Monday, August 27, 2018

Another Long Road Trip to the Prison Hospital


Dateline: Thursday, August 16, 2018


4:27 a.m. I am awakened by a guard standing over my bunk in the dark.

"Norman, get dressed."

For a moment I am confused. Oh, no, I think, I'm getting transferred again. Thursday is transfer day

"Where am I going?"

"I don't know," the young guard said. "You're going on a road trip."

Oh, okay, I think, Lake Butler, the main hospital for a couple dozen prisons in the North Florida region.

I've been dealing with skin cancer for over twelve years, and underwent laser treatments several years ago. I haven't had any follow-up treatments or medical care for this issue for ten years, under the previous healthcare providers, despite my repeated requests. A few weeks ago I insisted that the local doctor take biopsies and send them to the lab, since it was obvious that the skin cancers on my scalp and forearms had returned. The transport officer told me that my appointment was with the oncologist. That made sense. The biopsies must have been positive.

I rode in a van with two other prisoners going for checkups and treatments at the Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center hospital. Private practice doctors contract with the health care service to come in a couple times a week to consult with hundreds of sick prisoners from dozens of prisons. One prisoner claimed he'd had colon cancer surgery, which had spread to his liver. The other was being treated for leukemia. Other men I met in the hospital had lung cancer and other terminal illnesses. My skin cancer didn't seem so threatening after hearing their stories, although thousands die of it every year. 
 
Two courteous transport officers loaded us down with manacles, leg shackles, and chains, helped us struggle to our seats in the transport van. The trip to the prison hospital took over two hours, and I spent the entire time trying to see "civilization" through the tiny squares of the steel grills that encased the rear seats of the van. All those people racing to work on the interstate, exiting and lining up at fast food drive-thru's, getting on school buses, commuters with no ideas of the human cargo in the unmarked van stopped beside them at the red light.

Something that struck me while rubbernecking at the passing scenery was the dichotomy of wealth and poverty juxtaposed in both urban and rural landscapes. Falling down houses with junk cars and rusting appliances in overgrown front yards intermingled next door to expensive-looking homes spread out on large tracts of landscaped grounds. Most of the cars surrounding us appeared new.

It was a different story upon arrival at the prison hospital. Inside, hallways were crowded with very sick prisoners sitting on benches on one side, and lined up in dozens of wheelchairs along the wall, making it difficult to navigate the narrow path. I sat on a wooden bench across from the office of Dr. Montoya, the oncologist, with several dozen other men waiting to see him. Other dozens waited to be called by the cardiologist and the eye doctor.

A heavily-guarded prisoner wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and chains shuffled down the hallway, escorted by several large guards, entering Dr. Montoya's office ahead of everyone else. The orange jumpsuit signified a Death Row prisoner, who gets the same medical treatment as everyone else. The authorities don't want condemned men to get sick and die before their executions. He didn't look any different from the rest of us, except for the distinctive clothing.

After the guards took the Death Row prisoner away, other guards escorted seven bedraggled women prisoners ahead of us to see the doctor. Gazing at the sick men surrounding me, I thought the male prisoners looked bad, but the appearances of the female prisoners from Lowell, near Ocala, shocked me.

Years ago, Florida women prisoners received better treatment than did male prisoners, tenuously explained by the fact that the women at Lowell were more organized, filed mass complaints and federal lawsuits over their treatment, and wouldn't take the abuses that male prisoners seemed to passively accept and tolerate. While the men wore blue uniforms--shirts and pants, the women were issued dresses, and could order jeans and white blouses from home. No more. Now the women are issued the same shapeless baggy pull-up blue pants and buttonless blue pullover shirts. Their ill-fitting uniforms were incredibly wrinkled the unhemmed pants legs dragged the ground, and they wore thin flip-flops or generic Crocs on their feet. Greasy, stringy hair indicated they had no access to shampoo, or funds, since hygiene items were sold in the prison canteen, not provided by the prison. Obviously, women prisoners no longer receive special treatment.

I felt terribly sorry for those women, who looked like addled homeless alcoholics and addicts rousted from an abandoned building. They appeared stripped of their self-esteem, a very bad sign in prison.

Hours dragged by. Finally the nurse called "Norman." I went in to meet Dr. Montoya, who was very polite and courteous. The biopsies were positive. The skin cancers had returned. The doctor laid out my treatment options, first with a PET scan in two weeks, to determine whether the cancers had spread to any organs. Two weeks later, I would return for a consultation concerning results.

We finally left the prison hospital at two p.m., and got back inside Tomoka C. I. after five. I returned to my dorm, where seventy men waited to rush to the chow hall for meat loaf and mashed potatoes.

No one missed me. They didn't even know I had been gone. I took my seat in the day room and watched the local news, robberies, carjackings, and murders. Another day in prison.

Charles Patrick Norman

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

GRIM PROSPECTS: SLOW DEATH PENALTY


July 9, 2018

When you've been in prison forever, no matter where you go, you meet fellow prisoners you know, the survivors, some you haven't seen in 20, 30, 40 years or more, some you'd just left at another prison a year or two before. So it was when I climbed onto the prison Bluebird bus in January, leaving the infamous Columbia Annex near Lake City in shackles and chains, on a sixteen-day journey through two reception centers, Lake Butler's "Wild Wild West," they call it, and Central Florida at Orlando. No theme park there, on my way to Tomoka C. I in Daytona Beach, Florida.

One man on the bus I hadn't seen in over twenty years, at Sumter C. I, when we were both artists turning out paintings in a place that allowed prisoners privileges long-forgotten in the harsh present-day environment. Like myself, the years had not been kind to my friend, hair thinner and grayer, deep wrinkles stooped, sad eyes that emitted a lack of hope so prevalent among longterm lifers.

We both brightened and smiled when we recognized each other, but after a two-minute synopsis, it was obvious he was barely hanging on. Most of his family was gone, passed away, a common situation when lifers outlive their families and the ones left weren't able to help him, barely making it themselves. Parole? A "Buck Rogers Date," parole-eligible prisoners call it, a release date 40, 50 or far more years into the future, well beyond any mortal person's life expectancy, a slow death penalty, we call it.

I met more old acquaintances on my ride to Daytona Beach (never saw a beach), just another prison, another address. Only one out of a dozen men had a reasonable parole date, 2020 A.D., but there was no guarantee that date would be affirmed. My own parole date of July 4, 2017, had been arbitrarily "suspended" for seven years...see you in a few years...for no reason at all. The hostile, politically-motivated parole commissioners have an aversion to releasing old-timers on parole, releasing only 27-30 out of 4,900 eligible in a typical year, despite the prison system releasing tens of thousands of other prisoners back on the street every year, then admitting tens of thousands of "new commitments" to take their places. In a couple hundred years, all of us will be free.

One old timer told me that in 2011, when the new governor, Rick Scott, took office in Tallahassee, the Florida Channel broadcast a meeting between Scott and the three then-commissioners, in which he told them, "If you parole someone who gets out and commits a violent crime, I will fire you." Message received: Don't parole anyone and don't risk your $91,000 a year job.

For nearly forty years, virtually my entire imprisonment serving this "natural life with 25 years minimum," I've been involved in programs to help other prisoners, first as a student, then as an instructor. One of the most important programs, I felt, were parole planning workshops, helping parole-eligible men prepare parole release plans, garner letters of support from family and friends, and figure out the maze of rules that prisoners are required to comply with. For years during the 1980's, certain Florida legislators lobbied to abolish the parole commission, long-known as one of the most corrupt state agencies. Money bought paroles. The rich got out, the poor stayed in, some forever. They finally abolished it, they thought, but thirty years later the parole commission, made over with a new name, the Florida Commission on Offender Review" (FCOR), is bigger and stronger than ever.

The "Objective Parole Guidelines Act of 1978" was passed into law to limit the unbridled discretion" of the parole commission. Anyone with a murder conviction prior to 1994, when they passed a new law, remained under the authority of the parole commission, supposedly eligible for parole. After 1994, the "mandatory life without parole" sentence went into effect, since technically there would be no commission to grant paroles. As long as one parole-eligible lifer remained alive, the commissioners had jobs.

The Florida Supreme Court, in a recent case (Atwell) stated that although those lifers under the old system were still parole-eligible, the parole commissioners, in effect, treated them like they were serving a "mandatory life without parole" sentence, condemning them to death in prison. Neither the trial judge nor the jury sentenced the old timers to death, but the parole commissioners did. Grim prospects.
When I got to Tomoka, which I'd left in 2010, the reunions continued daily. Men who'd been in my art classes asked if I'd teach new classes. Others asked about my creative writing classes, and the oldest of the old asked for help with their parole release plans. Prison has changed greatly over the decades, much harsher and less responsive to actually preparing prisoners for success in free society, and most of the state-sponsored "rehabilitation" programs are "paper programs," generating millions of dollars for budgets, but having little lasting effects for those required to complete them before their releases.

From 2012-2014, at Okaloosa C. I., a repressive prison near Alabama, in the Florida Panhandle, surprisingly, the administration allowed me to teach my own classes, in exchange for teaching their re-entry programs. Sixty-eight parole-eligible old-timers signed up for four parole planning workshops, and worked hard to learn to help themselves and others.

One old man, nicknamed "Red Devil," presumably for his behavior as a young man, had been in prison over fifty years, since he was eighteen. He was also blind, and an inmate helper led him around and had to feed him. And that old man had a parole release date far into the upper reaches of the twenty-first century! How on earth could they consider him a threat to society? That was only one example of many. The classes went very well. Everyone did the best they could, considering the levels of functional illiteracy and institutionalization.

When my "good adjustment transfer" was approved and I left Okaloosa behind, I was sorry for my fellow prisoners, but I had to think of my own release efforts, fighting the political tampering of corrupt elected officials with a personal vendetta against me. I heard months later that after I left Okaloosa, the entire re-entry program had been shut down, for lack of qualified instructors. A shame.

At Tomoka I submitted a proposal to officials to start a parole planning workshop for the old-timers, who are usually left out of program offerings, with the prison emphasis on short-timers getting out soon. Surprisingly, it was approved, perhaps because it didn't cost the state anything.

About twenty old men showed up for the first class in April, the youngest: late forties, thirty-plus years in, came to prison at fifteen years old, the others ranging from their fifties to seventies. All were attentive and interested, but most didn't have a clue how to extricate themselves from the tar pit they struggled to survive in.
One man, George Christie, a diminutive man of indeterminate old age, sat in the front desk in the middle row, hard of hearing, not wanting to miss anything. He told me he had Crohn's Disease, wore a colostomy bag, and spent a lot of time in medical, might miss an occasional class, but was serious about learning how to complete a parole release plan. He was serious about the class, the first ray of hope he'd had in years.

Classes went well. The men were motivated to learn, even the ones with Buck Rogers dates. This might be the only instructions they would get before upcoming hearings, and each one wanted to improve their chances.

One week, George's desk chair was empty, and again the following week. Old-timers are set in their ways, and the seats they'd first picked were the ones they stayed in week after week. George's seat remained empty. Then we received word that George was in the prison infirmary, having taken a turn for the worse. He was very sick, but asked that we send him any paperwork and instructions we passed out in the classes, so he could keep up. We could do that.

George got sent to the Lake Butler prison hospital, then back to the infirmary. Another message--more paperwork, please. Then last week a fellow prisoner came to class and told me, “You can take George's name off the callout. He won't be back."

"What happened?" I asked. "Did he transfer?" We lose people to transfers all the time.

"He died."

Perhaps that should not have shocked me, but it did. It affected me. Even though I'd only known George for a few weeks, we had established a connection. I told the other class members about George's abrupt passing, no one saying anything, lost in their own thoughts of mortality. Old- timers have a high mortality rate. When class convened, I couldn't help but stand next to George's desk and visualize the little man who, like me, had spent most of his life in prison.

I tried to use George's death as a teaching point, telling the others, "My goal is to survive this life sentence. I want to take as many of you out of here as I can." Several men nodded in agreement. A few of them, with Buck Rogers dates and little hope for release, sat silent, refusing to give up despite the odds, waiting for me to continue on with the class.

George's chair remains empty.

Charlie Norman

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

JULY 4TH MESSAGE FROM CHARLIE


July 4, 2018-This comes "live" from prison, via the new JPAY email kiosk available to Florida prisoners now, and my dear wife's computer.

This is a bittersweet Independence Day for Libby and me, since I was supposed to be released on parole one year ago, July 4, 2017. That was not to be, as the corrupt politicians who've persecuted me with their personal vendetta for all these years continue to politically taint the parole process. My luck, the two people most directly involved in approving and appointing the parole commissioners (besides the governor) continue to intimidate their appointees with a great conflict of interest. The result is that although I have arguably the best record of accomplishments of any prisoner in the past 40 years, they continue to release prisoners who can't come close to my positive record of helping others, serving the state,and strong outside support. They've released on parole those with histories of escape, multiple murder convictions, two and even three murders in their records, drug sales and use, terrible disciplinary records, and much more that we have documented. Letting me go, contrary to their masters' wishes, could cost them their cushy $91,000 a year state jobs.

Despite all the setbacks and negativity, Libby and I have maintained our faith in God with the hope of vindication from this wrongful imprisonment. We have continued to work hard and prepare the court appeal for legendary lawyer Bill Sheppard and his team, and are grateful to those dear friends who have helped us with crippling legal expenses.

Amidst the bad, there have been a number of good things buoying our spirits, with new friends and supporters encouraging us, and more good things coming to fruition. I'll share those with you as they occur. My long-suffering mother thankfully maintains her strength and health as she approaches her 89th birthday in August, followed by my 69th a couple weeks later. Both my parents were 20 when I was born, and I've said that my mother, father, and I grew up together.

In years past, July 4th was a big celebration in prison. Prison farm fields provided truckloads of watermelons for everyone, a Southern staple, and the recreation coaches sponsored team sports events and games that kept up everyone's spirits. No more.

The prison environment is at its lowest ebb. A fellow long-term prisoner told me last Sunday, "I'm living in the worst conditions I've experienced in 40 years." As the state government plays games with the prison budget, the future isn't bright for prisoners or staff.

We pray that by Juy 4, 2019, we will celebrate in freedom, and look back on these times as character-building. May you and yours have a happy, safe holiday surrounded by loved ones.

Charlie

Monday, May 7, 2018

Charlie's Poem Performed at PEN World Voices Festival 2018


 May 4, 2018
We don't always get "good news" at prison mail call, but tonight I got an uplifting letter from Caits Meissner, PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program Manager in New York City. She told me that my poem, "How Should I Look?" was performed at the PEN America World Voices Festival 2018 last month, along with other literary works by prison writers. She included a letter from Demian Vitanza, a Norwegian-Italian playwright and author, who read my poem at the festival, and who had some inspiring insights into my work.

This is how I got to this point: on my bunk in a crowded human warehouse in August, 2012, in one of those lightning bolts of inspiration that come from I don't know where, I quickly scribbled out "How Should I Look." In the meantime, I had a kangaroo court parole hearing and suffered through a punitive transfer to a harsh, distant prison closer to Mobile, Alabama, than to my family and friends.

The new "mailroom lady" didn't think I should be allowed to write and publish my thoughts — they never heard of the Constitution, the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, or freedom of speech in Okaloosa County Florida — and she began the first of several attempts to silence me. "Inmates can not [sic] write short stories," she said.

Wrong. I'd been teaching creative classes for thirty years. When "How Should I Look" was published, however, she wrote a fabricated disciplinary report that cost me thirty days in solitary confinement. Guess what I did during those thirty days in the box? I wrote poems, essays, and blogs!

That did not endear me to her. I did not care. You can't let evil have a "chilling effect" on your writing. I fought back.

Meanwhile, PEN America honored "How Should I Look?" with their first prize in poetry for 2012, and I filed a federal retaliation lawsuit against the angry woman. The prison inspectors investigated, and she was eventually fired for lying, but not before I endured another period in solitary. It took years, but I was finally vindicated.

If you've never been locked away in solitary confinement for something you wrote, I don't recommend it. I was deprived of visits with my longsuffering wife, no phone calls, no exercise, no daylight, meager rations. I survived. It wasn't the first time they threw me in the hole, but hopefully it will be the last; however, I'm getting negative rumblings from another mail person at this new prison. She recently stated, "It's against the rules for you to send in publications or write books."

Au contraire. So the travails continue.

If you'd like to see the Youtube video of the PEN World Voices readings, click here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuGVKQyOnPc  

If you haven't read the poem, it follows.

I am grateful for over 33 years of support and encouragement from a succession of PEN mentors and members who have helped make this life sentence more bearable. And I am truly honored to have been included in this year’s World Voices Festival Breakout Event.

As always, we welcome your comments and opinions.

Charlie

How Should I Look? 
By Charles Patrick Norman

How should I look, or act?

          I asked him, in answer when he said,
You don’t look, or act like you’ve spent
          that much time in prison.
(Three decades, plus some change, meter running).

Should my eyes be crazed, glazed, unblinking, uncaring?
Should my face be lumped and creased,
          teeth rotted, gapped, and broken?
Perhaps the nightmares I’ve lived have twisted me,
          the brawls and beatdowns broken my back?
Ought my arthritic hands shake, palsy from the deeds I’ve done,
          Defend myself, offend thee, have blooded and bled
                    The Dead who fell, unrisen to the bell?
Do you wonder at my outward normalcy and doubt?

Did you expect to gaze upon faded blue teardrops
          dripping from the corner of my sad eye,
Or crude tattoos of zodiacs, hearts, forgotten names
          of lovers cavorting, my neck encircled with blue dashes,
                    subscripted, "cut on dotted line?"
Or rather you would frown at “LOVE’ and “HATE” paired
          on the battered knuckles of each hand, endnotes
          to jumbled creeds and symbols snaking down my arms?

How should I act?
          Would you prefer I meet your expectations,
          Grasp your neck with yellow-clawed fingers,
          tobacco-stained tips squeezing off your airway,
          Sour breath tinged with yeasty fumes of prison wine
                    burning your eyes
          while I rip the watch from your wrist with my free hand?

Does that suit your notion of what a man becomes
          when he’s been caged for decades with wild beasts?

Can you only imagine the outward destruction of a man,
          and not the inner?

Can you not see beneath the surface to the scars
          of broken hopes and dreams inside my heart,
          the life unlived in freedom, x-ed out?
          The loss of love and family snatched away
          like a rooftop in the storm, exposing
          the trashed memories, meager belongings soaked
          in the shattered house below?

Of course you can’t.
          You only see the outward man, cleanshaven,
          smiles, upright posture yet unbroken, unblemished
          as the wanted poster says: no scars, marks, or tattoos.
Except for those you cannot see, trauma obscured
beneath the sedimentary layers of life in prison.
          My life.
          In prison.
          Sorry to disappoint you.