It's 1997. At first glance, the
mural-graced wall enclosing Trenton State Prison looks like that of
a minor-league baseball stadium, but the accordion wire along the
top and the dark glass of the turret windows are the tip-off: This a
maximum-security prison -- and home of Greg Smith.
My companion and I park by the Doin' Time Bar and join the crowd
awaiting contact visit no. 3. You can always tell who's here for the
first time: They get in the wrong line or violate the arbitrary and
arcane dress code. Today my companion is turned away for wearing
sweatpants. Who knew?
A guard yells, "Visit three will begin now!" followed by a
summary barking of the rules and names. At "Smith!" I get in line. I
show the stamp I got at the stamp desk, shuffle through the metal
detector, get frisked and waved through.
Jammed hip-to-butt, we visitors shuffle awkwardly through a
series of holding cells between doors with automatic locks until we
reach our destination.
The visiting room is large and L-shaped, with plastic chairs set
in long rows to discourage intimacy. As prisoners filter in to greet
loved ones, I imagine Greg making his way through a dim -- or is it
bright? -- maze of corridors that I will never see. I wait, watching
wives and kids and brothers and grandmas strain to be cheerful with
their men, all under the gaze of the guards on the bulletproof-glass
observation deck. After a while, I begin to panic. My companion has
gone home, and there is no sign of Greg.
Finally, a guard informs me that Greg was recently moved, and the
central message center can't find him. "You mean he's lost?" I
stammer. The guard shrugs, sympathetic but just as powerless as I
Halfway into the visiting hour, Greg arrives, handsomely dressed
in jeans and a burgundy polo shirt. But there's a grim, angry set to
his jaw. By now, I'm frustrated too. In the world beyond these
walls, a lost 30 minutes wouldn't enrage us like this. But here,
where inside and outside touch only fleetingly and on Sunday-best
behavior, every second must be picture perfect.
Smith is serving 25 years for assault and attempted murder
stemming from an alleged biting incident while in custody in 1989 on
a robbery charge. Sound harsh? Absolutely. What makes Smith subject
to more brutal punishment than other prisoners is that he has HIV.
From the first day of his original five-year sentence, he was viewed
by prison officials as a diseased troublemaker. Judy Greenspan,
chair of the HIV and Prison Committee of California Prison Focus,
has followed many cases of HIV positive people incarcerated on
charges out of all proportion to the actual incident. "Guards come
to expect they will get into scuffles and fights with inmates," she
says. "The average prisoner gets 30 days in segregation. But the
assumption is that people with HIV are attempting to kill the guard,
not defending themselves."
Greg Smith's trial in New Jersey made headlines from Washington,
DC, to New York City. Many activists were shocked that a biting
charge brought more jail time than most murderers serve. After all,
we thought, it's 1990 -- only crackpots still believed that HIV
could be transmitted through saliva. Greg had his moment as a cause
celebre, but once his name and mug shot vanished from the papers,
his fate slipped from my mind. This guy will get lousy care and
little support, I thought, and there's no way he'll make it out
alive. Back then, I didn't even expect my positive friends, with
their state-of-the-art regimens, to last another 25
Then, a year and a half ago, friends from ACT UP/Philadelphia
told me about a New Jersey prisoner with HIV who was writing a
memoir. I had covered prison and HIV issues early in the epidemic
and helped several prisoners place their writing. This seemed like a
match made in heaven. So I sent a letter to someone I had long ago
put down as a dead man walking.
And he wrote back.
I'm now pleased to report that Gregory Dean Smith is alive and
well and making trouble in Trenton State Prison.
I began to visit Greg, sending letters between trips to the
prison. I plied him with questions about his medical care and AIDS
advocacy, and he regaled me with tales of his (usually) near-miss
sexual conquests. Besides being, by the nature of his offense, open
about his serostatus, Greg is one of only a handful of openly gay
men in the New Jersey prison system. Early in his prison life, he
became close friends with another young, openly gay man, a "big
queen who can do some damage," Smith told me. "We always hang
together, eating meals and watching each other's back. We use our
special names, and we 'read' the other inmates for who is hot and
who is not."
I also got the full story behind his sensational "biting murder"
case. Greg Smith was frantic at his 1989 sentencing for the robbery
conviction. He got five years, which, pre-protease, may as well have
been 5,000. His only hope, he thought, was to get official assurance
that he could serve his time at the AIDS ward in Trenton's state
facility. He was 27 years old. He had dropped out of high school and
then had been discharged from the army. He had gone to New York
City, waited tables and partied hard. Deep into drugs, he was soon
committing petty crimes and racking up misdemeanors. In 1985, Greg
tested positive, and he got scared; his drug use escalated and so
did his crimes. While awaiting this transfer, Smith, quite ill, fell
out of bed and hurt his back. When hospital staff declined to take
X-rays, Smith demanded a copy of his medical report. The staff
viewed this as an affront and tempers flared. Accounts of what
happened next conflict. According to the two guards present, Smith
became violent, then threatened, spit on and finally bit one of
them; according to Smith, he was beaten, handcuffed and dragged out
of the hospital, where the guards and Smith fell to the ground. To
this day he swears that a bite analysis -- never carried out by the
court -- would have proved that the handcuffs and not Greg's teeth
made the marks on the officer's hand.
The day after the scuffle, Greg awoke facing charges of attempted
murder, aggravated assault and making terroristic threats. When the
case went to trial nine months later, the officer who was allegedly
bitten was on disability for post-traumatic stress syndrome; the one
who charged only assault had reportedly left corrections for the
ministry. Smith sat in prison.
The State of New Jersey v. Gregory Dean Smith began on
April 3, 1990, like a B-grade TV courtroom drama. In his opening
statement, Assistant Prosecutor Harold Kasselman depicted Smith as a
hard case who, in his desperate bid to do his time in a cushy
medical unit, "intimidated and threatened sheriff's officers" with a
dangerous weapon. This was no ordinary weapon, he went on, "it
wasn't a machete, it wasn't a homemade shiv and it wasn't a handgun
that he smuggled into the jail. It was his own personal weapon of
Dramatizing the peril of Smith's very presence for the jury, he
said, "he carried with him a virus and he carries it with him
today." He argued that the fact that HIV cannot be transmitted
through biting was irrelevant to the charge of attempted murder. As
long as he could prove that Smith intended to kill the guard by
"giving him AIDS," then Smith should be found guilty.
As effectively as Kasselman used Smith's HIV against him, the
court-appointed defense attorney, Ralph Kramer, argued that Smith
was simply a patient desperate for adequate care for AIDS and an
injured back. He asked the jury to imagine itself in Smith's
situation: "You scream and you yell and you pray to God that
somebody's listening. He can't go to Cooper Hospital, ladies and
gentlemen, when he wants to, he can't go to his family physician
when he wants to, he can't go to his preacher for comfort when he
wants to. He's locked in a cell." In addition to humanizing Smith,
Kramer argued that there could be no intent to kill because Smith
was well-educated about HIV and knew that transmitting the virus
through biting was impossible.
Was it a night of threats from a belligerent prisoner or one of
AIDS hysteria? Was Greg Smith a monster or a victim? This was the
stark choice the jury faced as the weeklong trial concluded. Smith
didn't have to wait long. On April 11, 1990, he was found guilty of
attempted murder, assault of a police officer and making
ACT UP and the ACLU were out in full colors for the May 18, 1990
sentencing. The prosecution asked the Honorable John B. Marino to
give Greg an "extended term" of 50 years as a "persistent offender";
the defense, after reminding the judge of Smith's ill health and
lack of a violent record, asked for the minimum. Marino opted for
the maximum, but not "extended" term, a total of 25 years, half of
which Smith had to serve before he could try for parole.
The harshness of the sentence literally stunned Smith's
supporters. "I was so upset, I stood up and yelled in open court,"
recalls veteran advocate Judy Greenspan. "I thought the first voice
would be ACT UP's, but it was mine, screaming, 'You've given this
man a death sentence!'"
Greenspan, like many activists and people with HIV, was outraged
that Smith was being punished less for getting physical with a guard
-- a relatively routine prison infraction -- than for having HIV.
"This was a 'symbolic landmark' case," said Scott Burris, associate
professor of law at Temple University. "It added nothing new to the
body of legal rules, but it dramatically illustrated the capacity of
stigma and racism and HIV phobia to justify official brutality."
Greenspan goes further. "The judicial system is trying to
criminalize the very existence of people with HIV," she says. "It's
that simple. In virtually all of the dozen or so cases of this kind,
the person was incarcerated on petty drug or theft charges. But
officials seem to believe people with HIV who get in brushes with
the law should be kept in prison as long as possible."
Hard-nosed prosecutors like Kasselman reject this analysis as the
sentimentality of naive, dewy-eyed radicals. At the sentencing he
took a swipe at Smith's supporters. "This man is a selfish,
malicious three-time felony loser," he told the packed courtroom.
"It is unconscionable and unfair to try to raise this individual as
a martyr, to place him in the same category as people like Ryan
White, who truly were veterans of discrimination."
For all the press and stress of his trial, this period remains a
blur for Smith. During it his mother was very sick with cancer. On
the night before jury selection, he was up late in his Trenton cell
worrying and reading his nightly Bible. "About 1 am, just as I began
saying my prayers, it started to thunder outside," Smith tells me on
one of my visits. "Not a cloud in the sky, but it was the loudest
thunder. And when I finished praying, the thunder stopped. That's
when I knew my mother had passed away. I cried all night. I said to
myself, 'Gregory, it can't get any worse than this.'" A photo of
Smith at her funeral, shackled and flanked by prison guards, ran in
the local papers.
In memory of her, Smith began to focus on advocating for other
HIV positive inmates in the hope that his attempted-murder
conviction would be struck down. He wasn't alone. In November 1990,
radical lawyer William Kunstler announced that he would handle the
appeal. The ACLU and nearly two dozen gay, AIDS and human rights
groups filed an amicus brief on Greg's behalf. Argued in November
1992, the highly technical and lengthy appeal challenged the
handling of evidence concerning the feasibility of transmitting HIV
through biting, and argued that the jury instructions were improper.
The following February, the court upheld the original decision.
Smith's disappointment turned to devastation when Kunstler died in
1995. "I was hurt, really heartbroken," Smith recalls. "He was the
lawyer of little people. I remember talking to him on the phone and
saying, 'Mr. Kunstler,' but he said, 'No, Mr. Smith, call me Bill.'"
Years passed. The reality that he was likely to be in prison for a
long time began to set in. His lawyers abandoned his case, and his
health deteriorated. A few supporters kept in touch; ACT
UP/Philadelphia, along with family friend Jacqueline Smith, sent him
monthly food packages with special items that helped Greg "feel like
I was still a person."
Then, in 1996, ACT UP joined with a local prison-rights group to
protest the privatization of the New Jersey prison medical system,
charging that the co-payment system implemented by Correctional
Medical Services, the new vendor, disadvantaged people with chronic
illnesses. "Greg called us daily with updates on what was happening
inside," said ACT UP/Philadelphia's Asia Russell. "He reported on
the inmates' concerns over being able to pay to see doctors." The
advocate and organizer in Greg Smith was reborn. Soon he was
contributing a regular column to Critical Path, the
award-winning HIV treatment information website and newsletter
managed by Kiyoshi Kuromiya (see
POZ, February/March 1996). "He's bright and talented,"
Kuromiya says. "It's a waste of his life -- and state funds -- to
keep him in prison for a silly offense. That's why we send him
writing materials and food."
It's 1998: Last year's visits with the once-upbeat Greg now seem
to me like a dream. For most of the past year, he has been locked in
"administrative segregation" (Ad Seg) with about 300 of Trenton's
2,000-plus prisoners cited for misbehavior. He is locked down for 23
hours a day, and denied contact visits. Greg believes he is in Ad
Seg for trying to organize a prisoner work stoppage against new
cost-cutting policies that limit visits and phone calls, eliminate
food packages and require inmates to wear only prison uniforms. The
administration refuses to comment on the reason for his confinement.
Mary Petty, a social worker and ACT UPer who regularly visits
Greg, worries about the decline in Greg's mental and physical
health. "The whole point of Ad Seg is to limit social contact, both
with other prisoners and with the outside world," she says. "The
general skewing of perspective that prisoners develop from being out
of society is exacerbated by the segregation. Basically, its
designed to drive them crazy."
It's hard to hold a conversation over a bad phone and through a
wall of Plexiglas. At first, I felt silly putting my hand up to
match Greg's, as though this somehow made up for the lack of
"contact." I feel defiant in this gesture: They can keep prisoners
from their only outside contacts, but they cannot stop us from
aligning the few things we have in common, for the few minutes we
For all the distance, there are moments like this: Ever the
gossip, Greg eyes the visitors next to me, a transperson with a
young child. He spots a macho guy walking to the prisoner side of
the locked cage. "Did he sit down across from the cross-dresser?"
Greg asks excitedly. I say yes. "Damn! I knew it!" Greg squeals in
delight. He has long suspected the prisoner is a "queen," but the
man has always denied it.
In our last few visits, I've been pleased to see that Greg's will to
fight is returning. He has figured out how to accessorize his drab
new clothes, and he has even shared a new joke or two. The big
concern now is Greg's health. Since his arrest in 1989, his weight
has fluctuated from 160 to 110 and back. He's had Bell's Palsy -- a
viral infection in the facial nerves -- and he has lost all of his
teeth through poor dental care. His doctor visits are minimal, and
his lab work sporadic. He is currently taking diflucan and Bactrim
along with vitamins and Ensure, but no antiretrovirals.
It's lonely inside. With little to gain in the way of medical
attention, many men don't want to admit they have HIV. "They figure
they're going to die anyway," says Smith, "so why go through the
hassle of people knowing they have HIV?" It is hard to get proper
care for yourself, much less push for better treatment
But Smith is one man who's trying. He's at the forefront of a
revolution inside that we on the outside can help by making sure
that he can at least pay for his prescriptions and doctors' visits.
In the meantime, Greg Smith is working on his memoir. We should all
be so lucky to find a place in his pages. When he finally gets out
of prison, besides continuing to work on his memoirs, Greg vows to
give his time to ACT UP. "I picture myself answering the phone," he
says. "ACT UP, Greg Smith here. How can I help you?"
EXCERPTS FROM LETTERS TO POZ FROM PWAS BEHIND BARS:
"Everyone in here wants to remind you that you're dying, as though they are immortal and are not ever going to die."
—Lawrence Owens, Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, Lucasville, Ohio
"I've seen three different doctors, and all three gave me different explanations for the newly formed white lumps on the back of my throat."
-Steve Launer, California Medical Facility State Prison, Vacaville, California