Wednesday, March 10, 2021




 A week or so after arriving at Lake C. I., my name appeared on the list to go to Mental Health the next day. Uh oh. I'd had very little contact with prison psychology departments over the years, based on many negative experiences my fellow prisoners had endured. That's the reason we had hired Dr. Harry Krop, an eminent Gainesville psychologist, to conduct three mental health evaluations since 2001. I didn't trust prison psychologists to conduct fair and impartial evaluations that would be reviewed by the parole commission considering my release. Too many of my friends had been ''jammed'' by them, rarely receiving positive recommendations. I was skeptical of talking to some counselor.

Before I continue with my present experience, I want to tell you about the last dealings I had with a prison psychology department.

Polk C.I., 1991. I had two important jobs. Besides my full-time chapel clerk job, I had taken on running the horticulture department, which consisted of a large greenhouse, shade house, and fenced-in outside area. I had seven or eight assistants helping me raise trays of flowers to beautify the compound, and also raise a variety of house plants. My plant propagation efforts resulted in a large inventory of ferns, potted plants and hanging baskets. If any staff members wanted plants for their offices, I would tell them to come to the greenhouse and choose what they wanted. Load up the wheelbarrow.

One of my consistent visitors was the Greek psychiatrist, who was like everyone's grandmother. She would often spend her lunch hour sitting in the greenhouse enjoying the ambiance, admiring the flowers, and giving the resident cat pieces of her lunch. I'd cut bouquets of blooms for her to take back to her office. Nice lady. Her office looked like a jungle.

Polk County Schools had funded the prison horticulture program for many years. They had built the greenhouse and paid for a vocational horticulture teacher who preferred sitting in his office reading magazines, drinking coffee, and smoking cigarettes than dealing with students. He had no objection to my taking over part of the greenhouse for my own use. Soon several interested students drifted over, wanting to learn.

I started off growing pots of jalapeño peppers and tomatoes. Prison food is basically bland, unseasoned and tasteless. Peppers are hot commodities in prison, and soon I had developed a nice vegetable garden to go along with the plants and flowers. Lettuce, carrots, radishes, greens and herbs improved our diets. A patch of Silver Queen corn quickly matured.

Budget cutbacks doomed the horticulture program. One day the instructor packed up his coffeemaker, handed me his keys, and skedaddled, never to be seen again. Inside grounds Sgt. Ronnie Edwards told me I was in charge as long as I continued to provide plants for his flower gardens. Deal.

One day I had my crew installing a large bed of begonias at the chapel when a goddess entered the front gate and walked past us on her way to the psychology department. Work stopped. Everyone stared.

Prison is an ugly place, and beauty is rare. Friendly beauty is even rarer. It doesn't take long for beauty in prison to be burned out, hostile and withdrawn from all the crude misogynistic approaches by guards and prisoners. This woman smiled at us, a friendly smile, and my first thought was, she won't last long. She'll leave this place and find a better job in free society.

A week or so later one of my workers came in from an appointment, lit up and beaming. He told us he'd had a counseling session with the new psychologist, who wasn't actually a psychologist, but a sociologist, and who was super nice. She'd offered him a cookie and a cup of coffee, and sat across from him, her tight skirt revealing long tanned legs. How did you get in to see her? I asked. He'd written a request, said he was depressed and needed to talk to someone.

A week later two more of my workers came back from counseling sessions with Ms. Spencer, who had treated them very kindly, listened to their stories, and didn't mind them staring at her legs.

You should put in a request, Charlie, one of them suggested.

Perhaps I will.

So I did.

A week later I got back my request. ''Mr. Norman: I've reviewed your mental health file and determined that you are a well-balanced, intelligent individual with no obvious depression or mental health issues. Therefore, you do not qualify for counseling sessions.''


A few days later the Greek psychiatrist came in to the greenhouse during lunch, the sociologist/goddess in tow. Work stopped.

''Charlie, this is Ms. Spencer, our new sociologist, who just graduated from the University of Florida. She admired my office plants, I told her about you and the greenhouse, and she wanted to see it.''

''The Doctor's office is so beautiful, with all the plants. My office is barren and depressing. I'd love to have some of your house plants.''

I was still a little stung by the counselling rejection, so I wasn't my normal positive self. I wasn't in the mood to be cooperative and nice.

''What sport?'' I asked. Someone who looked like her had to be an athlete.

'' I was on the tennis team four years,'' she said.

Figures. Time to be mean.

''I saw my friends coming back from counseling sessions with the pretty sociologist, smiling, walking on air, how she treated them so nicely, so I put in a request. Bad news. I'm so well-balanced I don't qualify for counseling. I guess I'm not crazy enough. So you can imagine how I feel about giving plants to such a person.''

The Greek shrink's jaw dropped. She looked shocked. I wasn't sure if it was because of me or Ms. Spencer. Ms. Spencer smiled. The greenhouse lit up.

''I’m very sorry, Charlie, about the misunderstanding. My calendar filled up, and I didn't have any open spaces. But if I had some plants in my office, you could come by and water them, say, three times a week during lunch, we could talk then, as long as you want.''

It took me at least three seconds to think about it.

''Let me get my wheelbarrow.''

I was right. She didn't last long, but before she got a better job ''on the street'' she and the Greek psychiatrist enjoyed offices with nice plants.

Back to the present. Lake C. I. has a very large mental health presence. A ''T.C.U.'' crisis facility holds suicidal inmates from all over the state. It's full. Court-ordered prisoner evaluations, including Death Row prisoners, are done there. The line for psych meds is long. The main building is crawling with counselors in glassed-in offices. I went to my callout and sat outside until a very nice young woman summoned me inside. She introduced herself, told me all new arrivals must go through mental health screening and orientation. No big deal.

I had to answer the same old questions: Did I feel like harming myself or others, drug or alcohol issues, any criminals in my family? Nope. Just me.

I found out what I already knew — I'm fine, psychologically speaking, believe it or not, after all these years of imprisonment. But then I heard something new — they offered a dozen monthly counseling sessions for ''normal'' prisoners, upon request.

Oh yeah? I'll think about it.

Weeks went by. I thought about how bad the past year had been. Testing positive for Covid-19. Isolation and quarantine. No visits with my wife for months. My Uncle David dying in Texas. My 91-year old mother dying in September. Getting stabbed twice in December. Locked up in solitary 41 days, ''on the house,'' transferred to Lake, living in crowded dorms filled with drug-addicted junkies, still waiting for my first virus jab, prisoners last.

Maybe I could use some counseling.

So I filled out a request for counseling and sent it in.

I'll let you know how it turns out.


Polk C.I., 1989, Charlie in front of Chapel with many of the flowers he raised there; this display was highly praised for many years. For 35 years, Charlie had used his horticultural skills to grow flowers and plants in many prisons across Florida. He was known for beautifying drab prison grounds with thousands of colorful blooms.


Polk C.I. 1989: A photograph taken by Charlie of his thumb 

and a miniature rose that he grew.



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