Saturday, May 22, 2010

“SIMPLY BECAUSE…” THE FIRST AMENDMENT FIGHT IN PRISON CONTINUES

Dateline: May 12, 2010



“SIMPLY BECAUSE…”


THE FIRST AMENDMENT FIGHT IN PRISON CONTINUES


Since my release from solitary confinement on April 14th, I’ve been focused on appealing the false disciplinary charges against me, with mixed results. I’ve spent many hours researching legal cases in the law library, and have discovered that the law is on my side, for what it is worth.

“I AM the law!” How many times have I heard that? One of the biggest problems facing a prisoner fighting injustice is the cavalier attitude of the prison “authorities” that the rules and laws don’t apply to them. They are in charge—they have the handcuffs, keys, pepper spray, and the gun towers. The Kangaroo Court is in session. Do you know how hard it is to fight kangaroos, with your hands cuffed behind your back?

One small victory—this incident began in January when mailroom clerk T. Gronik read the anthology, “Wordsmith 2010,” by the Tampa Writers Alliance. She liked it—or disliked it—so much that she kept it, neglecting to send me a “Notice of Impoundment,” as required by Florida law.

You should know that if the postman delivered U.S. mail to someone and you pawed through it, found a book you wanted to read, you couldn’t legally just snatch that book out of the mail and keep it. That is called “theft of mail,” and last time I heard, was a federal crime. Mail to state prisoners is still mail, and if a “prison official” decides to intercept and confiscate a prisoner’s mail, it can be done, but it has to be done right. There are procedures. That’s why the call it, “due process.” In this case, the law says they can take my book, but they must document it and have a valid reason. They have 15 days to send me Form DC5-101, “Notice of Rejection or Impoundment,” which kicks in a time deadline for me to appeal the confiscation to the “Literature Review Committee” in Tallahassee. Mailroom clerk Gronik snatched my book on January 28, 2010, but neglected to file paperwork or tell me about it.

Almost a month later, February 22, while picking up my legal mail (another sensitive issue), I asked the mailroom person if she’d seen the book. She took a deep breath and replied.

“I read the book. I felt the story you wrote was a threat to security [emphasis mine] and sent it to Mr. Hodgson.” Mr. Hodgson is one of the assistant wardens. I asked her about my confiscation notice, where was it? Duh! Sometimes they just don’t want to talk to you.

It’s almost impossible to talk to these people. It must be the “siege mentality.” They have a new thing in prison called “controlled movement,” in which they’ve installed millions of dollars worth of chain link fences, cages, and mazes across the prison yards, they march you through them in groups, like rats looking for the cheese in the psychology labs, while they are two or three layers of fences away from you, in their own little self-protective groups, watching. If you do somehow get closer to them, in their little pod of officials, it won’t do you any good anyway.

An old man once said, “Never approach a pack of wild dogs or prison guards by yourself.” Good advice. You approach a group of guards or officials, the mob mentality kicks in. No matter what you ask them, the answer is no. They must maintain their macho fa├žade in front of their cohorts. If by some chance you encounter one alone, you have a better chance, but after 30 seconds their cell phone will go off, and they scurry away with the thing stuck to their ear.

Our only alternative is to “put it on paper,” to file a grievance, “administrative remedies,” they call it, which is usually about as satisfying as unzipping one’s pants and urinating into a 50 m.p.h. wind. The eternal optimist, I filed, asking for my book back. I’m not going to go into all the back and forth—you can read the court papers later—but the result was the D.R. from assistant warden Gordon for assorted “mail violations.” It took me until March 10th —41 days after confiscation, to get a receipt, and the reason the book was stolen—uh—confiscated.

“Book contains an article written by inmate Norman that won a contest (page 54-57)”

They have to put down the reason and the exact pages where the offending items appear. It just so happens that on pages 54-57 appears my memoir, “To Protect the Guilty,” which was an excerpt from my “Anne Frank Center USA Prison Diary Project” from 2008, approved by DOC officials all the way to Tallahassee and back. KKK prison guards. Hmmmm. And it didn’t win a contest, either. It came in third. What they didn’t mention was that I had two other works published in the same book, a poem, and a short story, but they didn’t mention KKK prison guards, so they let them slide.

Only one problem—the judicial rulings concerning the First Amendment and prisoners’ literary works forbid censorship for the “content of the writings.” In this case, it must have been “the content” that waved the red flag and got their dander up, since they ignored the poem and short story. Naughty, naughty!

While I spent thirty days in solitary from the kangaroo court, my appeal of the book confiscation wended its way to the Literature Review Committee, which is apparently that rare bird in prison officialdom, college-educated people with sense who go by the law.

On April 20th, the committee overruled the confiscation of “Wordsmith 2010,” stating, “Simply because a publication contains an article written by an inmate is not grounds for rejection.” Thank you. Eight days later, exactly three months after Gronik snatched it, I finally got the book. It is a nice one. I recommend it.

Meanwhile, I’m still appealing the false D.R. conviction. If I get turned down again, I have to file in court, Leon County, a “mandamus,” with a $400.00 filing fee. Justice is not cheap. More on that later.

A few comments on our blog readers. Webmaster Dan has been using an interesting web tool called “Sitemeter,” which is like caller ID for the internet. Sitemeter tells us where all the log-ons came from, and other interesting information. For instance, the blog has been accessed by readers in twenty-two countries, all the Canadian provinces, and many states. Most recently, we’ve added readers from Zagreb, Croatia, Ridderkerk Zuid, Holland, Brisbane, Australian, the City of London, Sweden, Singapore, The Russian Federation, Qatar, and many others in Europe, Africa, North America and Asia. Welcome to FreeCharlieNormanNow! Notice that I did NOT ask for donations! We would like to hear your comments.

It turns out, according to Sitemeter, that some of our most avid readers are employed by the Florida Department of Corrections. We’ve had lots of hits from Lake Butler, Florida, a hotbed for certain groups, Tallahassee, Daytona Beach (Tomoka), and others.

Sitemeter tells us our corrections friends do a lot of websurfing during working hours. Hmmm. I wonder if Attorney General McCollum has heard about that? Or what other websites have these public servants—or “surfants” —been visiting on the state dime? Might be grounds for a state audit of employee internet usage during working hours.

Anyone interested in that, to file a complaint, a form is available at myfloridalegal.com/19thstatewidegrandjury or
call the tipline at 1-800-646-0444. Check it out.

Thanks, Charlie

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

TUESDAY, MARCH 16, 2010, DAY ONE IN THE HOLE

A MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE



This is the procedure used by the Florida prison system to punish a prisoner for writing about something they would rather not be revealed to the public. First, they approve your participation in the 2008 “Anne Frank Prison Diary Project,” which inspired me to write hundreds more pages of prison memoirs beyond the 96-page blank journal the Anne Frank Center sent me, with the full knowledge and approval of prison officials, all the way from Tomoka C.I. to Tallahassee. Associated Press reporters, Jessica Gresko and Suzette Laboy, were so impressed they drove all the way from Miami and went through several fences and gates to interview me. The article went worldwide, to over 3000 newspapers and media outlets. The prison folks didn’t read my memoir about the KKK prison guards, but others did.

An excerpt from the hundreds of handwritten pages, about 2400 words, title, “To Protect The Guilty,” recounted how repressive guards can come back years later and retaliate against a prisoner for something he said. Talk about prophetic!

The Tampa Writers Alliance, a fine group that I have been a member of for years, liked the memoir and published it in their annual anthology, “Wordsmith 2010.” I was expecting my copy in January, to see what my words looked like in print, but it was not to be. The mailroom woman told me weeks later that she read the book, a story I wrote was a threat to security, and she’d sent it to the assistant warden over security, a man from North Florida, just like the ones in my memoir. Where is my confiscation receipt and notice of impoundment, required to be filed within 15 days of taking it, I asked. Uh…no answer.

I filed grievances to get the book. I studied Constitutional law, particularly the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and knew that I’d violated no rules, that my work was protected speech under the First Amendment. I even copied a passage from an excellent law book, The Rights of Prisoners, (4th Edition, Vol.2, § 6:18 IV), “Prisoner Writings,” (page 62) which stated it perfectly, in part:
“ A quintessential expression of speech is one’s own writings. It is well known that the isolation and frequent solitude of a prison setting have been fertile soil for inmates to write and compose music and art, and prisoners often have interesting and vital tales to tell, music to write, and art to compose…Moreover, the fruit of some prisoner literary efforts have become justly famous examples of world renowned literature.” (See e.g. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (1684); Henry Charriere, Papillon (1910); O. Henry, The Ransom of Red Chief in “Whirligigs” (1910); Martin Luther King, Letters From Birmingham Jail, (1963); Oscar Wilde, Ballad of Reading Gaol, (1898) )

That is an impressive short list of esteemed company I share my plight with now that I sit in solitary confinement, “the hole,” “the box,” as a result of exercising my First Amendment rights in prison. Before I go on, let me give you a few more lines from The Rights of Prisoners, continuing from the previous passage:
“These works not only add to the culture, but also have immediate benefits to prisoners as a means of rehabilitation and as a ‘nonviolent means to defuse tensions within a prison.’ ”

“The legal problems that an inmate’s original expression engenders depend on whether the inmate is writing primarily for a prison audience or whether, instead, the author seeks a wider audience for the work. This section will consider whether inmates may be punished for their writings.

“Without a specific factual record showing legitimate dangers that are reasonably related to an inmate writing for the outside world, they cannot be prohibited.”

Unfortunately, the people in charge of this concentration camp never bothered reading the Constitution, or the law, for that matter. When three white folks, all from North Florida and in charge of the prison, are offended by the truthful characterizations of KKK prison guards, what do you do? In Florida, you go to solitary confinement.

It took them three weeks. I kept demanding my legal rights, which 95% of the prisoners have no concept of, and they kept postponing the disciplinary hearing to figure out the best way to crucify me without a lot of noise. After decades of abuse, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the prisons to provide “due process,” and “fair and impartial” hearings. Nevertheless, that doesn’t happen in prison.

Despite all the legal maneuverings, demanding the process be legal (fat chance), letters of complaint and phone calls from lawyers and family, insisting that the deliberate retaliation be stopped, on Tuesday, March 16, 2010, I had my day in Kangaroo court. Old Judge Roy Bean said it best—“Give the man a fair trial, then hang him.”

The offended assistant warden wrote me a totally unwarranted “disciplinary report” (D.R.) for “mail violations,” although there were none. I called ten staff witnesses to verify all the prison diary approvals. Denied.

When you first go to the D.R. hearing (kangaroo court), they cuff your hands behind your back. Very degrading. Somewhere I read that some group used to do that before they put a bullet in the back of your head.

I had an envelope of legal papers, my statement, case citations, witness lists, and evidence, which I couldn’t hold or read with my hands cuffed behind my back. While they had me standing outside, they confiscated all my legal papers, including my appeal (I knew that guilt was predetermined). They postponed the hearing.

After my dearest friend made repeated complaints the next day, the person who took my legal papers was ordered to return them. He was pissed at having to do this! The following is a verbatim account of a conversation between that person and a guard he asked to bring me to his office. He told the guard he needed him to stay and witness a phone call concerning Charles Norman. A fellow prisoner standing nearby repeated the exchange to me.
GUARD: “Charles Norman? He’s a smart ass, a piece of shit.”

STAFF: “Charles Norman is a smart motherfucker, and you don’t want to get fucked up with him—at all.”

I’m not calling that a compliment, but it shows the mentality of these people. If you oppose them, they abuse their authority to break you down.

The second hearing was “pro forma,” going through the motions, verdict predetermined, false statements, no evidence, no witnesses. The previous week, the warden had told my lawyer, “Norman will have a D.R. hearing, he’ll be found guilty, and he can appeal to me.” That’s real justice in action. How much do you want to bet that the appeal to the warden (the same one who ordered the D.R. be written) will be denied, as will the one to Tallahassee? They make you spend hundreds of dollars in filing fees to go to court, for months, to overturn such abusive actions. At least this time I held onto my legal papers. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have this paper, pen, envelope and stamp to write this and mail it.

The first thing they do when you go to solitary confinement is lock you in a shower and strip search you. Tennis shoes, belt and watch—gone. Don’t want anyone to hang themselves! It happens more often than you’d think, but really, what recourse do some have after everything, including contact with “the outside” and any ray of hope, is taken from them.

Now I am in my socks, walking down a cold hallway to a cell. Feet hurt. Get inside the cell, they take off the handcuffs, you’re on your own.

First thing I do is make certain the toilet flushes. That’s mandatory. A tiny stream of water dribbles into a stainless steel sink. An extremely thin, hard plastic-covered mattress—no pillow—barely covers a narrow steel bunk.

Next, I shake down the cell—search it and clean it. Always search your cell—mattress especially—search every crack and crevice. If you don’t, and the guards find a razor blade, or anything contraband, you get another charge. The cell is dirty, but no visible evils.

Perhaps I’ll get some of my personal property later, if it’s not all stolen and disbursed. Someone in my old dorm has my fat mattress and pillow already. The guards are supposed to protect our belongings—sure they will. What I need are my flip-flops, soap, shampoo, washcloth, powder, stamps, something to read, if I’m lucky. They gave me “30-30,” thirty days of “disciplinary confinement” and thirty days loss of gain time. If I don’t get it overturned, it could affect my parole date. We have to fight it all the way.

It’s cold back here right now. At least it’s not July—these guys suffer in the sweltering heat. Lonely prisoners “stay on the doors” yelling down the hallway to their friends, like at the zoo. I’ve already cast my bread upon the water—turned in my appeal, going through the motions. Now I’ll wait, as best I can, and hope that my defenders will spring into action, make phone calls, lobby the warden to grant my appeal. Too bad I don’t have any KKK friends to intervene on my behalf.

Charlie