Smith Holding Her Own in Jail Print
By John Mason
Hudson-Catskill Newspapers

CLAVERACK — “A duck in water” is how the Rev. Bob Cushing described Nancy Smith after he encountered her at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. “She’s one of the few I know that have the charism for that.”

“Charism,” he said, is “a gift from God put together with your own natural tendencies.” Wikipedia defines it as “spiritual ability, endowment and power.”

Smith, of Claverack, was arrested in a November demonstration at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, also known as the School of the Americas, and was sentenced Jan. 7 to six months in prison.

Protesters accused the school of training Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency, psychological warfare, torture and other tactics to prop up brutal dictatorships.

The detention center has about 1,200 prisoners, of which about 200 are women, in a separate wing. Smith is in a cell with three other women, and there are 32 women in their quad. A quad has a common area with a microwave, TV, radio, tables and chairs.

Most of her fellow inmates are in for petty offenses, a couple for immigration issues, some for theft or drugs.

“The image that jumped out was a 20-year-old with four or five kids,” he said.

As a Catholic priest, Cushing has visiting privileges. In a letter, he provided some quotes from his visit with her.

“The building is comfortable. Long sleep is hard,” she said. “Doors slam. But I am fine. Not lacking for anything. I am something of an oddity for the young women here. They give me all kinds of things .... so kind to me. They are amazing ... teaching me so many things: how to be ever so ‘resourceful’ in prison, never missing or not noticing a thing, ever watchful eyes. A precious kind of intimacy is present yet so fragile because some will tell stories of utter fiction as their truth. Thus it is also very sad to behold the poverty of a woman of 20 with five kids and a bad attitude and absolutely no real support system. Whew! There are 32 of us in my pod. I am learning to cultivate a southern accent. When the guard came in and hollered ‘PAIL CALL!’ I had no idea of what she was saying. It was explained, ‘pill call’. ‘Oh,’ I said, smiling.”

Cushing was very impressed with the 78-year-old peace activist.

“I said, ‘You look like an empty rice bowl,’” he said. “You let yourself be filled up with whoever’s in front of you — the whole idea of the Boddhisatva. This is also the spirit of the Beatitudes, being in communion with whoever’s sitting in front of you.”

He has visited her twice, and is planning to return on Friday, but the “whole asceticism of what we do is that we have no clue whether she’ll be there — they tend to move them on Thursdays at the crack of dawn, in their shackles.

“She has the openness that’s necessary to be with people in a prison setting,” he said. “I was a jail chaplain before — I met few people like Nancy. She’s got that gift. It’s beautiful to see someone exercising that ministry for the human family.

“She’s incredible,” he said. “She’s focused, physically fit. She told me, ‘When we can’t go outside, there are stairs up two floors; I run up and down the stairs for a half-an-hour to 45 minutes. If the weather is good, I walk quickly around the quadrangle for an hour and get my heart rate up.’

“She said it’s very important to be a good instrument for peace, which is a very nice part of this Buddhist thing,” Cushing said. “She has an incredibly great respect for people, talking about what she’s learning, making herself their student so she can keep growing with them.”

A vegetarian, at lunch Smith trades her meat with other inmates for their vegetables.

Cushing said Smith has been getting 20 to 40 pieces of mail a day, which she told him is more than she could possibly respond to.

Meanwhile, in another part of the prison, Chris Spicer, who was arrested in the protest with Smith, and is young enough to be her grandson, is having a harder time. He has severe attention-deficit disorder, and prison officials won’t allow him to have his medications.

His father, a lawyer, has been working without success for weeks to get this changed, Cushing said.

Chris Spicer has been relying on a discipline of prayer, exercise and food to deal with this, Cushing said. He has also been denied the mail privileges Smith receives: While she gets mail daily, he has only received it a dozen days out of 27.

“Because she’s seemingly a passive, cooperative person, they’ve been very clean to her,” Cushing said. “She’s the ideal prisoner — she makes no waves, she’s a peacekeeper by nature.”

He said he was going to test the agreeable nature of the captain by bringing in some Quaker and Buddhist texts that Smith had requested and her granddaughter, Kirsten Smith, is sending him.

“The captain who runs it lets me bring prayer books,” he said. “I’ll test him Friday — you helped me with the Catholics, let me test you on the Buddhists.”

Cushing said when he heard Smith’s speech on YouTube before her arrest, about why she chose to engage in civil disobedience against WHINSEC, he said, “Twenty or 30 years ago, that’s the kind of speech I would have made. I’m glad to hear her articulate it. She’s willing to pay the price to make that point.”

To reach reporter John Mason, call 518-828-1616, ext. 2266, or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .