Wednesday, November 21, 2018

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!


My wife Libby and I will spend our Thanksgiving in the visiting park at Tomoka Correctional Institution, Daytona Beach, Florida, miles from the "World's Most Famous Beach," (they claim) and the race track. We can walk outside and watch the sparrows eating bread, hear the "chee-chee" of Red-shouldered hawks scanning the grounds for meals, and count the shadows of the dozens of turkey vultures swirling overhead. They put a prison smack-dab in the middle of a bird sanctuary, then spent the next twenty years cutting down every tree growing inside the fences.

We can watch birds of a different kind as huge passenger jets pass low overhead coming in for landings at Daytona International Airport, and smaller, older, slower vintage airplanes crisscross the sky. I wonder if any of those people wonder about those people inside that fenced square below with the gun towers. Probably not. Life goes on.

No turkey, ham, stuffing or cranberry sauce for our Thanksgiving dinner. The prison canteen window has a sparse selection of sandwiches and other junk food snacks, but it's not the food, it is the fellowship.

We've endured and overcome multiple challenges this momentous year of 2018, but our love continues to be strong, and we ready ourselves for more challenges in 2019. Despite setbacks, we have much to be thankful for, and pray that you and yours have a blessed and happy Thanksgiving, enveloped in the love of family and friends.

Charlie and Libby Norman. November 2018.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

MORE LONG RIDES TO THE PRISON HOSPITAL




After my first trip to Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center (RMC), in August, the oncologist, Dr. Montoya, ordered a PET scan be done in two weeks, to see whether the skin cancer had spread to any internal organs. If so, that would mean much more aggressive treatment options.

Imagine my surprise when, one week later, August 28, I was roused from a deep sleep at three a.m. by a guard telling me to get dressed, that I was going on a medical trip. I knew that had to be wrong, but in prison, when they tell you to do something, you do it, or suffer the consequences.

It was a mistake. The officer escorted me into the cancer center, a separate unit (there's a lot of cancer in prison), and the nurse said, "You're a week early."
So I sat around for hours, until those who had accompanied me had completed their various treatments.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018: I was expecting the early morning wakeup this time. More shackles, chains, and leg irons, another rough ride across rural north central Florida. The transport officer removed all the hardware encumbering me, and left me with the nurse in charge of the PET scan, a big machine similar to the CT scan I had last year.

Looking at my medical chart, the first thing Nurse Ivey said was, "Happy Birthday! " I was surprised at the nice gesture. It was my sixty-ninth birthday, and I never expected a nurse who'd never met me to do that small kindness.

I thanked her, and sat down in preparation for the radiation drug introduced through an I.V. After that, I sat in a darkened room for fifty minutes until the radiation drug had seeped throughout my body. And no, I didn't glow in the dark.

I was directed to climb into the machine. The instructions mentioned that those who suffered from claustrophobia might have difficulties inside the machine. Fortunately, after forty-plus years of surviving in small cages, I could avoid the claustrophobia. Nevertheless, the next half hour seemed like forever. I survived.

Thursday, September 20, 2018: Another hard ride in chains to RMC, this time to find out the PET scan results from Dr. Montoya. We left Tomoka C. I. early, and were on the road by seven a.m. Only one fellow prisoner accompanied me, for an appointment with the eye doctor, and if both of us finished quickly, we could be back on the road early, and not waste another day.

It's a good thing I brought a book. Dr. Montoya advised me that the PET scan was negative, the skin cancer had not spread (Thank you, Lord!), and scheduled me to see the dermatologist in three weeks, probably for laser surgery. I'd endured that laser in 2007, and though it was not pleasant, it would be better than chemotherapy and radiation, which my brother, Dan, has endured over the past year.

Once you have seen the doctor, the guards direct you to the "Patio," a holding area for sixty or more prisoners to wait until their fellow prisoners are ready to go. I read my book, until an ancient prisoner in a wheelchair approached me. We had served time together over twenty years ago, and he still recognized me. After he explained who he was, I remembered him. Both of us had changed greatly.

Then I recognized another old friend, "Tiny" Callahan, a chain gang legend I first met at Raiford, "The Rock," in 1980. "Tiny" once looked like Tarzan, a huge, heavily-muscled man, but a heart attack and triple bypass surgery had taken its toll. Father Time waits for no one. This time, Tiny was using a walker, having had hip replacement surgery. We talked until the guard came in and told everyone to quieten down.

Another man looked familiar, someone I hadn't seen in twenty-six years, but he hadn't changed that much. "Red" Williams was a famous prison legend, the first man to escape over the perimeter fence at Lake Butler, where we both found ourselves on this day. Seventy-eight years old, he still had a head of red hair, albeit with some gray. We smiled and shook hands.

In 1977, Red made his bold escape over the RMC fences, avoided getting shot, then stole a car and a pistol. Red's wife was in prison at Lowell, the women's prison in Ocala, which was adjacent to Interstate 4. At 7:30 the next morning, Red parked the stolen car on the road shoulder, climbed the fences into the women's prison, and walked into the chow all, where several hundred women ate breakfast. Red fired a shot into the ceiling to get everyone's attention, called his wife's name, and took her out of the prison.

Months later, they were arrested in Brooklyn, New York, after a robbery spree. Red said his wife was at Lowell, and he was serving his time at Union C.I. The parole commission wasn't impressed by Red's bold actions. His parole date is 2277 A.D. I don't think he'll make it.

I had plenty of time to reminisce. The other prisoner didn't get in to see the eye doctor until after 3:30 p.m. Amazingly, the doctor performed laser surgery in five or six minutes. Luckily, we exited RMC before the four p.m. count, and made it back to the prison by seven p.m., slowed down by heavy traffic.

I dread the inhumanity of these medical trips, but I've vowed to survive this life sentence, and pursuing medical help as best I can is a major factor. At least now I can call my 89-year old mother and tell her the good news. Too bad the prognoses for so many other prisoners are not so positive.
Charlie


                                                             Libby and Charlie, Sept. 2018

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