Mychael Patterson had just returned from a long day at the Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont, Texas, when he sat down for this interview. He spent his day coaching inmates on HIV risk reduction practices and working with them to develop objectives for a successful return to the outside world. As a risk reduction specialist for Dallas-based AIDS Arms, Mychael has developed a keen interest in working with ex-offenders on reducing the transmission of HIV. But today, working in that prison in Beaumont was of particular importance. This was Mychael’s return to the place where he had served a sentence nearly four years ago.
Mychael struggled with addiction to alcohol and marijuana as early as age 11. His destructive nature was the result of a broken home and a tragic family incident that sent him, his family, and the small town of Pampa, Texas, into a tailspin. Years later, he was the deepest he had ever been in his alcohol and drug addiction when he was diagnosed with HIV. Mychael recalls feeling a sense of relief when he first received the news, at the age of 27.
“At that point, I just kind of felt like it was inevitable. I was engaging in all of the high-risk behaviors, so this was just one less thing I had to worry about,” said Mychael. “It gave me one more reason to make people feel sorry for me so I could excuse my addictions.”
Now that Mychael had another reason to jump from martini to martini, he continued on his crash course of addiction. Crystal meth soon became part of the equation, but HIV medication stayed safely out of the picture. Mychael avoided his disease altogether unless it was needed to elicit sympathy and ignore his less-than-stellar life skills. It wasn’t until a mistake from his past crept up by way of a new district attorney from his hometown who decided to dust off an old case and take it to trial. Rock bottom was definitely on its way.
After a trial and conviction that Mychael and the rest of his family believed would never happen, he was sentenced to five years in prison. In the 28 days before he had to surrender himself to the state of Texas he finally found the strength to get sober. At that moment, Mychael experienced the shift that any addict needs to begin the path to a sober life. On the day that he turned himself over to serve his time, Mychael felt something he hadn’t felt in years. He felt accountable for his own life. He was no longer a victim.
And that felt good.
While he was in prison, he decided he wanted to help others deal with their addictions. He began going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the chapel in the prison. The chaplain conducting the services asked Mychael if he would speak to the group about HIV. His first instinct was to revert to avoiding his disease. But now that he had a sober mind, the idea of speaking about HIV began to seep in. His sponsor agreed that it would be a step in the right direction for Mychael, so he began to research the topic. The research quickly became an obsession, as he devoured books on various aspects of HIV and AIDS.
In the midst of his research, Mychael felt that it was time to check his T-cell level. He had been positive for seven years but still had yet to begin medication. Sure enough, his level was at a place where antivirals were necessary. So Mychael, prepared for the side effects that initially came with his prescriptions after his extensive research, began HIV treatment.
Now feeling empowered by managing his disease, Mychael began speaking to his AA group about what it means to be HIV-positive today. He continued giving lessons on risk reduction, disease management, and the stigma that comes with being HIV-positive in prison throughout the remainder of his sentence. Turns out, sobriety in prison was better than addiction and avoidance on the outside.
“I was miserable for 20 years, and I got to prison and I felt better than ever,” Mychael says. “I had purpose for the first time in my life. Everything changed.”
After he was released, Mychael became a client of AIDS Arms in Dallas. He was unemployed and relied on the group's food pantry and medical assistance services. He told his caseworker at the organization about the work that he did around HIV while serving his time. She was so moved that she helped him put his résumé together and apply for a position as a risk reduction specialist at AIDS Arms.
In 2011 he was named employee of the year.
In his current role, Mychael works on a project called Free World Bound, a program that focuses explicitly on risk reduction techniques for those reentering society after a prison sentence. He travels to prisons across the state and creates manageable objectives for ex-offenders living with HIV.
“Basically, we focus on creating steps that inmates can take and succeed at,” Mychael says. “This program isn’t only about helping reduce the risk of HIV but also giving ex-offenders something that they can succeed at and feel empowered by.”
And his unique perspective from the inside of the gates has served him well. Mychael understands the impact of HIV stigma for people struggling with their disease while in prison. When inmates take their HIV medication, they must do so in front of the prison nurse as well as fellow prisoners.
“Compliance is nearly impossible in prison,” Mychael says. “Hardly anybody who is heterosexual will take their meds because there is such a fear about being considered being gay. In prison, they call HIV the ‘jacket.’ A jacket that you have to wear for the rest of your life, and nobody wants to wear it.”
As part of the program, he now stresses the grave importance of complete confidentiality to encourage treatment compliance among HIV-positive offenders. He wants prisoners to be able to take ownership of their lives by managing their disease — and do so free of stigma.
Almost 10 years ago, Mychael decided to take back ownership of his life and be a medium for change. Today, he walked into that prison in Beaumont as one of the first people ever to return voluntarily.
When asked if it was difficult to remain on his path once the prison doors opened three years ago, Mychael said he was nervous that it would be more difficult without the structure that prison provided. Now he knows that all it takes in life is living with purpose and holding yourself accountable for your happiness.
“There is no limit to what you can do,” Mychael says. “If it is something that you truly believe in, you can serve as an instrument to good.”
As with any shot, we all fear the prick of the needle. But a conversation about HIV is just the medicine we need.
Get pricked. Mychael Patterson did.
TYLER CURRY created the Needle Prick Project as an editorial and visual campaign to elicit a candid and open conversation on what it means to be HIV-positive today. To learn more about the Needle Prick Project, visit Facebook.com/getpricked or follow Tyler Curry on Facebook or Twitter at @iamtylercurry.