Someone once said that prison is a microcosm of society. In thirty-three years of life in prison, I’ve found that axiom to prove true.
Generations overlap in prison. When my incarceration began in the late 1970’s, I met men who’d been locked up since the 1940’s and ‘50’s. As “newcocks,” we younger prisoners listened raptly to the old timers’ stories of what prison life had once been and how it had changed since they came in decades before. Little did I know that over thirty years later I would be where they’d once been, telling newcocks how “real prison” had been “B.C.,” before crack cocaine.
One of the greatest differences between then and now is the educational and intelligence level of prisoners. I tell men who ask, “the quality of the prison inmate has gone downhill.” Don’t get me wrong! There were plenty of candidates for ‘America’s Dumbest Prisoners” in those days, but there was also a layer of intelligent, educated prisoners then that is absent now.
When I arrived at the Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center in North Florida after spending almost two years in Tampa’s Hillsborough County Jail dungeon, one of my first stops was the prison law library. I needed legal advice and didn’t trust the lawyer I believed betrayed me in court.
Everyone told me to go see Judge Joe Peel. I did. Judge Joe Peel ran the law library. His was a famous case from the 1950’s, the Chillingsworth Murders, in which Judge Peel supposedly paid Floyd Holzapel to murder Judge Chillingsworth and his wife. Floyd took them out into the Atlantic Ocean, wrapped them in chains, and threw them overboard. The case was famous not only because a judge contracted a murder on another judge, but also because it was the first time someone was convicted of murder without a corpus delicti, a dead body.
Besides the judge, a former prosecutor worked in the law library writing appeals for prisoners, along with another disbarred attorney and a couple of self-taught “jailhouse lawyers,” long-term prisoners who were just as legally talented as the law school graduates.
Judge Peel didn’t get me out, obviously, but in thirty minutes, he gave me more valuable advice than I’d received from my lawyer. Those men helped many prisoners with appeals, had convictions overturned, resulting in numerous people freed from prison.
That doesn’t happen any more. Lawyers and judges are still going to prison—one of my judges went to prison for bribery and corruption—but I haven’t seen any in years. One of the “status” jobs in prison is law clerk, and the Department of Corrections has a training program in which prisoners who meet the minimum educational requirements watch hours of video tapes, take a test, and become certified law clerks. Sadly, most of those prisoner law clerks are incompetent, and have trouble helping write a request form or a grievance. If you find one who actually has some legal ability, he is so bedeviled with pleas for help from mostly lost causes that he becomes burned out and gets a job change. Others who are too successful in pursuing court appeals and lawsuits often find themselves in lockup, transferred, facing trumped-up charges to dissuade them from being too helpful.
When I came to prison, Tom Brokaw’s remnants of “The Greatest Generation” and beyond still dominated the prisoner mentality. I met men who had fought the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II, the Chinese Communists and North Koreans in the Korean War, and the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War.
Those men were a different breed. They were serious. They were “stand-up,” and lived by the convict code. Mind your own business. Be a man. Don’t snitch. Don’t cross them! They might kill you. Many of these men were victims of the wars they fought in, plagued by alcoholism and PTSD, and had not adjusted well to life in a peaceful society, but they ran the prisons, maintained a semblance of order that the guards couldn’t.
Something I miss from those days are the intelligent conversations. There were some very smart, educated prisoners serving time then, and they tended to congregate together. Besides former college professors, I knew an actual NASA rocket scientist, an astronomer, a nuclear physicist, and a U.S. Marine Corps general. If you had a difficult question, someone could answer it. We had jet pilots, doctors and dentists. We had three chiropractors at Raiford who were constantly being called upon to crack backs and adjust necks. There were men with life experiences, successful businessmen, old-time bank robbers and safecrackers, jewel thieves, professional athletes, football and baseball players, a man who’d won two Super Bowl rings, who fell to the siren song of cocaine.
You don’t see those men in prison anymore. Perhaps they are in federal prison. Today 70% of Florida prisoners are functionally illiterate, a number I can attest. The Department of Corrections bragged recently that 2,500 prisoners were awarded G.E.D.’s in 2010, which sounds good, but when you realize there are over 103,000 people in Florida prisons, that comes out to less than 2.5%.
Prisoners have gotten younger and dumber. They are getting hooked on drugs at a younger age, become more desperate and violent, the juvenile system can’t hold them, and they graduate to “the Big House.” Mail call is very sparse nowadays. Only some of us get correspondence. Another prison axiom is you have to write letters to get letters, and if you can’t read and write, you won’t send or receive much mail. And those who do write can’t spell. Just yesterday a young man laboring over a letter home asked me, “How do you spell ‘o”?” “O?” I asked, confused, “What do you mean, ‘O’?” He explained that he was trying to tell his mother he was in debt, and needed her to send him money. “Oh!” I said, “You mean ‘owe!’ ” “That’s what I said.” “O – W- E.” “Thanks. How do you spell, ‘coffee?’ ”
Prison as a reflection and microcosm of society is also seen through our economy. In the Clinton nineties when the deficit was reined in and taxes filled state coffers, prisons went through a boom time of full funding. Real school teachers and vocational instructors taught full classes. College courses were available. Chapels had full staffs and outside religious groups coming in for services days and nights. Recreation departments offered organized sports leagues, hobbycraft and art programs that kept many prisoners occupied and out of mischief. Libraries were well-stocked and always open. The prison food was good, and they served adult portions. No one went hungry. I haven’t seen a pork chop, a fish with bones in it, or beef stew in fifteen years. Programs are virtually nonexistent now.
Then came September 11, 2001. Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda entered our vocabulary. The Twin Towers fell. We went to war. We are still at war. America will never be the same, and neither will the prison system.
We learned new words: Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Rendition. I.E.D. It was only natural that the same labor pool that drew prison guards would be tapped to fill the increasing ranks of soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Guards joined the services and the Reserves were called up. Thousands took tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and developed an “us and them” mentality. If you weren’t one of us, you were one of them, the enemy. When they came back to the States, they brought back new, harsher, angrier attitudes. They were no longer eating sand and worried about getting blown up walking through a village, but now they were entering cell blocks and looking at us as though we were their enemies, terrorists, and not fellow Americans, who, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Now when the guards come in their squads for “routine shakedowns,” one would think they are looking for AK-47’s or roadside bombs. Ransack. Trash. Pull out the pepper spray, and use it. Lock up eighteen men because one made a wisecrack. Pepper spray them, ship them. Disrupt their lives and that of their families. That didn’t happen twenty years ago. Now it happens all the time. One old man who has served time off and on since 1964 addressed the issue of the new, harder, meaner prison guard. “The only difference between these guards today and the Nazi SS is these haven’t been ordered to gas us yet.” “Do you think they would do that?” I asked. “In a minute,” he said. I shudder to think that could be true.
The housing mortgage collapse—AIG—bank failures—mass bankruptcies—the recession (don’t say Depression) —Bernie Madoff. Don’t tell anyone, but if Bin Laden’s goal was to bring down America, he’s come close to succeeding. The burgeoning prison population is proof of that.
The economic stimulus has not trickled down to the prisoners. Most prisoners’ families—those that have families still supporting them—are in the hardest-hit economic class, and struggle to maintain a roof over their heads and food on the table. The prisoners are left to fend for themselves, their families unable to spare but a pittance, if that, for bare necessities only available for sale in the canteens. This results in more robberies and thefts as the “have-nots” prey on the “haves,” which leads to more violence, an escalating breakdown of prison society, reflecting our greater society. Where will it end?