Saturday, May 9, 2009


Dateline: May 5, 2009


A year ago I had twenty-six flower gardens, ranging in size from small three foot by twelve plots to thirty foot diameter circles, and numerous other beds from one hundred to nine hundred square feet, all blooming inside the fences here at Tomoka C.I. in Daytona Beach. Thousands of flowers, from pansies and petunias and snapdragons, to calendulas, marigolds, zinnias, and sunflowers, and many more, bloomed everywhere. More than forty prisoners helped tend them.

Today there are virtually none. The only ones left are some surviving gaillardias that refuse to die, that keep poking their heads up and blooming in the now grassy beds until the lawnmower crews run over them and chop them down with their “Flintstones,” what they call the push mowers they’re allowed to use. One brick planter has eight gloriosa daisies plants still struggling to survive in the dry sand, and another planter has a lone Echinacea—coneflower—barely holding on. A few French marigolds have somehow sef-seeded and bloomed, but all these plants are endangered.

In the fenced-in area by the “psychology” trailer, an eccentric psychologist who was permitted to plant several rosebushes by previous administrations over the years jealously guards his babies, and some remnants of my plants still hold on in that restricted area, but even that situation is subject to change at any time.

How did this happen? How did such an abundance of natural beauty lovingly tended by a large platoon of dedicated prisoners selflessly working in the hot Florida sun all day suddenly disappear from view, leaving behind dry, dusty deserts of hot sand interspersed with weeds, looking like a vacant lot? It’s a sad tale.

When I came here on the bus seven years ago, I was pleased to see dozens of tall shade trees everywhere—sycamores, oaks, pines, red maples, sweet gums, and others, along with numerous specimen plants like junipers, cedars, and yews. Neatly trimmed hedges, many at least twenty years old, lined the streets and sidewalks. Virtually all of them are gone now, too. Only two severely hacked and pruned oaks in the cut-down “visiting park” and a lone pine in another fenced in area survive. Last of the Mohicans.

As a card-carrying member of the National Arbor Day Foundation, Audubon, and other environmental and nature-advocacy groups, it hurts me to see the trees and other plants go. The destruction came in stages, started by Mother Nature. We got hit by three hurricanes that intersected this area in 2004, which blew down and bent a number of trees, many that were over twenty years old. The people in charge decided to do a surgical strike and cut down otherwise healthy trees as a preventive measure, which eliminated much of the previously shady areas on the compound, raising the heat index precipitously, but the prison still had a modest population of tall greenery.

The day I arrived here, then-Colonel Ronnie Edwards approached me, smiling, and asked, “Charlie, are you going to do the same thing here that you did for me at Polk?”
“If I get the cooperation I got there, I will,” I told him.

“You will,” he said.

Between 1988 and 1992 at Polk C.I., I started off with three small plants in a tiny rose garden and ended up with a greenhouse, shade house, and large gardens of flowers and vegetables, with every seed and all the supplies donated by outside people, at no cost to the state.

In 1990 to 1992, I was actually assigned as a chapel clerk, printing memos, rosters, and Bible studies on a computer for the various programs, along with my artwork and writing, but I still maintained my horticulture project and beautified the chapel grounds with flowers raised from seeds in the greenhouse. One day the warden came over to me and said he was just amazed at how our area looked; he was so proud of it that he brought outside visitors in to look at it when we were locked inside for count.

One day then-Inside Grounds Sergeant Ronnie Edwards came up to me while I was watering, and told me he wanted to make lieutenant, and I could help him. How? Look at what you’ve done here, with one helper. It looks like Cypress Gardens. The rest of the compound is dead. You help me make my areas like yours, I’ll make lieutenant, he explained.

“Inside Grounds” isn’t a punishment job, per se, but it is something like “make work,” to keep the idle prisoners who otherwise had nothing to do, busy doing menial tasks such as picking up cigarette butts and trash, cutting grass, or raking. At Polk, they had numerous dry, empty flower beds that were ceaselessly raked over and over by squads of prisoners, with nothing growing. I agreed to help beautify the rest of the compound if he gave me free rein to instruct some of his interested workers in how to tend the flowers. It didn’t make sense to plant hundreds of flowers if no one tended or watered them. I already worked seven days a week and couldn’t possibly do it all. Okay.

Six months later, the sidewalks leading into the prison from the front gate were lined with beautiful colors: reds, yellows, oranges, white, pinks, purples and blues. The visitors admired overflowing flower beds in the visiting park. The flag pole in front of the colonel’s office was ringed in flowers. It looked like a botanical garden, someone said.

One of my friends who worked with processing “new arrivals” each week came to me one day and said some old guy who’d just gotten off the bus was talking about me up front. Talking about someone can be a serious infraction in prison, and one must be on guard against any threats. I asked my friend what he’d said.

He walked in, looked around, and said, “Charlie Norman is at this camp.” My friend told him he was right, but how did he know?

“The flowers,” he said. “As soon as I saw all these flowers, I knew Charlie Norman was here. He’s the only one who’d do this. He did it at Raiford years ago.” He was right.
When I saw the old man later and greeted him, he embraced me and said he knew he’d come to the right place when he saw the flowers.

The sergeant made lieutenant, went on his way, and I went on mine, a ten-year tour of five other prisons, ending up here in 2002. The lieutenant was now a colonel, and it didn’t take long before I was back on operation, expanding flower beds every year, training more workers, beautifying the grounds. Then came the hurricanes, the trees began coming down, new, harsher, flower-hating people came in and took charge, which ended in the widespread destruction of most every living, rooted thing. The loss of the trees hit hardest.

Do you know how easy it is to grow oak trees from acorns? I had a mini-nursery of oak trees I grew in recycled one gallon plastic peanut butter pots, along with rows of pines, sycamores and red maples. The last red maple had been cut down two years before, but not before its winged seeds had found their way into a number of potting soil filled trays in my little greenhouse operation. I even had a few apple trees growing from seeds from apples handed out in the chow hall.

I’d been steadily planting and re-planting little trees until a particularly hateful and onerous guard was put in charge and given the duty to destroy every tree and flower I had. He took his job seriously. You’d have thought locusts had come through.

Over the past year many prisoners have bemoaned the barrenness of the grounds, remembering how it had looked not so long ago. Numerous guards and other staff have whispered their sadness at how bad it looks, what a waste. I agreed with all of them, but what was I to do? No one listens to me. Someone thinks the place should look “more like a prison,” but what does a prison look like?

Across the U.S., people who regularly visit prisons rave about those facilities where the grounds are well-tended and beautified, where smiling prisoners ceaselessly weed and trim neat flower beds, learn skills useful “outside,” and rehabilitate themselves with productive work. There are lessons to be learned there, as there are lessons to be learned here. As they said in the song, asking where have all the flowers gone, when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

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