Jeremy Merithew Finds Optimism While Incarcerated Under an Unjust HIV Law

Jeremy Merithew
Jeremy Merithew
Raven Bassett

Name: Jeremy Merithew
Location: Michigan Department of Corrections, Adrian, Michigan
Birthday: May 29, 1980

"Life comes with a 100% mortality rate," writes Jeremy Merithew. "None of us are guaranteed our next breath, so it is up to us to make the best of each and every moment we're given."

Born in Grayling, Michigan, Jeremy is currently serving up to seven years in prison in his home state. "[T]his whole experience has led me to a better state of mind and inner peace (most of the time)," he explains. In this interview, conducted via email for TheBody.com's "35 at 35" series commemorating the 35th anniversary of the first official reports of AIDS in June 1981, Jeremy (who recently turned 36) shares about his everyday life behind bars, the injustice of the HIV criminalization law that got him there and how his experiences awoke his spiritual curiosity.


Where were you when HIV first entered your consciousness?

The first time I learned of HIV would have been in eighth-grade science. Maybe I heard about it before this, but that is when they gave us the whole spiel about HIV being out there, and it kills people.

Where are you at in your life now?

I'm in my third year of a 4.666-to-7-year sentence for nondisclosure of HIV. Nobody was infected, though that's not what most people think when they hear the charges. I'm currently waiting for the Michigan State Supreme Court to grant a leave to appeal.

This law is way outdated, even criminalizing acts that pose no risk of transmission. The law doesn't take into account advances in treatment, nor does it acknowledge the fact that an undetectable viral load reduces the possibility of transmission to negligible rates. It also doesn't recognize that HIV and other sexually transmitted infection prevention is everyone's responsibility, not just those who are infected.

Ironically, this whole experience has led me to a better state of mind and inner peace (most of the time). Actually, I've had to work through a lot of anger, but I now find myself thankful for the whole experience. I'm realizing that this isn't just about me. It's about something much bigger than myself. It definitely has opened my eyes to the dire need for paradigm shifts within our criminal justice and mental health systems.

What's life like in prison? I spend a lot of time doing calisthenics. Guys keep telling me that my bod is getting "cut up" and that I should keep doing what I'm doing. I also spend a lot of time in the sun (which is bleaching out my hair and tanning my skin), writing.

My major interests include anything that helps me better understand what it means to be human. I'm really digging Buddhist philosophy, but this concept of no self doesn't seem to be resonating with me.

Fill in the blanks in this sentence: At the age of 35, I am glad to be __________ and I wish I were _____________.

I'm thankful to be alive, and I wish I were in the present moment, fully awake (in a Buddhist sense).

Where do you see yourself in another 35 years? Where do you think the HIV epidemic will be in 35 years?

In 35 years, I'm unsure where I'll be. It's funny because in 2009, I had this dream where my dead grandpa tells me that in 14 years I'll appreciate what I'll want to do when I'm 70. What I'm gonna want that to be when I'm 43, I have no clue. What I do know is that I want to live my life so that I help alleviate suffering in the world (and hopefully still have a cut-up bod and abs while I do it!).

I'm confident that HIV will be a thing of the past for the most part. In 2012, before I became locked up, they were doing clinical trials for a functional cure. The science seemed promising, and the trials were advancing. Where this went, I'm unsure, but I'm sure progress is being made -- look how far we've come in the past 35 years.

I do know that life comes with a 100% mortality rate. None of us are guaranteed our next breath, so it is up to us to make the best of each and every moment we're given, no matter the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves.

Any final thoughts?

I've been told I "march to the beat of my own drum" and one of my best friends of 25-plus years, Crystal, says, "Jeremy we love you, but we don't understand you."

These emails have been lightly edited for clarity.