In fact, Smith is all of the things Georgia officials from Gov. Roy Barnes on down want to ignore.
You see, Smith is nuts, legally so with bipolar and borderline personality problems. When not taking medication, he hears voices.
Worse, he's an ex-con with 20 crimes on his rap sheet, mostly theft with a seasoning of assault and firearms violations. His prison record shows seven aliases -- and in talking to Smith, you get the feeling there might be other "selves." His current preferred persona is Preston Nichols.
Of his 36 years in this life, Smith has spent more than 14 locked up. His latest and longest gig, 8 1/2 years for a burglary conviction, began in August 1993.
Smith has been out of the Big House -- in this case, Phillips State Prison in Buford -- for a month.
He describes his educational attainments as "something like sixth grade, maybe seventh." Smith hopes to work as a glass glazer and to get married. Like many ex-cons flush with the feel of new freedom, he repeatedly says, "Gonna make it this time, get things together."
Odds, of course, are so much against him that he'd make a video poker machine look like a safe bet.
For all of that, Barnes and the state's Department of Corrections might get to know more about Smith than they'd prefer.
Last month, a lawsuit was filed in federal district court that charges Phillips State Prison has somehow avoided 21st-century enlightenment. Or 20th century. In fact, in vivid detail the litigation depicts conditions resembling the mental asylum hellholes of the 18th century.
In brief, the lawsuit -- filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, better known as a fierce opponent of another 18th-century remnant, capital punishment -- charges the state deprives insane and retarded convicts of treatment and abuses them in a fashion for which the word "uncivilized" is thoroughly inadequate.
Phillips houses about 1,200 prisoners. Despite being just shy of maximum security, it's a popular retreat for the legally challenged because it's the closest state lock-up to Atlanta, where many prisoners' families live. Among Phillips' inmates are about 300 who are severely mentally disturbed or retarded, or both. These inmates, the lawsuit states, are routinely abused and tortured, and there's a chance they'll get killed.
I can hear the harrumphs from good citizens: So what? They're just a bunch of lousy criminals. And we further write off these prisoners because they're loonies and retards. Who cares if they rot?
Well, you should. Most of the prisoners -- 95 percent, in fact -- will one day again walk the streets. They may be your neighbors soon. If the state's jailers take insane criminals and put them in hideous situations that exacerbate their mental illnesses -- and then dump them back into society -- what do you think these cons are going to do?
Is Phillips State Prison incubating a batch of demented super-criminals? Who knows? Who cares? Certainly not the What-Me-Worry state of Georgia, which, when it releases these insane convicts often forgets to give them their prescriptions for medications or appointments with counselors.
At least that's what the lawyers say.
Here's what Smith -- who, as we've established, is not a model citizen but who is nonetheless a human being -- has to say.
"The ink pen," he replied in answer to a question about how bad things were at Phillips.
"The ink pen?" I replied.
"I stuck the pen in my arm," he said.
"Hearing voices, that's what caused it. Hearing voices a lot then. I had to do it. I heard the voices."
Smith isn't a very talkative fellow, so I prodded him to tell what happened after he stuck the ink pen in his arm.
"The pen remained in your arm?"
"Yes, sir, it did. From January 2000, they didn't take it out until October 2000."
Scott Stallings, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, said of the litigation that there were "no constitutional violations at the prison. Prisoners file lawsuits all the time."
"The prison left an ink pen imbedded in your arm for nine months."
"They did. Yes, sir, they did. Got really infected."
I asked Smith about allegations of beatings. He paused for a minute, clearly pained.
The medication the prison was forcing him to take was making him violently ill. "I stopped up my toilet and flooded my cell because I didn't want to take that medicine no more," he recalled.
"They handcuffed me, threw me to the floor. Beat me up real good. Lost two teeth on top, two on the bottom." The brutish attack continued even after Smith had been strapped down in a restraint.
"Did you see that sort of thing happening to other prisoners?"
"All the time."
The Southern Center for Human Rights isn't the kind of operation prison wardens feel warm and fuzzy about. At least those wardens of the bully-'em-and-beat-'em genre. The nonprofit law firm -- headed by a near legend among death penalty foes, Steve Bright -- forced radical changes at the Fulton County Jail, which had failed to provide medicines to HIV-positive inmates.
"Our case affected everyone with chronic illnesses," said one of the center's lawyers, Tamara Serwer, who, like most of her 10 colleagues, is young and unabashedly idealistic.
At the DeKalb jail, the center not only attacked medical care deficiencies but what Serwer described as a "brutal torture" device dubbed the "motorcycle," an immobilizing helmet. "They don't do that any longer," Serwer said.
And the center took on the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, challenging its policy of keeping prisoners in restraints for six and seven days at a time, forcing them to befoul themselves and wallow in their own feces and urine.
All of that was hardly preparation for what Serwer said they found at Phillips.
Although about 14 percent of Georgia's male prisoners have mental problems, and the state without question has the duty to address these illnesses, the lawsuit contends: "Mental health programming is treated as an extraneous expense by the [the Georgia Department of Corrections, which relies] upon kickbacks from prisoners' collect phone calls to fund services for prisoners with mental illness."
About the only time Georgia seems to care about treating insane criminals is when it's necessary to make condemned prisoners lucid enough so that they understand they're going to be killed. That was the issue with Alexander Williams, a truly whacked-out murderer/rapist who believed Sigourney Weaver is God. Only after massive protest did the state's scandal-ridden Board of Pardons and Paroles back off from giving Williams the lethal cocktail.
With that level of indifference, it isn't surprising, as the Southern Center lawsuit describes, that Phillips jailers "frequently respond to any perceived misbehavior of mentally ill and mentally retarded prisoners by physically assaulting them or threatening to beat or kill them if they do not change their behavior."
Mental health professionals would tell the state -- if officials bothered to ask -- that responding to the mentally ill with brutality deepens the very psychological problems that cause the prisoners to act out in the first place.
The lawsuit recounts 20 or so incidents of brutality, as well as unnecessary and probably dangerous forced medication. Smith's case was hardly the most gruesome. Even worse, the complaint alleges that "sexual abuse among prisoners is condoned, ignored or encouraged by prison staff." And, due to two recent deaths at Phillips, the lawsuit questions whether the jailers can or are willing to protect prisoners' lives.
Earlier this year, when prisoners began talking with the Southern Center's lawyers, they found new problems. Although mail from lawyers is private, prisoners' letters were opened and read by staff. Guards interrogated the prisoners and warned them against talking to lawyers.
But the prisoners did talk and the lawsuit was filed, seeking relief for the prisoners from the abusive behavior.
At Phillips, a new warden, Michelle Martin, has taken over. She has a mental health background, and Serwer said there is hope for improved conditions. Martin and Corrections officials did not respond to requests for interviews.
Ultimately, it would be refreshing -- and entirely insane to think it could happen -- for the governor to launch an investigation of conditions in the prison system. Maybe some legislators would back a probe -- after all, more than a few qualify for a transfer from the Capitol to the loving care of the prison system.
Senior Editor John Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241.
@ Mark from Atlanta "Leftists play sports" and "Most athletes are union members." Most professional…
"I know the endgame is making private gun ownership illegal." __________________________________________________ I grew up around…
"Lefties just hate sports..." ______________________ Since you seem to want to deal in generalizations Oy,…
@Dave Treat the disease not the symptom. Take a look at this chart via the…
Dep COO suspended for saying a few rude words about the Cobb Crackers? He should…