Monday, August 30, 2010


Dateline: July 29, 2010


“Back in the day,” as they say, when the judge sentenced someone to “life in prison at hard labor,” that’s exactly what he meant.

My first job upon my arrival at the reception and medical center at Lake Butler was washing pots in the kitchen. When we came out of there at the end of the day, soaked in sweat, greasy, exhausted, all we wanted to do was take a shower and fall in a bunk for a few hours before starting all over again.

At Raiford I watched the prisoners come in the gate after working since daylight on the three “gun squads,” punishment details of prisoners who marched outside the prison gate every day slinging “bush axes,” clearing ditches, dodging snakes, watched over by a couple of shotgun guards who wouldn’t hesitate to fire a load of buckshot at any prisoner who got “rabbit” in him and tries to runoff. The chain gang expression I heard most often from those exhausted men was, “They got the butter from the duck today,” meaning they had nothing else to give. When they came in the gate, each man had to shout what squad he was on, to get checked off. The gun squad’s actual title was “outside labor squad, number one, two, or three,” but when the prisoners returned, they called out, “outside slavery squad!” Those days are long gone.

When I came to prison, the total population was about 20,000. Today it is over 100,000. Forget individual “treatment plans,” or any semblance of proper utilization of manpower. The old woman in the shoe, as the nursery rhyme went, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do, had nothing on the bursting-at-the-seams Florida prison system, or any of the other overburdened state and federal prison systems. Whereas, years ago, virtually every prisoner had a job, and many worked hard and were proud of their work, today’s prison have become massive holding pens, fenced-in camps crammed to overflowing with bored, idle, unemployed men with little productive activities for their time. Where men once learned skills they could turn into jobs in free society upon their release, now thousands of bored prisoners meander in circles on hot, unshaded cow pastures (euphemism: “rec yard”) for hours, or are cooped up in human warehouses (AKA: dormitories), growing more and more frustrated and short-tempered every wasted day.

Only a small percentage have actual “jobs,” and much of that is busywork, or just on paper. The hardest-working prisoners are still washing pots and trays in the kitchen, stirring 80-gallon kettles of boiling beans or grits, pulling hot pans out of ovens, mopping floors or serving meals to 1200 or so fellow prisoners three times a day, but they are in the minority. Not even one-tenth work in the kitchen, and most of those are scheming of ways to get out, reassigned to less-strenuous tasks or none at ll.

Although on paper, perhaps three hundred prisoners are assigned to “inside grounds,” which used to mean that hordes of men with rakes, brooms or buckets would swarm across the entire prison grounds all day, like locusts descending, raking, sweeping, picking up paper and cigarette butts, in actuality the vast majority of those men never report to work. A small squad of men with lawnmowers, supervised by one guard, keep the vast expanses of lawn neatly trimmed, working hard at a fast pace all day, but they are the exception. It is a privilege for them.

When I went to work in the GOLAB program at Raiford over thirty years ago (one of the very best programs ever to grace the prison system –long-gone), one of the eye-opening revelations was how much brain power was wasted in prison. It never ceased to amaze me how many really smart people were intermingled with all the rest. I met doctors, lawyers, successful businessmen, even a NASA rocket scientist, all serving time. In the GOLAB program, all those varied minds got a rare opportunity to sit down in a classroom together for a week or so and concentrate on positive activities. Thousands of men’s lives were changed for the better during those years, and many got out, applied the principles they’d learned in prison, and became successful, contributing members of society. No more.

At this point in time, with our society in flux, let us address the incredible waste of “manpower” that goes on every single day. Look at the recent “Disaster in the Gulf” as an appropriate comparison. Who can forget the nightly news images of millions of gallons of crude oil bubbling out of the broken pipe a mile beneath the surface, costing billions of dollars in damages and lost wages? The waste of manpower in our prison system is no less destructive, albeit in a different way, than the billions in oil damages.

Let’s look at some simple math. Let’s say that only half of the 100,000-plus Florida prisoners are physically capable of working full-time jobs. There are many sick, debilitated, dying, or elderly prisoners who have too many medical conditions to do “hard labor.” Fifty thousand men times forty hour per week equals two million manhours of labor per week! Two million! Think what could be done with that much labor, spread across the state. As it stands now, only a small percentage of prisoners are actually working at manual labor jobs that benefit the cities, counties, and citizens, rather than busywork.

I look out at the green expanses of prison lawns that nobody sees or ever walk on, that would be the pride of many private country clubs, and I wonder why we don’t have a couple hundred prisoners out there digging, planting vegetables, growing their own food, saving millions of tax dollars, as they used to in Florida, and still do in places like Texas. Instead of the “TVP,” textured vegetable protein they pawn off on us as “food,” prisoners could be growing their own food, eating better, and glad to do it. The Lord loves a working man. The prison system has thousands of acres of land that sits as idle as thousands of prisoners. Too bad we can’t put the two parts together.

Why can’t something be done, these issues addressed? Instead of prisoners sitting idle, being recruited into criminal gangs just for something to do, why can’t we put them to work in positive activities that will benefit society, the prisoners, and their families? In a word, it is “mismanagement.” The old woman in the shoe doesn’t know what to do. The people who run the prisons are so overwhelmed by the job, so underequipped to deal with the sheer mass of over 100,000 prisoners, they are so paranoid that “something” is going to happen, that they will be criticized, that they will lose their jobs, their carefully managed careers ruined, that all they can do is hold on, like a rider on a galloping runaway horse that has gotten away from them.

When I came into the system, wardens and “colonels,” the top “security” chiefs, most all had gray hair. Most had been in the military for a few years and knew how to work with men. They worked their way up through the ranks under more experienced mentors, and learned every aspect of the job, dealing with prisoners and guards, before being slowly promoted to higher positions of authority.

Those times are gone. Those “old pros” retired years ago. In their places, their children and grandchildren applied for jobs, got through their probationary periods, learned the finer points of sycophancy, held on, and got promoted as fast as Jack’s beanstalk grew, right into the sky. The “Peter Principle” kicked in hard. Positions opened up at new prisons that had to be filled. The median ages of high-ranking administrators trended lower and lower. Just because someone was awarded a title didn’t mean they knew what they were doing. The “skills pool” has been diluted and watered down to dangerous levels. On-the-job training doesn’t suffice.

What are we to do? Hopefully, somewhere in state government, a strong, wise leader will emerge and take charge, and solutions will be sought. Perhaps that person will even seek answers to the prison crisis from within. As we learned years ago, a lot of brain power is wasted in prison. Let us hope something is done before it is too late for all of society.


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