Literary inmate wins early release Playwright served 8 years of sentence


Harry B. Johnson Jr., an AIDS patient and prison inmate whose plays and poems have streamed from his cell, will be released Monday from prison, according to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Calling Johnson's situation "an unusual case," the governor yesterday announced he would commute Johnson's 35-year sentence for robbery with a deadly weapon. Under the state constitution, the governor has the authority to issue an executive order commuting -- or ending -- a prisoner's sentence. Johnson, whose pen name is H. B. Johnson, has been in prison since 1985.

Johnson, who has one daughter living in Baltimore, must meet certain conditions to maintain his freedom, according to the governor's executive order. For the first nine months, he will be on home detention and then will be supervised as though on parole for the remaining 27 years of his 35-year sentence. He also may be tested for drug use. In addition, Johnson must participate in a Johns Hopkins Hospital study on AIDS.

"Mr. Johnson has come a long way in recent years, clearly touching the lives of those who have read his work," said the governor in a written statement.

In recent years, the 46-year-old inmate's literary efforts have won recognition and support outside the penitentiary walls.

Some 60 citizens petitioned the governor to commute Johnson's sentence because of his fatal illness. They included college professors, a state senator, a nun, and Mike Bowler, editor of the Other Voices Page of The Evening Sun, where Johnson's work has appeared.

TV star Charles Dutton, producer and lead character of the TV show "Roc," who was once incarcerated in Maryland, also signed the petition.

Last year, one of Johnson's plays, called "A Gift From the Hunters," won the WMAR Drama Competition for Black Playwrights; the year before, Johnson was awarded third place. His essays and stories have been published in literary and regional magazines.

Johnson and his six sisters grew up on South Lexington Street. His father, Harry B. Johnson Sr., is assistant pastor of the Wilson Park Holy Church of Power. For many years before his mother died in 1987, she worked as a domestic.

In his teens, Johnson was rebellious and wild. As an eighth-grader he was expelled from Booker T. Washington Middle School for skipping classes. At 17, he was among a group of youths that broke a store window and stole radios, and he was sentenced to two years in prison.

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