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The prison and the pen 

A convict and his wife fight for the right to write

Janie LeFort bustles into the waiting room at an Athens drug and alcohol rehab center, her arms full of files and moving fast enough that her wake causes papers to flutter. "That was a pretty rough meeting," she says over her shoulder to a colleague.LeFort is all business, and the psychotherapist has -- well, presence. It's not her looks, although with intense brown eyes and flowing auburn hair, she's noticeable. It's not the magnolia and mint julep flow of words; this is Georgia, after all. It's her command, an aura that says, "Pay attention."

I'd tripped over to Athens to meet a convict's wife, violating my own rules to view with reluctance and skepticism the countless letters columnists receive from those who have run afoul of the law. Experience teaches that maybe one in a thousand has merit, however heart-wrenching the appeal.

But Janie LeFort defies my carefully nurtured stereotypes. When she first contacted CL, she sent a short story written by her in-the-Big-House-for-20-years husband, Jack. You can read an excerpt from "The Mad Licker" ... It isn't Tom Clancy or Stephen King, much less Twain, Dickens or Faulkner. In fact, it's a little rough, although when I first read it, I heard echoes of Kafka's "In the Penal Colony." We're running it because it shows a little potential, especially considering that it was scratched into existence under near-impossible conditions. The entire story can be found online.

More to the point, it's worth giving a guy some hope. Call it backing up our liberal preaching with a small bit of action.

Jack LeFort also has written a couple of novels and a children's book, all complete with intricate illustrations -- certainly a higher calling than the usual prison routine of rape, beatings, drugs and basketball.

Janie and Jack LeFort aren't real names. He has a pending hearing that may reduce his sentence, and the couple and their attorney fear retaliation if officials learn they've gone to the press. He's already suffered for protesting the corrupt gang-and-guard cartel that is the real boss at the slammer, so I'll be a little vague on details of his crime or where he is.

"No one" -- meaning state officials -- "wants to hear about how the gangs run the prison, or about the drugs or about the illegal tattoo operations that spread HIV and hepatitis," Janie LeFort says.

She aspired to be an artist, and still is. She was a foot soldier in the Athens "scene," the down-home renaissance that nurtured R.E.M. and the B-52's.

When her father died, she realized that ever since she was a child, she'd had to confront his mental illness. "I figured I'd been a counselor since I was 5, so I might as well do it professionally. My art is part of my counseling. The shapes I create promote what I try to do with my counseling."

Janie met Jack 18 years ago. She was a waitress, he a busboy. At least, that's how they earned their livings. "That's not what we were," she says. "I was an artist and so was he, a puppeteer."

They were fast if intermittent friends, but little more, for many years. "I was always aware that Jack suffered from severe bouts with depression," she says.

Jack could get delusional. Although he has a near-genius level IQ and had a voracious appetite for knowledge, his life became a cycle of mental episodes punctuated by self-medication with alcohol and drugs.

Ultimately, he committed a crime, a bad one. That's not disputed. I dug a little and found many complications and nuances in the tragedy. In a way, the crime was an act of mercy. It was also self-defense against a woman who wanted to end Jack's life. And all of it was soaked through and through with the torture of mental illness.

Combine that with an overworked public defender who didn't bother to tell the judge of the mitigating circumstances, and Jack won a 20-year state vacation.

Janie hadn't seen Jack for a few years when she learned about the crime.

"I found out he was in prison and I was devastated," she recalls. They began writing, and "we hit it off so well." Recently they were married -- even though they may not be able to consummate their relationship for years.

"Sex? That doesn't matter. Really," she says. "I'd spent my life looking for the right guy. And I found out it was Jack."

Keep in mind that this is a very together, solid woman, not a jailhouse groupie. "I may be nuts," she quips, "but nuts in a good way."

Meanwhile, Jack, now clean and sober for three years, was starting to explore his writing talent. "He reads dictionaries looking for ideas," Janie says. "Right now, he's studying Herman Melville's punctuation."

Prisons aren't exactly conducive to creativity. Jack is only allowed to write with dull pencils or cheap pens that give out after one or two pages. He sends his laboriously handwritten manuscripts, elegantly illustrated, to Janie, who has them typed. But the guards won't let him review the typed versions for corrections. The copy has been decreed "contraband" -- not because of content or any threat, but just because the wardens and screws would rather see the cons acting like lowlifes and thugs, rather than being creative.

As for Jack's illness, he's doing better. The Georgia prison system isn't much help -- only a tiny percentage of its mental health counselors are even licensed. "He tried to have a conversation with one of the counselors," Janie says. "Jack is "very bright and understands his illness. That didn't go over well with the counselor, who told him, 'Don't use big words with me. I'm the one who uses the big words.'" Real empathy.

Maybe justice was done in Jack's case. I don't think so. Not with Georgia's medieval attitude toward providing (rather, not providing) competent lawyers for indigents. Not with a prison system more attuned to corruptly enriching politicians and officials than helping prisoners turn their lives around.

"The truth about Jack," Janie says, "is that despite what happened, he's a very spiritual person. What is important to him are things like ethics, truth, fighting for the underdog. And writing. He believes he can be a great writer. So do I."

Senior Editor John Sugg -- whose program for reducing crime in Georgia is to encase the Gold Dome in bars and have the legislators dress in prison stripes -- can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at john.sugg@creativeloafing.com.

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