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Retarded inmates at neighbors' mercy

Mainard Wilson _ estimated IQ 60 to 70 _ walks around Zephyrhills Correctional Institution clapping his hands, scrounging cigarettes and, says a former inmate, being picked on by prisoners and guards.

Wilson is one of 121 mentally retarded inmates who often face such abuse. They move from prison to prison and serve more time than non-retarded inmates, according to mental health professionals.

"They have severe problems in prison," Mark Lopez, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's prison project, told the Times-Union in Jacksonville for a story Sunday.

In addition to being mentally retarded, Wilson has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and suffers from a chronic seizure disorder. His file says he is constantly being punished with loss of good-behavior time for breaking the rules.

"Life is hell for him in there. Any time the other inmates and the guards want to pick on someone, they go looking for Mainard," said James Burke, a former inmate who did time with Wilson at Zephyrhills, about 21 miles north of Tampa. "He's been raped and beaten over and over again."

Prison officials barred an interview with Wilson even though he signed a permission form and said he wanted to talk to a reporter.

"My medical and legal people say it would not be in the best rehabilitative interests of the inmate," said state Corrections Secretary Harry Singletary.

Wilson was sentenced in 1989 to nine years for lewd and lascivious behavior _ exposing himself to two underage girls and their teacher _ and for violating probation by robbing a convenience store of $31.50 while armed with a broken soda pop bottle.

Prosecutor Betsy Wood Chambers, defense attorney Scott Robbins and probation administrator Erio Alvarez all said they realized Wilson has severe mental problems and don't think he really belongs in prison. But court psychiatrists found him competent to be tried and he was found guilty, leaving nothing more they could do.

Since entering the state prison system, Wilson has had dozens of scrapes with other inmates and prison personnel, his file revealed.

In 1989, he was placed in administrative confinement at Zephyrhills after hitting another inmate he said was "playing homosexual games with me."

In June 1993, Wilson reported that he was sexually assaulted at Union Correctional Institution.

In the mental health unit, he is kept separate from the general population and receives medication for his mental illness, said E. Jerome Kapnek, the prison system's director of mental health.

But Burke, who described himself as a compulsive pill taker, said he was in the mental health unit with Wilson and saw him being teased and abused.

"The inmates hardly ever get to go outside, and there's a bunch of mentally ill people jammed together," he said.

Florida's 121 retarded inmates _ 113 men and eight women _ represent about 0.2 percent of the state prison population of more than 56,000, said Kapnek. Mental health experts and prison rights advocates say such inmates should have special facilities.

In Florida, all the system can do is try to place them where they won't be abused too badly, said Singletary.

"We don't have any facilities in the Florida prison system for retarded inmates, but we try to get them in the best places where they don't get lost among 1,300 to 1,400 men," he said. "The Florida prison system can't be all things to all people."