Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Dateline April 1, 2012


In spite of what could be looked at as a demoralizing experience, being snatched up and shipped to a prison further from home, farther west than I ever was before, for a clearly punitive reason (that‘s how power-mad Tampa oligarchs smite those they can’t kill — use their abusive authority to break them — NOTE TO MARK: IT DOESN’T WORK), there are some interesting moments that cause me to stop and think.

One of those moments occurred today, at an obscure Florida prison nearerr to New Orleans than to Tampa or Jacksonville, where I’ve resided since March 28th, in limbo, waiting for another shipment to a secret location closer to New Orleans than to Tallahassee, even.

My dearest friend, Libby, made the pilgrimage from Jacksonville to share Palm Sunday and lift my spirits, offering me much needed moral support. At 8:00 AM (Central Time Zone) the dorm officer released me, and I headed upfront to the visiting area.

After walking the barren grounds of Wakulla Annex the past sixteen months, the soothing landscaped beds of bright petunias blooming between cycads pleasantly surprised me. Maybe this place wasn’t as bad as others had claimed. We had a nice visit, and it seemed like only minutes had passed, rather than six hours, before it was time to say goodbye. That is always the hardest part.

When it was my turn to go through the humiliating exit procedures of taking off one’s clothes, exposing one’s most private parts to a critical stranger, “squatting and coughing,” I entered the shakedown room. A tall, unusually older but fit prison officer with a combed-back shock of thick white hair addressed me. “Pardon me, but you don’t look like someone who should be in prison.”

Actually, I hear that a lot. Sometimes I will respond flippantly and say, “I wish you’d been on my jury,” or “I wish you’d tell the judge.” See “How Should I look?” that appears somewhere in cyberspace.

But this remark didn’t call for a flippant response. The man, a complete stranger who’d never laid eyes on me before today, made an observation that deserved an honest answer.

I wondered what he saw in me that informed his gut instincts that I was somehow different from the teeming masses of fellow prisoners who swarm in blueclad hordes to the chowhall three times a day. One of my prison survival strategies gleaned from years of watching nature shows on PBS has been to become like the zebra or wildebeest on the Serenghetti Plain, blend in with the herd, stay in the middle, don’t lag behind in the periphery and get picked off by the lions, keep my head down, let them choose someone else to be an example. To some extent that works, except during those times like today, when I must stand naked and alone.

When I’m in that crowd, packed into a cramped vestibule with dozens of prisoners jammed together like Tokyo commuters waiting to be released to join seemingly endless queue outside, rain or shine, I notice those around me just as I feel their eyes on me, wondering.

This is the bottom of the barrel. It doesn’t get any lower than this. I am surrounded by sad men with roughly-shaved heads, the homeless, the unemployable, the alcoholics, the drug-addicted, the illiterate, the lost, the pitiful men you recoiled from when they panhandled in parking lots with crud-encrusted outstretched palms. They are in here with me now, not much different than when they were out there except for the “three hots and a cot,” regular meals and a clean place to sleep, fairly free of the temptations of cigarettes, booze and addictive substances, unless you count the psychotropic drugs they zone out on.

And they look bad! I could write a book, The Prison of Scruffy Men, and describe the dull, vacant stares, the damaged, misshapen skulls, the scarred, lop-sided visages healed wrong, or not at all, the shuffling, limping walks of odd-lengthed legs, the thirty-year olds who look like badly-weathered seventy-year olds on meth, and worse.

These men are not the unfortunate foreclosed and laid off bankrupts fruitlessly sending out resumes to Monstar.com that you see on the nightly news, adding to the unemployment figures, debating whether to vote for Romney, Santorum or Obama, wondering who will lower the price of gasoline. These men have never imagined scaling such heights.

They could tell you the best dumpsters to find a discarded burger behind a McDonalds or Wendy’s in Orlando or Miami, or the safest abandoned buildings where a man can sleep on a piece of cardboard with a lesser chance of being beaten up by violent teenage gangs out for Saturday night sport, but the lives that average citizens live are as alien to them as life on the International Space Station.

Just the fact that a well-dressed, smiling lady drove across the state to see me for a few hours speaks volumes to the guards, setting me apart from the vast majority of prisoners who have burned their bridges, who have no family or friends who would bother to visit them even if they weren’t stranded in some distant Florida gulag. The officer asking the question of why I am in prison based it somewhat on his observation of us both, how we carried ourselves, so the question covered Libby, too. She didn’t look like someone who should be visiting someone in prison, either.

I admit it. I am different. I don’t want to be the same as everyone else, despite my camouflage techniques in the crowd. Notwithstanding 34 years’ imprisonment this week (Happy Anniversary to me), I am in this world, but not of this world. I have fought not to become one of the institutionalized lost boys I’ve documented so long, and I pray I never will be. It was a confirmation of my efforts that this prison officer saw something in me that he didn’t see in the others parading past him all day, and wondered why.

I gave him the abbreviated two-minute explanation. Few people want to hear long, sad stories, except in movie theaters.

“You’re right,” I said. “And I thank you for saying that, sir. I got some powerful, corrupt people mad at me a long time ago, and wound up getting life in prison for a murder that two other men committed.”

“You got in with a bad crowd.”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“You lie down with dogs…”

“You’re right,” I said. “One of the men had a wealthy father who paid off some people, and over three years after the crime was committed in 1975, they were given immunity from prosecution for murder in exchange for their false testimony that I told them I did it. You should know that only the guilty are given immunity. The innocent don’t need it.”

I continued. “The only eyewitness testified that it wasn’t me, that the shooter was much shorter and smaller than I was, and I demanded a jury trial. I refused the prosecutor’s increasingly lenient plea bargains for a reduced sentence that would have freed me thirty years ago. I insulted him, which made him my lifelong enemy. Without his objections to my parole, I would have been free nine years ago.”

“I’m real sorry to hear that,” the man said. “As soon as I heard you speak, I could tell that you are an educated person from a good family. That’s a real shame.”

“I appreciate that.”

“You take care of yourself,” he said.

I went out the exit door and onto the prison yard.

The conversation lasted only a few minutes, but it kept me thinking for hours. Later that night, after Libby had finally made it home, I telephoned her about the unusual conversation. She was equally amazed at the man’s astute observations.

Many encounters with prison guards are in a negative context, so this one stood out for its uniqueness. I decided to sit down right then and write this account while it was still fresh in my mind.

So here I am. It is late, we are locked in our cells, the lights are off, and I am writing by the yard lights that glare into the tiny window onto my bunk.

There is much more to my prison survival that I’ve been documenting for years, and will continue to do, but that brief interlude with the officer encouraged me, believing that, in the midst of all the evil, hatred and negativity that surrounds me, I am doing something right, and someone noticed.


No comments: