Friday, October 18, 2019

Charlie and Libby Visit With Good Friend








Above: Charlie and Libby Norman visit with old friend Gary Mercer at Tomoka C. I., Daytona Beach, Florida, on Saturday, September 28, 2019


Twenty-three years ago, I worked in the Education Department at Sumter C.I., near Bushnell, Florida. I originally came to Sumter to participate in the R.I.T.E. Program (Responsible Inmate-Taught Education), a federal grant program to train college-educated prisoners as teachers, to fill in the budget cutbacks for teachers in the prison system statewide. The program was unique in that it had been created by a very smart prisoner, David Tal-Mason, who I'd known and worked with in vocational HVAC at Polk C.I. years before. We had brainstormed various ideas for new programs, and I had warned David about protecting federal grant proposals from FDOC tampering, which was commonplace then. He took those warnings to heart, and the R.I.T.E. Program progressed intact.

Sumter had a very large, full-scale education department, and the R.I.T.E. Program took up a spacious classroom/office on the second floor. One day the empty classroom next to ours became the substance abuse program, a privately-contracted program sponsored by Rev. Frank Costantino's ''Bridges of America,'' based in Orlando.

I had known Frank for years. I introduced myself to the ''free people'' running the new program, Gary Mercer, an ex-Marine from Massachusetts, and Melissa DeJarlais, ex-Air Force from Minot, North Dakota. Although I wasn't assigned to their program, I was the ''go-to guy,'' if someone needed something, I was the problem solver. Gary and Melissa were obviously good people, sincerely concerned about helping prisoners, and I got along well with them, trying to help them understand the alien prison world they found themselves in.

Sumter had a full-scale recreation program, a big multipurpose building with a basketball court, weightlifting, band/music program, and arts and crafts, where men did woodwork, leatherwork, and art. I spent much of my free time in the art room, open until nine p.m., seven days a week, creating acrylic, watercolor, and pastel paintings.

Florida law still in effect authorizes prisoners to make and sell hobby craft items in their off-duty time. That's a dead horse in today's harsh, no-frills prison system. I kept most of my paintings, my retirement fund, I called it, but I sold one or two a month to prison staff to pay for my art materials. The state gave us the space, but we bought our materials.

I went through a period of wildlife paintings, and focused on birds for awhile, egrets, waterbirds, hawks, and owls. I painted a large swooping eagle in acrylics, and took it over to the school to show the teachers. Gary Mercer took one look at the painting, and asked, ''How much?'' He filled out the paperwork, deposited the money, and the eagle was his.

Twenty-three years passed. Life moved on. Gary left Sumter. I went on a tour of violent prisons, ending up at Tomoka for a second time in 2018. Then Libby got an email sent to the freecharlienow.com web site from Gary Mercer, who now lived, retired, in Spring Hill, Florida, with his wife, Marion. He said he thought about me every day, seeing my name on the eagle painting on his wall. He wondered if I'd gotten out of prison, looked me up, and sent an email to Libby. He remembered me well from Sumter, and offered to help our freedom efforts in whatever way he could. He also felt strongly that his eagle painting belonged back with the artist, and mailed it to Libby, who was deeply moved by his concern and generosity.

After months of paperwork and rigmarole, Gary won approval to visit, which he did this past Saturday. It was very good to see him. Father Time has been good to Gary, he's virtually unchanged in appearance, and continues helping others, mostly with AA.

With all the negatives we must endure to survive this life in prison, Libby and I count our blessings for the guardian angels, like Gary, who continue to light our path out of the darkness.

Charlie Norman


 
In these 1996 photos of me taken in the Sumter C.I. art room, 
you can see Gary's eagle, along with other artworks.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

PRISON EVACUATIONS OVER


Friday, September 6, 2019


NOTICE: The prison hurricane evacuation was only a test. If it had been a real hurricane evacuation, there would have been high winds and rain blowing off roofs and flooding the streets in Florida. Instead, thousands of prisoners were quickly bused to distant inland prisons as practice, in case a real emergency comes up during the current hurricane season. No one is complaining. Hurricane Dorian blew away large swaths of the Bahamas, but spared Florida. All we saw were breezes and intermittent drizzles.

On Wednesday, September 4th, the FDC Secretary, retired U. S. Army General Mark Inch came to Columbia C. I. to thank the prisoners for cooperating with the challenging prison evacuations. That's never happened in my 41 years imprisonment, the head man showing up and openly talking with the prisoners. We're hoping that willingness to participate in dialogues with prisoners continues.

The guards came in the dorm at 3:23 a.m. this morning and told us to get ready to return to Tomoka C. I. Ten hours later, we boarded buses. Dozens of guards were waiting for our return. Everyone was exhausted after the rough bus ride, and I looked forward to falling out on my bunk. It was not to be. Every bunk had been "flipped," the term they use for ransacking the housing areas while we were gone. It looked like Hurricane Dorian's wrath had been imported into our dorm, tossing the bunk mattresses, scattering pillows, sheets and blankets.

I understand. Everyone was gone, nothing was happening, the hurricane bypassed Daytona, they were bored, had nothing to do, someone suggested, let's ransack everything. Hey, good idea. "C'est la vie."

The worst part is the authorities have cancelled family visits for the second weekend in a row. It's easy to remake a flipped bunk. Losing days with your loved ones is irreplaceable.

Please pray that the weather build-ups in the eastern Atlantic Ocean fizzle out and spare us all any more natural disasters this year.

Best to all.

Charlie

Monday, September 2, 2019

HURRICANE DORIAN THREATENS PRISON EVACUATIONS


For weeks my wife Libby and I have been looking forward to the Labor Day weekend, three days of visiting together, and quietly celebrating my seventieth birthday. It was not to be. This morning the JPAY website notified everyone with a tablet that due to the hurricane, all visiting statewide has been cancelled. We knew that already. The only remaining question is will we be evacuated in the next day or so.

Dorian crept up on us, a mild tropical storm that spared Puerto Rico and headed west, building up strength, aiming toward Florida. Rumors abounded. Would we be packed on prison buses and evacuated somewhere north and west? In the past few years, this prison in Daytona Beach has been evacuated twice. In 2004, however, three powerful hurricanes converged and passed through Tomoka C. I. in a six-week period, raising holy hell. No electricity, no plumbing, no showers, peanut butter sandwiches three times a day, no visits. But we hunkered down and withstood everything Mother Nature threw at us.

The trees were not so lucky. Tomoka was known for its tall trees shading the compound for twenty-five years, only fitting since the prison was carved out of a bird sanctuary in the Tomoka State Forest. Red-shouldered hawks still perch on fences and seize inattentive mourning doves, sandhill cranes dig for insects in the lawn beside the library, occasional bald eagles glide overhead, panicking the turkey vultures and black vultures that roost on the stained water tower, and a colony of wood storks stake out swamp trees east of the compound. Territorial mockingbirds still serenade our visitors waiting for entry on weekends, and tirelessly chase away crows. A flock of wild Osceola turkeys roam across the parking lot, ignoring the visitors. None of our feathered friends nest in trees inside the fences. The trees are all gone.

There must have been at least two-hundred trees here before Hurricane Charlie demolished half of them. After hurricane season ended, the authorities decreed that the remaining trees would be chopped down for "security reasons." Within weeks the large compound was barren, except for a few oaks in the outside visiting park, and a lone pine left standing near the PRIDE factory. One of my favorite visiting park photos showed me standing in front of a beautiful oak in 2010. I left Tomoka that year for an eight-year tour of bad prisons, and upon my return in 2018, was saddened to see the visiting park trees gone, too.

The question remains--will we stay here or evacuate. The decision is said to be announced today at noon. The most recent weather radar models indicate a Dorian landfall near West Palm Beach/Ft. Lauderdale, many miles to the south, far from Daytona Beach, instead threatening perhaps six thousand or more prisoners in the South Florida region.

If you don't hear from me for awhile, we may be incommunicado. Please keep all the Florida residents threatened by Dorian in your prayers, including the thousands of prisoners who may be chained up in crowded prison buses heading to parts unknown.

Charlie Norman

Note from Libby: Sunday night late Charlie called me, said the authorities advised them that due to the severity of Hurricane Dorian, Tomoka C. I. would be evacuated on Monday, September 2. No one knows where the men will be sent, but most likely they will be split up among prisons on the Florida west coast, North Florida, and the Panhandle. They were allowed to carry only a pillowcase with a few hygiene items and medication with them. No one knows when they will return, depending on whether the institution sustains storm damage.

Charlie will turn seventy years old September 4th. Please keep him and all the millions of Floridians threatened by this storm in your prayers. I will let you know what's happening when I hear something. Thanks to all.

Libby Norman