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.  

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.


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.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

My 40th Easter in prison April 1, 2018


I remember it well, my last Easter in freedom, Sunday, March 26, 1978.
My nephew and niece, Timmy and Tammy Norman, were seven and five years old – Tammy would be six in 2 and one-half months, and I was looking forward to their Easter egg hunt at my parents’ house in Thonotosassa, FL. I had spray painted and decorated two jumbo prize eggs, and attached money to them, which delighted the children. Little did I know that in 10 days time my life in free society would come to an abrupt end. 40 years later, my dear wife Libby and I celebrated Easter 2018, at the visiting park in Tomoka CI, in Daytona Beach Florida, my 40th Easter in prison, her 18th.

I reflected on that last Easter in freedom, and thought about another Easter in prison years ago, when things were far different than they are now. I had been transferred to Zephyrhills C.I. to start a golab chapter in 1983, and by 1985, we had a core of Christian prisoners and outside volunteers who accomplished things that have never been done in prison, nor would they happen again.
Months before Easter 1985, we brainstormed what we wanted to accomplish for a special Easter sunrise service, where our family visitors would actually come inside the prison for the service. Many men had wives and young children, and one of the proposals was for an Easter egg hunt for the children. Why not? Let’s try it. I typed the memoranda, volunteer Larry Stanley took the papers to the warden, who, to my surprise, approved everything. A wealthy volunteer agreed to cover all the expenses. We were in business!

Good Friday afternoon a dozen of us were dyeing 600 boiled eggs furnished by the kitchen when I was paged to the gatehouse.. Not good.

Warden Henderson, Maj. Hill, and Lieut. Commerford were waiting for me in the visiting park. Henderson was a volatile personality, his moods changing quickly, and I was on my guard. He flipped through the memoranda pages. What Henderson giveth he could take away.
“Charlie, you’ve done a hell of a job putting all this together, but we have one big problem.”
“The Easter egg hunt,” I said.
“Right. The major and the Lieut. are concerned over all these children inside the prison hunting Easter eggs. You know we have a lot of child molesters here, and we don’t have enough security to watch all those kids. One incident could cost us our jobs,” the warden said.

“Sir, you don’t need to worry about security,” I said. “We have our own security crew, a dozen convicted murderers and armed robbers who have sworn to protect those children with the child molesters’ lives. We have already identified all the child molesters, and they have to stay outside the Easter egg hunt boundary. If any one of them strays, our guys will take care of it.”

Henderson thought about it, his eyes moving.

“Let me get this straight. Murderers and armed robbers are going to protect the children from the child molesters.”

“Yes sir.”

“Brilliant,” Henderson said, then burst out laughing. The major and Lieut. followed later. The Easter egg hunt was still on.

80 men were up at 2 AM to collect 300 folding chairs from the dorms and set them up on the asphalt roadway near the chapel. Carpenters had built a stage and a large wooden cross. At 5 AM, over 100 visitors began streaming into the visiting park. The kitchen provided orange juice, coffee, and hot cinnamon rolls for the visitors. By 5:40 AM, 200 prisoners had joined the 100 visitors seated inside the prison. The prison band and choir joined an outside church choir singing Easter hymns. State Sen. John Grant of Tampa delivered the message, the trial and crucifixion of Jesus from a legal standpoint. Jesus was shafted by a corrupt system, too. The sun rose to the east.
My mother Lucille Norman, my sister-in-law Sandy Norman and niece Tammy sat with me, surrounded by a dozen men without visitors. My family lived only 12 miles from Zephyrhills, and they usually joined me each Sunday for church service. The prisoners had gotten to know my family over the past two years, and had been befriended by my mother. It was a wonderful time.
After the singing and preaching, more refreshments were served in the garden area beside the chapel. Then the Easter egg hunt began. 29 children were given nice Easter baskets by the smiling volunteers, and the children ran back and forth finding the hundreds of eggs that had been hidden a few hours before. Some were hidden too well. Weeks later lost eggs still turned up.

By 9:30 it was time to return to the visiting park. Everyone had been touched by the sight of the delighted children finding eggs. We had separate hunting areas for the smallest children, and mothers and fathers happily pointed out hidden eggs for their toddlers. One man approached me, holding his two sons, tears in his eyes. He thanked me for the first opportunity he had had to share such a time with his boys. They were babies when he came to prison. It was all worthwhile.
That was then. This is now. Libby and I spent our Easter, 2018, in a crowded, noisy visiting park reading the Easter story from a dog-eared Gideon Bible. No Easter egg hunts Easter egg No Easter egg. No church services. No garden or trees.
Prison is a far un-friendlier place for visiting families now. It is obvious that a concerted effort is in play to discourage and eventually to end family visits, which would be a lose - lose proposition not only for the families and society, but also for the rehabilitation of prisoners. 98% of the prison population will eventually be released. Those who had family support get out of prison and stay out. The 95 – 97% of the prisoners who don’t get visits are far more likely to return. A shame.

On this Easter Sunday, 2018, a 68-year-old man thinks about the 28-year-old man who hid Easter eggs for two children long ago. The seven-year-old boy, Timmy, is 47, with four children. Tammy is 45, with a 20-year-old daughter of her own. I wonder where Libby and I will celebrate Easter, 2019, together. Pray that it will be “out there,” in a church in free society, no longer inside these razor wire fences.
 God bless you, and Happy Easter!
Charlie and Libby Norman

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

New Christmas Poem by Charlie

Holiday Newsletter 2017

Merry Christmas from Charlie and Libby Norman! 2017 was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, filled with both hopes and disappointments.

            We began January, 2017, with continuing preparations for the expected parole hearing due this year. We already had key pieces in place. First, the incomparable “Prisoners of Christ” program in Jacksonville, a faith-based private residential transition and re-entry program that prepares ex-offenders for life in free society and has been in continuous successful operation since the early 1990s, had confirmed they were ready to accept Charlie upon his release. Additionally, Charlie had the support of prominent businessman, Kevin Gay, founder of “Operation New Hope,”  a program for ex-offenders that provides jobs and training.
            Second, the preeminent psychologist, Dr. Harry Krop, of Gainesville, had previously re-tested Charlie and written a highly-favorable evaluation that confirmed Charlie’s status as a well-balanced man who has survived decades of imprisonment  with his mental health intact, something everyone who knows him already knew. Dr. Krop stated that Charlie’s risk factors for recidivism were in the lowest five percentile of the prison population. This priceless evaluation was specifically notable since most people who have been imprisoned for decades become institutionalized and suffer irreparable damage in mind and body from the years of isolation and neglect. Charlie has spent his entire imprisonment educating himself and others in a variety of programs and skill areas, many of which he created and implemented. He has deliberately worked to keep himself engaged and plugged-in to the “outside” world, keeping up with society, and in touch with a variety of real people to stave off the isolation. Charlie has been preparing for his release since the day he came to prison.
            The third essential piece of  our parole plan was granted in January. Charlie’s sentencing judge in 1980, J. Rogers Padgett, of Tampa, now a senior judge and still hearing cases, wrote a letter to the parole commission stating that not only did he not object to Charlie’s release, but also that he supported his parole release. Judge Padgett further stated that in his opinion, Charlie was in complete compliance with Florida Statute 947.18, the controlling law on parole.
            Then came April, 2017, bringing the high point of the year thus far when Charlie met with  parole examiner, Z.C. Rowan, an investigator with over 40 years of experience with parolees. Based on Charlie’s parole release plan and his prison record of unparalleled positive accomplishments, Mr. Rowan approved Charlie’s parole release for July 4, 2017 –Independence Day! Shortly after that, his parole hearing was set for May 24. All the pieces were in place, and pointed to a good outcome on May 24th, our 3rd wedding anniversary.
            At the parole hearing before the Florida Commission on Offender Review in Tallahassee on May 24th, the commissioners refused to authorize the July 4th release date, and postponed their final decision to another hearing on July 19, 2017, at which time they “suspended” his release date.  Again, Charlie was denied a fair and impartial hearing. The commissioners are three novices who were approved for appointment to their jobs by the two politicians who oppose Charlie’s release. Because of this continuing political tampering by the former prosecutor and his protégé, the attorney general (acting on political payback), and despite Attorney Bill Sheppard’s impassioned presentation at both hearings, the commissioners refused to honor all the experts who supported Charlie’s parole release.
            That was the low point of 2017. Instead of preparing Charlie’s welcome home, we geared ourselves to endure and survive more of this wrongful imprisonment. With Mr. Sheppard and associates, we have begun preparations for a court fight.
            In August and early September, we missed 3 weekends of visits due to the hurricanes, as the state prisons were all closed to visitation. Other than that, thankfully the hurricanes did not cause any other major damage.  In August, Charlie was again heartened and cheered by a visit from his long-time friend and supporter, Gary Smigiel and his wonderful family. We continue to be in contact with Charlie’s lovely and thoughtful mother, Lucille, his Aunt Alice, his brother, Dan, and nieces and nephews, in addition to Aunt Glenda Walker and family in Texas. It is very difficult for our loved ones to visit in person, so we are grateful for the telephone, e-mail, and letters.
            In September, out of the clear blue, Charlie’s first cousin, Sue Jones, contacted us by e-mail. Charlie says, “Her mother, my Aunt Frankie Lee Hatchell, was my father’s older sister. After my father’s death in 1985, Aunt Frankie and Aunt Eloise, my father’s youngest sister,  visited me in prison at Zephyrhills C.I. I’d spent little time with my Norman relatives growing up, but after we reconnected, Frankie, Eloise and I became much closer. They are all gone now, and to hear from my cousin, Sue, touched me greatly.”
            One more incident of note that happened one afternoon at the Orange Park Mall, south of Jacksonville when Libby made a purchase at one of the stores at the mall and got into a conversation with the sales clerk, Dawn. She suggested that Libby register her e-mail address to receive sales notices and coupons, so Libby filled out the form with the freecharlie e-mail. Dawn asked what the “freecharlie” meant, was it a certain name. Libby told her it did mean something, but it was too much to explain. She asked if it referred to Charles Norman. Flabbergasted, Libby said it did. Dawn said, “I’ve been following Charles on the Internet, and so have many of my friends. He has been in prison too long, and should be released.” After they talked some more, Libby left the store, elated, amazed at what had just happened, a totally random contact of familiarity and support.  That’s the power of the Internet.
            Also recently, in another surprise contact, we received an e-mail from a new friend, Gary M., who had read about Charlie’s case and was so affected by the injustice of it that he contacted Andrew Warren, the new Hillsborough County state attorney, and is continuing to work with him on Charlie’s behalf. We are very grateful for these new blessings that have brought hope.
            In October, Charlie embarked on a new job as “impaired inmate assistant,” and helps blind, crippled, and deaf inmates in his housing area. Earlier this year, he also was “treated” to a trip to Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville for a procedure to remove kidney stones. Dr. Mark Abramson, a urologist from Jacksonville Memorial Hospital, arranged for a  CT scan, a cystoscopy, and X-rays, which turned up two kidney stones. Charlie says, “I was outfitted in handcuffs, a waist chain, and leg irons, then transported in a prison van to the hospital for an ultrasound surgery. I was impressed by the kindness and professionalism of the doctors, nurses and technicians at Jacksonville Memorial Hospital. After the ultrasound, three nurses kept me company for an hour, monitoring my vitals, until I recovered. Another nurse, Mary, brought me a much-appreciated hot meal of beef tips and gravy over rice and green beans, something unavailable in prison “chow.” I did a lot of rubbernecking when we got off I-95 onto University Boulevard, still amazed at the traffic congestion, the dozens of fast food places, car lots, stores, and other businesses. I realized I was only a mile or two from Libby’s downtown office, which made me wistful, sad that I should have been out of prison already, working at the Prisoners of Christprogram, and seeing her every day, rather than being chained up like a condemned man.”
            This fall, Libby has embarked on a new weight-training fitness program, with good results, realizing that the future demands good health. We both intend to be “here” when Charlie is released, and desire to live as long a life together as we are allowed.
            All through 2017, Charlie has been continuing with his writing and artwork. He currently has several articles published by Loen Kelley in New York,  on, and we continue postings on the blog, He continues working on his drawing techniques, several examples of which are offered in this booklet for your enjoyment. We continue matching these drawings with his poetry to create additions to our greeting card collection.
            We are both determined, and we will not give in to the low points or give up the fight to secure our much-deserved freedom. We maintain our faith in God, and in the hope that prayers will be answered. We are abundantly blessed by the love and support of family and friends, and always give thanks for all that has been bestowed on us. We greet the future clad in this armor.

May you and yours have a joyous and prosperous 2018. Please keep in touch.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Charlie and Libby Norman