying, sneaking, cheating, robbing," he says.

Johnson worked on and off -- as a cook, as a dishwasher.

He fathered two daughters, one of whom died at 16. His other daughter, now 16, lives in Baltimore and visits him in prison.

Eleven years ago, Johnson shot a man while robbing a Glen Burnie insurance company. The man lived; Johnson was found guilty of assault with intent to murder and illegal possession of a handgun and was sentenced to 35 years, 25 of them mandatory and without the possibility of parole.

"We had been up all night drinking gin and doing cocaine," Johnson says. "That morning the cocaine ran out. And a guy came up with an idea. He knows where we can get all this money. I said 'OK.'

"You're wired up. You don't even realize you are walking around with a gun in your hand. A loaded gun. It's crazy."

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome has changed Johnson, of course. A tall man, he is skinny because of the wasting effects of his illness. He doesn't sleep much anymore and often has night sweats. He wears a floppy hat because AIDS changed his hair from black to white in a three-day span. The pigmentation of his scalp has been affected by AIDS, too: Beneath his thinning hair, his skin is pink and black. His eyebrows are completely gone.

Before he got sick, Johnson spent 10 to 12 hours each day writing. Now it is during what he calls "the solitude time" -- nighttime -- when the prison gets quiet and he does his best work.

Now a junior in college

He always liked books, he says. But it wasn't until he was in prison that he began to read "with a purpose." Classes held in ZTC prison allow him to pursue a college degree: He is a junior. James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka have influenced his work.

Words, paragraphs, stanzas, scenes, chapters flow from Johnson onto typing paper, notebook paper, even institutional brown-paper towels.

His letters, essays, poems, plays and stories arrive via the mail on the desks of his friends and teachers and editors in a steady stream.

One poem describes angels and pigeons, but really tells of envy; another is about remorse, dedicated to the man Johnson shot; still another is about dying.

"A Gift From the Hunters," which won the WMAR Drama Competition for Black Playwrights and premiered at the Arena Players last year, was inspired by news reports of children being killed in drug-related shootings.

"He can say so much in just a few words," says Dr. Gossie Harold Hudson, a professor of history at Morgan State University, who conducted a workshop on poet Paul Laurence Dunbar at the prison, and met Johnson.

A mind that fascinates

Dr. Hudson marvels at Johnson's pace and intellect. "He gets an idea. He writes it right then -- he can just whip out a poem. It might not be but one line -- wow! It's something. I'm fascinated by his mind."

Increasingly, forgiveness is replacing anger as a leading theme in Johnson's writing; AIDS is a frequent topic. His most recent play is titled, "To Hell with Dying."

"I have a sense of urgency that wasn't there before," Johnson says. "I want to be recognized as a writer and a playwright. Not as a prison playwright or a black playwright. A playwright."


Why sounds

the judge's hammer?

What does

that little snap mean?

I decided to ask

two roaches on my wall.

Killed one,

Watched the other go fleeing.

Why sounds

the prison gate,

Too big for people

Just right for hate?

Is it because the rron

is so hard and empty.

Or is it the call

of the hammer's mate? * In July, about 60 citizens petitioned the governor seeking the release of writer H. B. Johnson Jr., who is ineligible for a regular parole because of his mandatory sentence.

* Meanwhile, the Division of Correction considered a medical release because of Johnson's terminal illness. But the Maryland Parole Commission rejected the idea, in part because Johnson's AIDS does not appear to be in a late stage.

* Paul J. Davis, head of the commission, said last week that the citizens' petition to the governor asking for executive clemency is still alive.

* The commission has considered the request and Johnson's case, and has made a secret recommendation to the governor. It's not clear when he will decide.

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