Prisoner of conscience looks back on time behind bars

CLAVERACK — Nancy Smith served a six-month prison sentence this year, from January through June, for a federal misdemeanor, trespassing on federal property during a nonviolent demonstration at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, in November 2010.

Ms. Smith served the last four months of her sentence in the Federal Correctional Institute, a low-security prison for women in Danbury, CT. Then she made a “soft re-entry” home, picking up her usual activities, which include the 2 p.m. peace vigil every Saturday at Seventh Street Park and attendance at Sunday services at Christ Church Episcopal and the Friends Meeting (Quakers), all in Hudson. She has given talks at Christ Church and at the Parish of Our Lady of Hope in Copake Falls, but otherwise she is still digesting her experience.

“I had known intellectually that prison didn’t work, either to prevent crime or rehabilitate criminals,” she says. Being incarcerated, however, brought home the system’s failure, and the lack of alternatives, she says.

The United States has 2.2 million people behind bars today, says Ms. Smith — the highest population proportion in the world. A large percentage of those prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, mostly drug sales in small amounts, she says. “This has happened in the last 20 years. And it hasn’t succeeded in getting drugs off our streets,” she says.

What it does succeed in, Ms. Smith observed in prison, is withdrawing a key person from the family structure. By going to jail, Ms. Smith, 79, did not lose a job or standing in the community; her Social Security payments resumed once her sentence was complete. In contrast, most of her sister inmates, if released, would find re-entry difficult and employment impossible.

“I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to do what I did,” she says. “I have to keep correcting the illusion that it wasn’t difficult, of remembering only the camaraderie, not my despair at times, my thought that I had made a terrible mistake.”

Still, there was camaraderie. “I was stunned by the generosity of my cellmates in sharing their limited resources,” says Ms Smith. She arrived at Danbury at midnight. Processing left her exhausted and freezing. “You enter stark naked and are assigned the uniform of that facility, from underwear up.” But next morning when she came back from breakfast, she found on her bunk soap in a dish, a toothbrush in a holder, toothpaste, shampoo, hair conditioner, a comb and brush. The next day another inmate brought her a tablet of writing paper, stamps, envelopes and two ball-paint pens. In general the women were equally generous with everyone who came into that unit, says Ms. Smith.

Did she suffer? Not much. “It was noisy, with drama 24/7, screaming, yelling, foul language. But I’m healthy, I don’t have physical pain or disabilities. Many of the women were very unhealthy — grossly overweight, suffering from diabetes, neuropathy, problems with teeth.”

Ms. Smith observed her 79th birthday at Danbury. “The women pay attention to birthdays, have little surprise parties for you — decorations made from toilet paper, a big sign, gifts from the commissary spread out on your bunk,” she says. “If you have affluent friends, who receive money from home, you might get a homemade cheesecake, created out of cream cheese and coffee creamer purchased in the commissary.”

Almost everyone gets a prison nickname. “You don’t make it up, it develops around you,” says Ms. Smith, adding that she didn’t get a nickname exactly, but “most people called me Miss Nancy, and they wouldn’t stop.”

The deep learning goes on, she says. “You never forget the solidarity you feel with people who are trapped like that. And now I understand my sister and brother prisoners of conscience in a way that I didn’t before. I marvel at their determination to go to prison again and again.” Father Louis Vitale, also 79, a Catholic priest from California, was convicted with Ms. Smith, to his fourth prison sentence. “That’s his work, to witness, all his life. I don’t have the courage to do that,” she says.

She does think about going back, “but I don’t know if I will. This might be a good thing for older people to do. If you’re finished with work, your children are grown — think about an act of civil disobedience. Go to prison to witness, report back on the conditions.

“I like the mental picture of that,” she says. “All these older folks hobbling to the prison door. But seriously, if you’re healthy and retired — think about it.” 

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