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Will the parole of Tiger Mandingo shift views on HIV Criminalization?

For nearly six and half years Michael Johnson, also known as Tiger Mandingo, has been incarcerated at the Boonville Correctional Facility under the crime of “recklessly exposing potential sexual partners to HIV.”

According to Buzzfeed, “He was originally sentenced to 30.5 years, but in 2016, a Missouri appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that prosecuting attorney Philip Groenweghe had failed to disclose evidence in a timely fashion to Johnson’s attorneys. In 2017, Johnson agreed to a 10-year no contest ‘Alford’ plea deal rather than face another trial.”

However, only a year after this plea, Johnson has been granted parole, marking a potential shift in the way HIV has been criminalized, with many hoping it is a sign of times to come.

Michael Johnson will not be released immediately—with a parole listed for October 9, 2019. Barring any violations while currently incarcerated, Johnson will have served 60% of the 10-year sentence when he is finally released on parole.

“Last month, Johnson appeared before the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, where his friend, Meredith Rowan, attended as his delegate in the hearing. The board did not immediately respond to an email or phone call for comment, but Rowan said Johnson called her from prison today to tell her that his parole had been granted — with a delay,” read the Buzzfeed article.

“Michael was excited that it got approved,” Rowan told BuzzFeed News. “I have to look at it that I have a date, and it’s only 18 months away, and it’s still a lot sooner than a 30-year sentence.”

There are currently 67 laws that criminalize HIV in 33 states, many of them created during the height of the epidemic. Although created with the purpose of stopping those who were intentionally spreading the virus, the laws have done more to hinder than help, and have often used in a retaliatory way against people who are HIV-positive by others who neglect to take accountability for their own sexual actions.

The laws don’t take into account the issues and barriers that surround disclosure, including the stigma carried with people who are public about their HIV-positive status, and the shame that still comes from many communities and from society as a whole. We are currently living in a time when the current President’s Administration continues to attack the HIV community with threats of funds removal and by refusing to make HIV a primary concern. These attacks embolden politicians to not act on the concerns of those who are positive, knowing that they are being criminalized for a virus that has also been federally classified as a disability.

Fortunately, some states are not allowing the stigma to stop them from passing laws to reverse the criminalization laws created many years ago. California was the most recent to reverse its laws on criminalization, signaling a change in times with the hopes that other states would follow its lead.

Modern medicine allows those with HIV to live longer lives and nearly eliminates the possibility of transmission, according to state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), authors of the bill.

“Today, California took a major step toward treating HIV as a public health issue, instead of treating people living with HIV as criminals,” Wiener said in a statement. “HIV should be treated like all other serious infectious diseases, and that’s what SB 239 does.”

Supporters of the change said the current law requires an intent to transmit HIV to justify a felony, but others noted cases have been prosecuted where there was no physical contact, so there was an argument that intent was lacking. Republican lawmakers including Sen. Joel Anderson of Alpine voted against the bill, arguing it puts the public at risk.

“I’m of the mind that if you purposefully inflict another with a disease that alters their lifestyle the rest of their life, puts them on a regimen of medications to maintain any kind of normalcy, it should be a felony,” Anderson said during the floor debate. “It’s absolutely crazy to me that we should go light on this.”

The question of intent is what often gets confused with fear of disclosure. There’s a big difference between someone who is purposefully infecting others versus a person who is afraid of disclosing because of stigma. Criminalizing HIV is not the way. It makes people who are negative or never been tested stay away from getting tested, as it is safer to not know than to know and face potential jail time from sexual activity.

The granting of parole in the case of Tiger is a big step forward towards ending these archaic laws once and for all. Of course, there needs to be a penalty for those who are lying when asked about their status, or who are actively spreading the virus. But for those of us who are just trying to survive the fear and stigma, these laws only force us to live in secrecy and fear.