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Trapped

Five years ago, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a Georgia discrimination case called for the desegregation of mental institutes and nursing homes nationwide. But today, few in Georgia have been granted that freedom.

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Rhonda Davidson slouches into the threadbare couch. She pops a handful of Reese's Pieces into her mouth and stares into space with empty, glazed eyes. She tries to talk around the candy bits shoved between her lips.

"I want to get out of here," she says in a low, slurred voice.

She adjusts her misshapen Braves baseball cap and keeps glancing around the small, white room adorned with fake flowers, a lone painting, a couch and two chairs. She's looking for something. She finds nothing. She wipes her nose with the cuff of her gray sweatshirt.

"They called me a bitch this morning because I accidentally wet the bed," she says. "It's because of the medicine. It's not my fault."

She attempts to recall the incident, but stops and starts abruptly.

"Can I have a cigarette?"

She's told she can't. She's already reached her limit for the day.

"I don't like all these rules," she says. "I just want to get out of here."

She turns her pale face toward me. "Who are you? Do you have any lipstick for me?"

No, I reply, but I do have a pack of gum. She grabs it as I pull it out of my purse. Her lawyer explains who I am.

"I'll talk to you once I have a cigarette," she says.

She knows how to bargain.

Her lawyer, Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Sue Jamieson, convinces an attendant to let Rhonda have one more smoke. It's a special occasion. Rhonda has visitors. Rhonda rarely gets visitors.

We walk down the hallway. It's quieter than a tomb. Rhonda ambles in front. A faint stench of urine and body odor trails behind her. We reach a locked gray door. The attendant fumbles for the key, no small task since the keychain holds about two dozen. We descend two flights of stairs and reach another locked door. The attendant opens it, and we step into a courtyard enclosed by a black iron fence. There's a scattering of wooden benches and two worn picnic tables. We sit at one of the tables. The attendant settles on a bench across from us.

"It's cold out here," Rhonda says. Jamieson and I are comfortable on this balmy October night.

Rhonda snatches a cigarette. She sighs after she inhales her first puff.

"I want to go shopping and I want to go have a hamburger," she says. "I want some new clothes and shoes, shoes like hers," she says, pointing at my brown heels.

She can't remember the last time she left the facility. A few weeks ago, Rhonda signed up to go to Golden Corral for a special meal, but she didn't fill out the papers correctly. She was denied, and sat alone on her twin-sized bed while others filed onto a bus that took them to the all-you-can-eat buffet.

She misses her home in Fort Valley, outside Macon. She hasn't been there in six years, she says. Her daddy couldn't care for her anymore. One day he called the sheriff and plopped her in a county car. She arrived here, without any explanation.

"I didn't help around the house," she says. "I just sat on the couch. I guess that's why."

The attendant tells us we've got to go. It's 8:30 p.m.

Once inside, Rhonda lingers next to the soda machine.

"I want a Mountain Dew," she says.

"We already got you candy," Jamieson replies.

I dig through my wallet and find 60 cents. Rhonda smiles.

"You can have some if you want," she says.

Rhonda plunges back into the couch and opens a plastic container that holds a slice of strawberry shortcake. She takes two bites and then pushes it away.

"I found a letter today," she says. She pulls a tattered gray piece of paper out of her shirt pocket. She doesn't know what it says or where it's from. It's hers now. She then pulls a red papier-mache mask from her pants pocket. She made it during arts and crafts class. It's starting to unravel.

She scans the room again and clenches the letter and mask in her fist.

"I keep the things important to me on me," she says. "I'm getting smarter and smarter every day."

 

Rhonda has risen to orders and followed rules for the past six years at Milledgeville's Central State Hospital, Georgia's largest mental institute. Diagnosed with schizophrenic affective disorder and borderline personality disorder, the 33-year-old retains the mental capacity of a fourth-grader. She's never gone swimming. She rarely receives hugs. She's told what to eat, what to wear, when to wake and when to sleep. She perpetually enters and exits the locked doors of the Freeman building, which houses long-term mentally ill patients. She only gets to leave the isolated, 1,125-bed, 1,750-acre property for special occasions. On Thursdays, she can take a bus ride around downtown Milledgeville, but she can't get off the bus. She just stares out the window at the shops, restaurants, office buildings and gas stations.

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