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Sometimes when Sidney Smith is driving down the street and he sees an inmate work crew picking up trash on the side of the road, he stops.
The University of Southern Mississippi social work student gets out to have a chat with the men who are picking up paper, cans and bottles.
“I say to their supervisor, ‘Can I just share for three minutes?’” Smith said.
Then Smith, 49, hauls out his social worker’s license card and his inmate identification card from the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
“These two should never be in the same wallet at the same time,” he tells the men.
Smith’s story is one of contradictions. He spent 27 years addicted to crack. He was sentenced to 20 years for drug-related offenses and two grand larcenies out of Harrison County. And he’s been in at least 10 rehab programs for drug addiction.
But on Friday, in Hattiesburg, he graduated with a master’s in social work. He’s a member of the Southern Miss Honors College and a McNair Scholar — prepared to do doctoral work. He earned a 4.0 GPA nine semesters in a row, and he graduated magna cum laude in 2018 when he got his bachelor’s degree.
He’s also had his voting rights restored with a Mississippi House Bill featuring his name — “an act to restore the right of suffrage to Sidney Harrington Smith III.”
He couldn’t have done any of it without being seven years sober.
Smith has turned his life around.
Eating out of garbage cans
“When I was 12 or 13 I was stealing alcohol out of the refrigerator,” he says of his childhood in a rough part of Oakland, California. “Just being bad.”
His mother and stepfather were postal workers, but while they were at work, Smith — at 14 — began selling and using drugs. He would also spend his allowance and sell his own possessions to buy cocaine.
“To me, it was a great feeling,” he said. “I enjoyed it.
“It is what drug addicts think it is — it felt good.”
He came to Mississippi in 1993 — running from the law in California on drug charges and for violating probation. But his life didn’t get any better here.
At times, he was eating out of garbage cans so he could save money for his drug habit. He spent 13 years in prisons in this state and in Louisiana for drug-related felony convictions.
And he went to rehab. Again and again and again.
“You’re talking about 10 different rehabs that I’ve counted,” he said. “Ten different buildings that I’ve been in.”
But that’s all in the past. Or rather it would be, if Smith didn’t keep talking about it.
He let the classmates in his Southern Miss Introduction to Social Work class know that he had been in prison.
“He shared about his background and that he had struggled in the past,” said lecturer Karen Aderer. “In our profession, we believe in the growth and ability of every single person to change, but it also prompts a conversation with students that they can’t get a license and practice if they have a criminal background.”
But Aderer said Smith’s criminal past wasn’t going to stop him.
“He was absolutely set on getting his degree and proceeding forward,” she said. “He really trusted his God would work things out and provide a path.”
Wife stayed by his side
Smith obtained that trust in God in his last rehab center — Mercy House Adult and Teen Challenge in Georgetown.
“My parole officer gave me the choice of prison or treatment,” Smith said. “You really think someone who has 10 failed attempts that this is going to do it?
“Me going to a treatment center was nothing. I just did 10 years in prison. One of the biggest myths is that the person’s gotta be ready. If you knew how cracked out I was — how could I want to change?”
But, in 2011, at Mercy House, Smith found something different from the other programs he had attended.
“If it’s what I think it was — it was Christ,” he said. “I was a dope fiend. I didn’t go there thinking Christ could change me.
“I went there thinking I was so dirty and done so much wrong.”
It took about seven or eight months before Smith began to see any progress.
“They never brought up my drug past,” he said. “They only talked about giving me a new identity — who I was in Christ.”
Smith successfully completed a 14-month program and then returned to his hometown of Gulfport, where his wife, Judy Smith, was waiting. She had stayed with him through 25 years of his struggles.
“I knew that it was a different (him) inside and I was waiting for God to find it,” she said. “He’s been out and clean and sober and doing beautifully now.”
After graduating from rehab, Smith earned his GED and completed two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He began at Southern Miss as an undergraduate in social work in 2015.
Steven Gill, Smith’s former parole officer, along with Gulfport’s police chief, whom Smith had befriended, were among those who accompanied him as he went before the Mississippi State Board of Examiners of Social Workers and Marriage & Family Therapists to apply for a social work license. He needed the support because of his criminal record, but he was eventually approved for a license.
Experience shared with probation, parole, drug court clients
Smith stays in touch with Gill and Gill has him speak to some of his probation, parole and drug court clients after they complete a cognitive behavior class.
“A lot of these people say they’re not going to be able to do (anything) because they’ve got this felony on their record,” Gill said. “He’s an example of ‘you can do more.’”
Now that he has his master’s degree, Smith has big plans for his life. He’s working to create a Teen Challenge rehab on the Coast.
He’s working with Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, to see about creating some legislation that could restore voting rights to more people like himself.
And he’s on a crime reduction and community relations board with Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania.
For Smith, the future looks bright.
“Never giving up and believing in yourself and an identity Christ has given you enables you to do anything,” he said. “Yeah, you’re gonna have days that don’t look good and don’t feel good, but just trusting in Christ and knowing that he loves you is enough to get you through.”
For more, head over to HattiesburgAmerican.com
The University of Southern Mississippi’s Geoff LoCicero contributed to this article.