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Friday, March 21, 1997

What she wants is to get back in jail

Accolades for courage, achievement are nice, says Novella Smith Arnold. But what she wants is to get back in jail.

The Commercial Appeal, March 21, 1997
By Michael Kelley

The time for the funeral is fast approaching, so Novella Smith Arnold is jumping on and off elevators at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center with increasing concern.

She checks one office after another for the attorney who agreed to handle a furlough for Brenda States, a 37-year-old jail inmate who wants to view the body of her 19-year-old son, who's been shot to death.

Still, there is time for hugs and kisses on every floor, "Hey, Sweetie" and "Hi, Baby" and "How ya doin'?" at every stop.

At a fourth-floor clerk's office: three hugs. Down to the public defender's office on the second floor: two more. In the hallway outside the office: three more.

Eventually, she locates lawyer Sam Perkins, who will carry the furlough release into Judge Joseph Dailey's courtroom and plead for a few hours' freedom for States, who's serving time for manslaughter.

Arnold, executive director of what used to be called the Criminal Justice Ministry at Calvary Episcopal Church, now We Care, Inc./Kid Care, speaks up in her native Brooklyn accent, promising Dailey the inmate will be back in her cell by 10 tonight. The paperwork is soon on its way to the jail.

Her mission in the courtroom complete, Arnold heads to the jail to inform the inmate she'll get to attend her son's funeral.

There are no hugs here.

As popular as she seems to be around the courts, where she has been a fixture for 17 years, Arnold is in a fight to preserve her credibility and reputation.

She's laboring under a ban that, for the most part, has kept her out of the jail and away from "my people," as she calls Shelby County Jail inmates, for about a year.

Click to enlargeAt the entrance, it takes two telephone calls to Jail Director Denis Dowd to get her past the guards and into a visiting room.

They're still working under Sheriff A. C. Gilless Jr.'s memo of March 12, 1996, that states, without elaboration, that "Effective immediately Mrs. Norvella (sic) Arnold is not allowed entry in the Jail."

Although she negotiated some limited access three weeks ago, Arnold says, the treatment she gets on this particular day is not unusual. "I'm still persona non grata down there."

Arnold is one of seven Memphis-area women who will be honored Sunday when the annual Women of Achievement Awards are handed out at a banquet in the Memphis Marriott.

She appreciates the accolades. Who could complain about getting a "Courage Award"?

What she would also like is to get back inside the Shelby County Jail.

Prior to the ban last March, Arnold was a volunteer chaplain, meeting freely with inmates on their own turf. She looked for those who didn't belong there for one reason or another - mental cases, health problems, inmates with inadequate legal representation and the like - and called on her network of volunteer doctors, lawyers and bail bondsmen to help her get them what they need.

Click to enlargePerkins is a typical member of the network. "I was walking down the hall minding my business one day, and she grabbed me," he said. The collar was the beginning of a complicated vehicular homicide case that took him about a year to defend. "She paid me with a steak dinner at The Pier, and I had to drive," Perkins said. "But I do it because I love her to death."

Gilless isn't saying why Arnold continues to be unwelcome in the jail. "The sheriff doesn't discuss her," spokesman Kay Pittman Black said. "That's a closed subject."

Arnold suspects it might have something to do with a program on March 9, 1996, at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church at which witnesses brought to the hearing by Arnold testified that they or someone they had had sex with had been infected at the jail with the virus that causes AIDS.

She contends that the spread of the HIV virus through rape and unprotected sex at the jail is of "epidemic proportions." She wants reinstatement of a voluntary separate pod for homosexual prisoners which was eliminated in 1994, distribution of condoms to prisoners, mandatory AIDS education, mandatory testing, and relocation of prisoners with AIDS to a separate facility outside the jail where they could get focused medical treatment.

The issue also has attracted the attention of the Memphis Branch NAACP; the Shelby County Public Defender's Office; state Rep. Kathryn Bowers (D-Memphis), sponsor of a bill - passed by a House subcommittee this week and scheduled to go before the Health and Human Services Committee next week - that would require AIDS testing of prisoners convicted of a crime in Tennessee; and, among others, Memphis lawyer Richard Fields, who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of HIV-positive inmates alleging inadequate treatment.

Vasco Smith, chairman of the NAACP's health committee, said the organization wrote Gilless last spring asking about the problem and urging him to let Arnold back into the jail.

"We felt she did nothing but attempt to do good, and also felt that the overall problem she was looking at should be investigated to see what could be done to get some remedies," Smith said.

The sheriff wrote Smith last June, ignoring the ban but reporting that "the problem of AIDS infected inmates is not as rampant as being reported by uninformed sources."

"Recently, I had a discussion with Steve Campbell who is the director in charge of health care services for inmates and he informed me that at the present time we have only about 10 inmates infected with AIDS," the sheriff wrote. "This number is not alarming based on the lifestyle of those incarcerated in the Shelby County Jail."

The letter came two days after Dowd reported in a memo to Sheriff's Department legal adviser Don Strother that "any inmate who actively resists assault and is loud enough about it can avoid assault" in the jail.

"To the extent that we are providing STD (sexually transmitted disease) education to all jail inmates and testing to those who request it, and to the extent that we do voluntarily separate any inmate who requests it, we are taking all means reasonable to reduce the spread of AIDS in and out of jail."

A decision in mid-1994 to eliminate the "homosexual pod" in the jail, shortly after he was appointed jail director, seemed to have reduced instances of rape in the jail, Dowd reported. Distributing condoms to jail inmates, he said, would give the impression that the department either condones sex among inmates or can't control the jail, and "Neither is true."

Although they haven't attacked her directly, Arnold says, administrators' reassurances that AIDS isn't a problem at the jail, coupled with the unexplained ban, have been attempts to discredit her and her campaign.

"I have always been a credible person, and they tried to destroy my credibility, because many people thought because I was barred that I was a security risk," Arnold said in an interview last week. "People were getting thrown out because they were security risks."

"She paid me with a steak dinner at The Pier, and I had to drive," Perkins said. "But I do it because I love her to death."

Says her friend Sam Perkins, "It didn't affect her reputation because nobody knew what that was about. But the ban hurt her effectiveness by not allowing her to get back in there and talk to people."

Even with the ban, say her allies, she remains the primary force behind the movement to get a full account of the problem of AIDS in the jail and protection for men who may end up carrying the virus to the general population when they're released.

"She's had the courage to address the issue and expose it," said Johnnie Turner, executive secretary of the Memphis branch NAACP. "She could have kept from creating any disturbance so she could have continued her ministry there. But I think her personal belief was that the issue was so great that even at the risk of undesirable repercussions she was willing to take that stand."

"The work she's done has brought this issue to light," Bowers said. "This is a very, very big problem. It's a subject most people just don't want to discuss."

The woman who is doing her best to make sure it's discussed couldn't have come to the controversy by way of a more circuitous route.

Born June 9, 1939, in Harlem Hospital, the daughter of a high school English teacher and a career Army officer, Novella Doe danced professionally in New York before reaching her teenage years, and, after moving to Europe at age 13, continued her career in the movies and professional dance performances in Munich, Germany.

It was a pursuit that she maintained until moving back to the United States in 1958 with her first husband, former foreign service officer James Leonard Smith. There, she began a career as a radio disc jockey, which brought her into contact with Stax Records executive Al Bell.

Bell brought both Smiths to Memphis in 1973, naming him to a management position and her the studio production chief, where she worked with artists, budgeted recording sessions and helped promote the product with her acquaintances in radio around the country.

After the demise of Stax in 1975, she worked in marketing for a while, but eventually returned to radio, holding positions for several stations around town. The Smiths went their separate ways. She also has been through a second marriage, to William Arnold.

In 1980, after daughter Monique's graduation from Lausanne Collegiate School, she answered a newspaper ad inviting her to befriend a jail inmate and became a volunteer with the Criminal Justice Ministry. A few months later, after the resignation of its executive director, she found herself running the organization.

Several years ago, she found a special focus for her work when a foster daughter went to the hospital to have her fourth child and discovered that both she and the baby had been infected with the AIDS virus. The baby's father was a former Shelby County Jail inmate suspected of picking up the virus in jail.

Since then, she said, she has had counseling sessions with numerous inmates who have been infected.

For last spring's meeting at Mississippi Boulevard, and, on behalf of Bowers's bill, she has prepared witnesses to testify from personal experience about the public health issue that is often difficult to discuss.

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Edition: Final; Section: Appeal; Page: C1
Copyright (c) 1997 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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