Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Dateline: November 17, 2008


I am a loyal American. My mother’s and father’s families, my ancestors, have been in America for hundreds of years, since it was a colony. My people fought in the Revolutionary War and every war since, to the present day. I know what America stands for, I believe in the Constitution, and I am hopeful for a transformational wind of change to sweep across America and the world in the coming years, despite the dire straits our society presently finds itself in. I have faith in the inherent goodness of America and Americans.

Then why, you may ask, am I getting so worked up about the abuses of power and mistreatment of a few hundred prisoners by prison authorities who seem to suffer from amnesia when it comes to the rules and laws that dictate how they conduct their jobs? Good question. Perhaps because it is happening to me. Perhaps I’ve spent so much time reading the rules, laws, cases, and statutes that set the boundaries for the treatment of prisoners that I expect them to obey those laws, just as we’re required to, but instead they have ventured far off the reservation.

Many veterans are in prison. Twenty years ago it was the Vietnam vets with PTSD. I had the honor and privilege in the 1980’s to help the vets at Zephyrhills C.I. establish Chapter 195 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the first prison chapter. Many guards joined, outside POW/MIA groups became involved and good things happened. I wasn’t a Vietnam Vet, but I knew how to navigate the Byzantine prison rules to organize it, get it approved, work through the system, and I did.

No matter their war heroics or sacrifices for their country, however, the war vets got no special treatment. They suffered the same as the rest of us. Inside the fence all bets were off.

Years before, I knew a war hero who’d been captured by the Germans toward the end of World War II, who was held in a Nazi prison camp until liberation. We were in prison at Raiford, going through a rough patch. He’d told me about his P.O.W. experience. It was not “Hogan’s Heroes.”

I asked him how the Nazis treated them, compared with how we were treated by the guards at Raiford. He looked at me oddly, thought for a moment, and told me it was a shame to say it, but the Germans treated the American prisoners with more respect than the American prison guards treated their fellow Americans. I found that hard to believe, and asked him to explain.

Life in a German prison camp was not easy, he said. The Nazis were hard as nails, and if you tried the fence, they were very good shots. Their machine gunners did not miss. But they had clear cut rules, and they followed them to the letter, unlike over here, where the rules changed daily, with each officer and each shift.

He said that in the P.O.W. camp (which was not a concentration camp), when there was a beef, an issue, a complaint, or an order coming down from above, the highest-ranking German would meet face-to-face on the yard with the highest-ranking American officer. They would salute, and the message would be imparted. The American was treated with respect. They were enemies, the lines were drawn, but they conducted themselves professionally. You knew where you stood. There were no collaborators, who are blown as rats or snitches in our prisons, and where they thrive.

In contrast, the old man said, the American prison guards treated their American prisoners like dirt, lower life forms, subhuman, when it suited them. Other times, they became business partners when they needed someone to sell their drugs inside the prison. Big money, feeding addictions. The underground economy has always flourished. Still does, even with snitches and drug tests.

Other guards used snitches to set up busts, to make themselves look good, get promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, and higher, on the backs of the unfortunates they locked up.

Just like in free society, the parasitic relationship works both ways. The guards get what they want, and so do the snitches.

Years ago a guard advanced to captain, a very high rank in the prison hierarchy at the time. We had known that when he’d been a low-ranking guard and later a sergeant, that he’d been dirty, one of the main connections for the drug dealers, had made a lot of money “introducing contraband” (as they call it) over the years.

One of his old dealers approached him, congratulated him on his promotion, and asked when he was going to get back in the groove, start bringing in more drugs. The captain told him he didn’t do that any more, he’d gotten out of it, at his rank now, he couldn’t do it. The dealer told him that with his rank now, he could do anything he wanted. The implication was clear – you can’t quit. And he didn’t.

The biggest prison dealers are usually also the biggest snitches. Law of the jungle. They have to play both sides, compromise themselves, to stay in business, to put the heat on someone else, to eliminate the competition, to gain power, to “be somebody.’ Want a cell change? Don’t go to the guards. It won’t happen. Take a carton of cigarettes to the head snitch, and go pack your belongings— you’re moving.

Don’t get on their bad side, for Heaven’s sake, or you’re doomed. Your cell will be searched, and they will find a shank under your mattress, or reefer in your pillowcase. It was planted, you say? They all say that. Too bad. Go to jail. Your parole date just got jammed. Get comfortable— you’re going to be here for awhile, son.

So what happened here, in this prison, in the present day? At 3:30 AM the guards went into “D” Dorm, an “open” doom (a big room filled with bunks and prisoners) on the other end of the large compound, went right to the stash, found syringes and drugs, so the witnesses say. Then they woke up the dope dogs, brought them in, and found some crack cocaine and other drugs. They locked up several people, some with needle marks in their arms. Very specific information. America’s dumbest criminals.

Where did all those drugs come from, you ask? Could they have fallen from the sky? UPS delivery? Granny sneaked them in her purse through the visiting park? To hear them tell it, that’s where it all comes in at, but that’s not true. They have very tight security for prisoners and their visitors. Give up? The guards bring it in just like they always have, or the civilian kitchen workers or vendors or maintenance or any of dozens of other “free people” who come in and out the front, and back gates every day. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to crack this case. But how many guards got knocked off bringing in drugs, cell phones, and other contraband? Not many. When it happens, it’s hushed up.

What happened here next, after the big bust in “D” Dorm? Where did the shakedown crew go? “B” Dorm! Of course. Next thing we know, over 200 men are locked in their tiny cells, the water is cut off—no drinking water, no toilets flushed—all day, till after 7:00 PM.

Here they come, take their time, the goon squad, as we always called the faceless mob of guards on a mission, open each cell, take off your clothes, strip, expose yourself, bend over, spread your cheeks, put on your boxers, go to the day room while they ransack your cell. No recourse.

How many drugs did they find? None. How many shanks (homemade knives)? None. How much “escape paraphernalia?” None. What was the purpose? It could only be harassment or mass punishment—no “security goals” were accomplished.

As prisoners we are subject to “reasonable” searches at any time, but how do you define “reasonable?”

Years ago at Polk C.I. the midnight shift got into a groove of rousting prisoners from their sleep at two or three o’clock in the morning, cutting on the lights, and ransacking their cells. Rude awakening. What did they find? Usually nothing. These guards were enjoying themselves too much, laughing, ridiculing, trashing family photos, dumping out lockers, then leaving.

When so called “public servants” get to the point where they delight in humiliating people under their control, subjecting them to degrading and debasing treatment that would be considered a sex crime if they did it in “society,” there should be valid concerns about serious psychological disturbances dominating these people’s personalities. Wouldn’t you agree?

I complained to the warden that I had been subjected to an unreasonable search, and asked that it be stopped. I was expected to work hard all day, we only had a limited number of hours in which to sleep and rest, and unless the guards had compelling information and probable cause that I was in possession of a weapon or other serious contraband, their shakedowns should be restricted to a more reasonable hour, like after we’d been awakened in the morning. Since I wasn’t involved in any illegal activities, I wasn’t worried about them having any information that would give them cause to search me, anyway. But no one was safe from arbitrary, systemic harassment. To be subjected to ransacking and rousting by midnight marauders to satisfy their prurient urges was wrong.

The warden agreed with me, surprisingly, and stopped the practice. About seventeen years later, that warden is the regional director, with authority over a number of prisons, including this one, but the ransacking here continues. Times change.

This is my story—I walk a straight and narrow path in prison, and always have. I don’t find that difficult at all. That is who I am. I don’t use, sell, or hold drugs, no weapons, no contraband. Prisoners and guards, for the most part, show me a great deal of respect and many refer to me as, “Mr. Norman.” I think my friend, Libby, is amused when a guard in the visiting park passes us and greets me with, “How are you, Mr. Norman?” I’m fine, thank you,” I reply. Yet I’ve been subjected to search after search, ransacking, trashing my possessions, locked in a tiny cell for hours without access to drinking water or a functioning toilet, over and over again, for what reason? Yet I’m not the only one.

This is an estimate, but probably ninety to ninety-five percent of the prisoners only want to do their time, get by, not bother anyone, not be bothered. They are not involved in anything questionable. Most have few, if any resources, little or no money from home, little chance or opportunity to alter or improve their situation. They go to the chow hall three times a day and clean their trays. They may not like some of the bland food, but in thirty-one years in Florida prisons, I’ve never known anyone who starved to death in here. You can survive. Go to work, go to chow, come in, take a shower, spend idle hours getting counted, change clothes, watch TV, read a library book, get counted, go to sleep for a few hours, get up, do it all again, every day, exactly the same, forever, or till you die, whichever comes first.

The five-to-ten percent who are up to no good, who are scheming, scamming, hustling, getting drugs to use and sell, making and hiding knives, gambling, running football pools, robbing other prisoners, breaking into lockers, involved in gangs, you know who you are, and so do the guards. It’s easy to figure out. So why don’t the guards focus their effortsd on this troublesome minority, and leave the 90-95 % of the otherwise well-behaved prison population alone? You ask such good questions!

Perhaps it is because they like it—the guards, that is. Although most people who seek jobs as prison guards are just people seeking jobs, there is a percentage of sadists who are drawn to the prison environment, a harsh place of dominance and submission, of cruelty, violence, and degradation, where those with personality disorders and psycho-sexual deviance are able to act out their sick fantasies and bully those under their control in ways they could never do at Home Depot or Walmart. Remember Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison in Iraq where the prisoners were sexually abused and humiliated, which cost many American lives later when the insurgents retaliated? It was not a coincidence that the major players in that scandal were prison guards enlisted in the West Virginia National Guard, pulling prison duty in Baghdad.

An aside—I took a short break and read the above paragraph to several fellow prisoners. Each one smiled, laughed, and nodded his head in agreement as I finished reading it. I asked each one, “Can you name anyone you know here who that describes?” And each one came up with quickly, without taking any time to think about it—the same five guards who fit the criteria, reviled and detested men who delight in harassing, provoking, tormenting, lying on, locking up, and occasionally brutalizing hapless prisoners who they target.

Draw your own conclusions. I’ve drawn mine.

If this is so, why do their superiors, the prison administrators locally and in the Tallahassee headquarters, go to so much trouble to cover for them, to suppress complaints, to let them get away with their immoral, unethical, and often illegal activities, sometimes for years? Another good question that bears discussion.

I’ve said it before, if this were a zoo, the SPCA would shut it down, but it’s not. No cute animals, no pandas, no endangered species. Just humans, your fellow Americans, as flawed and hapless as they may be.

Is this any way to run a prison? I say no. If they treat war veterans so badly, with such little respect or concern, how could you expect them to treat “common criminals,” many with serious mental illnesses, any better? They don’t. But perhaps if people discover the truth, and demand their public servants getting paid all those taxpayer dollars, perform their duties to a higher standard, as the law requires, at some point, in time, a new wind will blow through the razorwire fences and a transformation will take place here.

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