Monday, August 18, 2014


Tuesday morning, early, August 12, twelve of us leaving Okaloosa C.I. were herded on the Bluebird, the prison bus. In a cloud of diesel exhaust, I turned my head away for the last time from the Panhandle hellhole where I’d spent the past twenty-eight months. My main thought was, “Thank God!”

At my last 5:30 AM breakfast at Okaloosa, the sergeant in charge of the re-entry dorm and program was upset that I was leaving. In one fell swoop seven classes that I’d been teaching became leaderless. I felt regret for the almost one hundred students I left behind, who looked to me for guidance, but one of the oldest adages of prison life came to mind: you come to prison alone and you leave alone. (Not counting your family and loved ones, who serve your sentence with you. Inside these prison fences, you are on your own. No promises, no guarantees.)

More needy prisoners, more classes, more service awaits me. Once the officer told me to pack my property, I looked ahead, not behind. That didn’t make things any easier for the re-entry sergeant, who has to scramble to salvage much-needed programs. She tried to help.

After a couple hours rumbling east on I-10, we got dumped out at the Northwest Florida Reception Center, at Chipley, which continued the strip searches, ransacking of personal belongings, profanity-laced verbal abuses and humiliation by guards specially selected for their sadism. Although they took two personal towels I’d had since the 1990’s, some pens, and broke my radio headphones, I felt I got off lightly, considering the abuses heaped upon some of my fellow travelers. Sometimes, having served thirty-six years in prison for murder bestows a small advantage. “Leave him alone. He might snap and kill you.” that is an advantage the run-of-the-mill drug offender, burglar and sex offender can’t claim, as undeserved as it is in my case.

We spent the night at that hellhole, were awakened at 2:30 AM Wednesday morning, endured several hours of boredom, abuses, and ransacking before forty-plus prisoners were packed into another prison bus for the next leg of the journey, a four-hour trip that became a six-hour survival test in a metal oven on wheels. Temperatures in the nineties, heat index (outside) over one hundred degrees. I have no idea how hot it was in that overheated tin can, but it was insufferable.

Tiny window grills barely admitted even a hot breeze. When a semi-truck would fly past us, it would push fresh air through the window slits, but otherwise we sweated and suffered. Holocaust cattle cars came to  mind.

A prison bus is a locked cage on wheels, and inside that big cage was a smaller cage holding three prisoners from disciplinary confinement. Whether from the unbearable heat, a lack of water, or epilepsy, about an hour east of Tallahassee, a prisoner in the smaller cage began having a grand mal seizure. The two prisoners in the cage with him didn’t know what to do, except try to prevent him from hurting himself worse, and yell to the guards to stop the bus.

They are not stopping the bus. Forget it. Forty-plus prisoners in leg irons versus two guards with pistols. Anyone could fake a heart attack or a seizure. This one was for real. Didn’t matter.

There is a procedure for everything in prison. We were crossing Madison County, so the bus driver diverted to Madison C. I., drove inside the fences, and called for a nurse. The noon-day sun beat down on the thin metal covering of the Bluebird. I know how the turkey must have felt in the oven, except he was cleaned and plucked, but I was just roasted.

We sat there in the broiling sun. I felt light-headed, soaked in sweat. Several prisoners implored the guard outside for water. He relented and sent in a jug of tepid water, scarcely enough for a cup apiece.

One of the main complaints of modern prisoners is the lack of unity and purpose among the prison population. Gone are the days of protests, sitdown strikes and petitions. Economy-size pepper spray canisters are liberally applied to brook any dissent. In a dog-eat-dog prison world, it is every man for himself. But yesterday, packed together and suffering in a sweltering prison bus, for a short time every man rose above his circumstances and shared in a rare commodity, water.

I was seated in the back of the bus, near the exit door, where the water jug was placed. No way would those few gallons stretch to the parched men at the front of the bus, but in a spontaneous example of altruism, the men in possession of the water jug signaled for the men at the front to pass their cups back. The cips were half-filled and passed to the front, hand-to-hand, until everyone had drunk some, then the water was parceled out until it was gone a few minutes later.

The man who had suffered the seizure remained unresponsive. They maneuvered him out of the cage, to medical, and eventually we continued on our way to the North Florida Reception and Medical Center at Lake Butler, Florida. More institutionalized, profanity-laced abuse was endured. Do they train their people in inhumanity and humiliation tactics, or does it come naturally?

We finally wound up inside the building, seated in folding chairs, for medical screening. Take your weight and vital signs, blood pressure, pulse, etc. The scale must have been off. I know every one of us lost a lot of weight to dehydration in the six-plus hour trip in the sweatbox, but I weighed 224 pounds Tuesday, and 210 pounds on Wednesday. After drinking about a gallon of cool water from the inside fountain, I replaced some of that lost weight.

Two nurses asked each of us standard questions they read from a form:

“Do you know who you are, and why you are here? (YES).
“Do you fear being beat up or sexually assaulted while you are here?” (NO).
“Do you intend to beat up or sexually assault anyone while you are here?” (NO).
“You aren’t thinking about suicide, are you?” (NO).
“Have you ever attempted suicide or harmed yourself?” (NO).
“Are you under psychiatric treatment or care?” (NO).
“Do you have any skin diseases, sores, or skin lesions?” (NO).
“Do you know how to seek medical care and access sickcall?” (YES).

As I answered their questions, I smiled to myself and wondered what they would do had I given the opposite answers instead. After all those hours in the bus, then hours waiting outside before going inside, we had to endure more threats concerning using the bathroom, urinals only, one-by-one, row-by-row, or it would be closed. One elderly man told the officer that he was sick, could not hold it, and had defecated in his pants while sitting there.

That revelation sparked more abuse and humiliating remarks from the guard. “That’s a shitty thing to do,” “What do you want me to do about it?” and “Just sit there for awhile.” Another officer sent an inmate orderly to the laundry for a pair of boxers and pants. Eventually the sick person was allowed to clean himself up.

A couple hours later, back outside, waiting for our bunk assignments, the second officer made a rare apology for the first officer’s actions, saying it was wrong to heap humiliation on the prisoner in front of everyone, that every week at least two people get off the arriving buses vomiting and sick from eating the bologna sandwiches in the bag lunches provided by the previous institution, that it wasn’t the prisoner’s fault he’d become sick.

At five PM, settled in, we went to supper in the distant chowhall under threat of dark gray storm clouds. I’m not going to tell you what we ate. You wouldn’t believe me. While we ate, the storm clouds unleashed lightning and pounding rain, stranding us in the chowhall until it had passed over. They weren’t concerned about us getting wet, but the lightning play hell with their fence alarms, and if one of us got struck by lightning, the state would be held liable to our survivors for damages. So we sat awhile. Supper was temporarily suspended.

A couple hours later, surprisingly, it had cleared up, and they called us to go to the rec yard canteen. Another prisoner told me I was wasting my time lining up, that my canteen debit card wouldn’t be activated yet, but I didn’t care. I needed the walk, the chance to be out in the open air, to see the sky, the trees outside the fences, the birds flying.

Miraculously. as if to reward my optimism, a bright rainbow  formed in the east, a colorful semicircle ringing the sky, reaching down to the tree line, followed by a second rainbow above the first, framing the distant landscape. The long canteen line of prisoners and the supervising guards stopped to stare in wonder at the sight, until it faded and disappeared fifteen minutes later.

When I returned to the dorm empty-handed, another prisoner said, “Wasted trip, huh?” I replied, “Not at all,” smiled to myself, and got in another line for the phone, to call my long-suffering wife, Libby, to let her know I was okay. Better than okay, I felt redeemed.

I told her that during that long trip across North Florida on Interstate 10, I was humbled at the thought of her repeated sacrifices, driving those long distances through monotonous thickets of undergrowth lining the highway to visit me. One trip wiped me out — true, she drives a much more comfortable vehicle, her Kia Soul, “Miss Daisy,” but her repeated six-hour treks each way from Jacksonville on the Atlantic coast, to Okaloosa, on the Gulf of Mexico, proved a rare love and dedication for me.

Today is Thursday, August 14, 2014. I had expected to spend only one night here, at Lake Butler, and proceed to Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando early this morning, but the guard, like the Passover Angel, passed me by. Perhaps I will spend the weekend here and ride south on Monday, which is my preference, since I am temporarily near Jacksonville. Libby can make a much shorter drive to visit me here, an unexpected bonus.

This morning we had “mandatory rec,” and were herded out of the dorm to the swampy rec yard. I found a bench beneath a small wood pavilion and began writing this update. Fifty yards away, on the other side of the razorwire fences, birds perched in pines and a dozen other varieties of trees called and sang for me. At least I felt their songs were for me. It didn’t seem as though anyone else noticed, but I tried to squeeze every bit of perception from the scene. Rain frogs called from nearby hiding places. Two dozen sparrows hurriedly pecked at a discarded biscuit. A tiger swallowtail butterfly flew inside the fence, flitted past me, thought better of it, and flew back toward the woods it came from.

Still not certain of my destination, I will patiently bear any burdens they place on me, and thank God for the fervent prayers of those who are observing this journey. Some positive things are happening on multiple fronts, especially with some new, favorable rules affecting the parole commission, which recently changed its name to the “Florida Commission on Offender Review” (FCOR). Hopefully, the rules change and name change will auger a positive change in my release date.

ADDENDUM:  I wrote “The Bluebird of Sadness” some time ago, based on other prison trips, but the sentiments remain the same. I asked Libby to reprint it here:


By Charles Patrick Norman

The prison bus, the Bluebird of Sadness, greets us
inside the fenced sallyport gate with rear door open,
beckoning like the black maw of the Beast, trudge now
up the three flimsy metal steps to your fate.
Fifty men pack into the Bluebird struggling with our
mesh bags of meager belongings: hopeless trial transcripts,
Dear John letters, flip-flops, empty deodorants, Gideon Bibles
given out by do-gooders like magic protective talismans,
stacking ourselves in broken seats, rusted shelves without
upholstery, steel grates bolted over windows, no escape,
shipped like UPS boxes with leg irons, signed for,
except UPS deliverymen don’t pack pistols and shotguns.

The old diesel wheezes, the guard/driver grinds gears,
stomps the brakes, laughs at laws of inertia staggering
those left standing, catching their balance on seat backs
and shoulders, bracing themselves for the eight-hour
transport to another anonymous fenced-in pasture, a prison
not unlike the last one, or the ones before, or after.
The heaving, rocking Bluebird of Sadness groans, complains
up the incline interstate entrance ramp, melds into
a racing river of rubber and steel cans filled with
citizens traveling in parallel lives, staring straight ahead,
talking on cell phones or nodding their heads to silent
music beamed from satellites, oblivious to their destinies,

Or the Bluebird of Sadness packed with lost souls on
their way to Purgatory, different destinations, yet the same.
We dread/desire the crash, the out-of-control Bluebird
of Sadness tumbling along the highway, scattering speeding
citizens to the Four Winds like ninepins or dandelions,
the blue-clad, chained sacrificial rams rotating like plaid
shirts, socks, blouses, trousers inside the clothes dryer,
padlocked, unable to escape the inevitable flames.
We plant our heads against window grates to get a better look
at cars and citizens zipping past us to the left, an occasional
glimpse of legs and thighs that generates hoots and catcalls from men
whose only solace comes from their imaginings or other men.

Bladders fill and men form lines in the aisle to a metal funnel
mounted waist-high at the back of the bus, connected to a tube that
drains through a hole in the floor, dribbling noxious urine
onto the pavement at sixty miles per hour, Lexus, BMW, Benz,
Nissan, Kia and Chevrolet plowing through yellow mist unaware.
Swerves and surges tumble one lost soul from his attempted
perch over the funnel, spraying others, curses, shoves,
and fists swinging, grumbles, buttons up his wet trousers
(no zippers allowed in prison), staggers past other full bladders
in the aisle, takes his rusty, broken seat, awaits the coming fences,
open gates drawing in the Bluebird of Sadness and her
load of flesh, to feed the monster, Moloch, once again.

Copyright 04/16/2013  all rights reserved

Libby and Charlie at Lake Butler West
Saturday, August 16, 2014


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