Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Dateline: November 17, 2008


I am a loyal American. My mother’s and father’s families, my ancestors, have been in America for hundreds of years, since it was a colony. My people fought in the Revolutionary War and every war since, to the present day. I know what America stands for, I believe in the Constitution, and I am hopeful for a transformational wind of change to sweep across America and the world in the coming years, despite the dire straits our society presently finds itself in. I have faith in the inherent goodness of America and Americans.

Then why, you may ask, am I getting so worked up about the abuses of power and mistreatment of a few hundred prisoners by prison authorities who seem to suffer from amnesia when it comes to the rules and laws that dictate how they conduct their jobs? Good question. Perhaps because it is happening to me. Perhaps I’ve spent so much time reading the rules, laws, cases, and statutes that set the boundaries for the treatment of prisoners that I expect them to obey those laws, just as we’re required to, but instead they have ventured far off the reservation.

Many veterans are in prison. Twenty years ago it was the Vietnam vets with PTSD. I had the honor and privilege in the 1980’s to help the vets at Zephyrhills C.I. establish Chapter 195 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the first prison chapter. Many guards joined, outside POW/MIA groups became involved and good things happened. I wasn’t a Vietnam Vet, but I knew how to navigate the Byzantine prison rules to organize it, get it approved, work through the system, and I did.

No matter their war heroics or sacrifices for their country, however, the war vets got no special treatment. They suffered the same as the rest of us. Inside the fence all bets were off.

Years before, I knew a war hero who’d been captured by the Germans toward the end of World War II, who was held in a Nazi prison camp until liberation. We were in prison at Raiford, going through a rough patch. He’d told me about his P.O.W. experience. It was not “Hogan’s Heroes.”

I asked him how the Nazis treated them, compared with how we were treated by the guards at Raiford. He looked at me oddly, thought for a moment, and told me it was a shame to say it, but the Germans treated the American prisoners with more respect than the American prison guards treated their fellow Americans. I found that hard to believe, and asked him to explain.

Life in a German prison camp was not easy, he said. The Nazis were hard as nails, and if you tried the fence, they were very good shots. Their machine gunners did not miss. But they had clear cut rules, and they followed them to the letter, unlike over here, where the rules changed daily, with each officer and each shift.

He said that in the P.O.W. camp (which was not a concentration camp), when there was a beef, an issue, a complaint, or an order coming down from above, the highest-ranking German would meet face-to-face on the yard with the highest-ranking American officer. They would salute, and the message would be imparted. The American was treated with respect. They were enemies, the lines were drawn, but they conducted themselves professionally. You knew where you stood. There were no collaborators, who are blown as rats or snitches in our prisons, and where they thrive.

In contrast, the old man said, the American prison guards treated their American prisoners like dirt, lower life forms, subhuman, when it suited them. Other times, they became business partners when they needed someone to sell their drugs inside the prison. Big money, feeding addictions. The underground economy has always flourished. Still does, even with snitches and drug tests.

Other guards used snitches to set up busts, to make themselves look good, get promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, and higher, on the backs of the unfortunates they locked up.

Just like in free society, the parasitic relationship works both ways. The guards get what they want, and so do the snitches.

Years ago a guard advanced to captain, a very high rank in the prison hierarchy at the time. We had known that when he’d been a low-ranking guard and later a sergeant, that he’d been dirty, one of the main connections for the drug dealers, had made a lot of money “introducing contraband” (as they call it) over the years.

One of his old dealers approached him, congratulated him on his promotion, and asked when he was going to get back in the groove, start bringing in more drugs. The captain told him he didn’t do that any more, he’d gotten out of it, at his rank now, he couldn’t do it. The dealer told him that with his rank now, he could do anything he wanted. The implication was clear – you can’t quit. And he didn’t.

The biggest prison dealers are usually also the biggest snitches. Law of the jungle. They have to play both sides, compromise themselves, to stay in business, to put the heat on someone else, to eliminate the competition, to gain power, to “be somebody.’ Want a cell change? Don’t go to the guards. It won’t happen. Take a carton of cigarettes to the head snitch, and go pack your belongings— you’re moving.

Don’t get on their bad side, for Heaven’s sake, or you’re doomed. Your cell will be searched, and they will find a shank under your mattress, or reefer in your pillowcase. It was planted, you say? They all say that. Too bad. Go to jail. Your parole date just got jammed. Get comfortable— you’re going to be here for awhile, son.

So what happened here, in this prison, in the present day? At 3:30 AM the guards went into “D” Dorm, an “open” doom (a big room filled with bunks and prisoners) on the other end of the large compound, went right to the stash, found syringes and drugs, so the witnesses say. Then they woke up the dope dogs, brought them in, and found some crack cocaine and other drugs. They locked up several people, some with needle marks in their arms. Very specific information. America’s dumbest criminals.

Where did all those drugs come from, you ask? Could they have fallen from the sky? UPS delivery? Granny sneaked them in her purse through the visiting park? To hear them tell it, that’s where it all comes in at, but that’s not true. They have very tight security for prisoners and their visitors. Give up? The guards bring it in just like they always have, or the civilian kitchen workers or vendors or maintenance or any of dozens of other “free people” who come in and out the front, and back gates every day. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to crack this case. But how many guards got knocked off bringing in drugs, cell phones, and other contraband? Not many. When it happens, it’s hushed up.

What happened here next, after the big bust in “D” Dorm? Where did the shakedown crew go? “B” Dorm! Of course. Next thing we know, over 200 men are locked in their tiny cells, the water is cut off—no drinking water, no toilets flushed—all day, till after 7:00 PM.

Here they come, take their time, the goon squad, as we always called the faceless mob of guards on a mission, open each cell, take off your clothes, strip, expose yourself, bend over, spread your cheeks, put on your boxers, go to the day room while they ransack your cell. No recourse.

How many drugs did they find? None. How many shanks (homemade knives)? None. How much “escape paraphernalia?” None. What was the purpose? It could only be harassment or mass punishment—no “security goals” were accomplished.

As prisoners we are subject to “reasonable” searches at any time, but how do you define “reasonable?”

Years ago at Polk C.I. the midnight shift got into a groove of rousting prisoners from their sleep at two or three o’clock in the morning, cutting on the lights, and ransacking their cells. Rude awakening. What did they find? Usually nothing. These guards were enjoying themselves too much, laughing, ridiculing, trashing family photos, dumping out lockers, then leaving.

When so called “public servants” get to the point where they delight in humiliating people under their control, subjecting them to degrading and debasing treatment that would be considered a sex crime if they did it in “society,” there should be valid concerns about serious psychological disturbances dominating these people’s personalities. Wouldn’t you agree?

I complained to the warden that I had been subjected to an unreasonable search, and asked that it be stopped. I was expected to work hard all day, we only had a limited number of hours in which to sleep and rest, and unless the guards had compelling information and probable cause that I was in possession of a weapon or other serious contraband, their shakedowns should be restricted to a more reasonable hour, like after we’d been awakened in the morning. Since I wasn’t involved in any illegal activities, I wasn’t worried about them having any information that would give them cause to search me, anyway. But no one was safe from arbitrary, systemic harassment. To be subjected to ransacking and rousting by midnight marauders to satisfy their prurient urges was wrong.

The warden agreed with me, surprisingly, and stopped the practice. About seventeen years later, that warden is the regional director, with authority over a number of prisons, including this one, but the ransacking here continues. Times change.

This is my story—I walk a straight and narrow path in prison, and always have. I don’t find that difficult at all. That is who I am. I don’t use, sell, or hold drugs, no weapons, no contraband. Prisoners and guards, for the most part, show me a great deal of respect and many refer to me as, “Mr. Norman.” I think my friend, Libby, is amused when a guard in the visiting park passes us and greets me with, “How are you, Mr. Norman?” I’m fine, thank you,” I reply. Yet I’ve been subjected to search after search, ransacking, trashing my possessions, locked in a tiny cell for hours without access to drinking water or a functioning toilet, over and over again, for what reason? Yet I’m not the only one.

This is an estimate, but probably ninety to ninety-five percent of the prisoners only want to do their time, get by, not bother anyone, not be bothered. They are not involved in anything questionable. Most have few, if any resources, little or no money from home, little chance or opportunity to alter or improve their situation. They go to the chow hall three times a day and clean their trays. They may not like some of the bland food, but in thirty-one years in Florida prisons, I’ve never known anyone who starved to death in here. You can survive. Go to work, go to chow, come in, take a shower, spend idle hours getting counted, change clothes, watch TV, read a library book, get counted, go to sleep for a few hours, get up, do it all again, every day, exactly the same, forever, or till you die, whichever comes first.

The five-to-ten percent who are up to no good, who are scheming, scamming, hustling, getting drugs to use and sell, making and hiding knives, gambling, running football pools, robbing other prisoners, breaking into lockers, involved in gangs, you know who you are, and so do the guards. It’s easy to figure out. So why don’t the guards focus their effortsd on this troublesome minority, and leave the 90-95 % of the otherwise well-behaved prison population alone? You ask such good questions!

Perhaps it is because they like it—the guards, that is. Although most people who seek jobs as prison guards are just people seeking jobs, there is a percentage of sadists who are drawn to the prison environment, a harsh place of dominance and submission, of cruelty, violence, and degradation, where those with personality disorders and psycho-sexual deviance are able to act out their sick fantasies and bully those under their control in ways they could never do at Home Depot or Walmart. Remember Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison in Iraq where the prisoners were sexually abused and humiliated, which cost many American lives later when the insurgents retaliated? It was not a coincidence that the major players in that scandal were prison guards enlisted in the West Virginia National Guard, pulling prison duty in Baghdad.

An aside—I took a short break and read the above paragraph to several fellow prisoners. Each one smiled, laughed, and nodded his head in agreement as I finished reading it. I asked each one, “Can you name anyone you know here who that describes?” And each one came up with quickly, without taking any time to think about it—the same five guards who fit the criteria, reviled and detested men who delight in harassing, provoking, tormenting, lying on, locking up, and occasionally brutalizing hapless prisoners who they target.

Draw your own conclusions. I’ve drawn mine.

If this is so, why do their superiors, the prison administrators locally and in the Tallahassee headquarters, go to so much trouble to cover for them, to suppress complaints, to let them get away with their immoral, unethical, and often illegal activities, sometimes for years? Another good question that bears discussion.

I’ve said it before, if this were a zoo, the SPCA would shut it down, but it’s not. No cute animals, no pandas, no endangered species. Just humans, your fellow Americans, as flawed and hapless as they may be.

Is this any way to run a prison? I say no. If they treat war veterans so badly, with such little respect or concern, how could you expect them to treat “common criminals,” many with serious mental illnesses, any better? They don’t. But perhaps if people discover the truth, and demand their public servants getting paid all those taxpayer dollars, perform their duties to a higher standard, as the law requires, at some point, in time, a new wind will blow through the razorwire fences and a transformation will take place here.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Dateline: October 20, 2008


When I’d served about seven years in prison I was addressing a group of “outside” Christian volunteers, telling them about life in prison. I did a lot of that in those early years, speaking to numerous groups of college students, professors, juvenile delinquents, reporters, legislators, volunteers, government officials, and many others. Seven years seemed like an awfully long time to spend in prison in those days, since previous to the “minimum – mandatory 25 – year” sentences, a “life” sentence was considered about seven years. Little did I know that seven years in prison wasn’t even a warm-up for the thirty-plus years I’ve served in continuous imprisonment so far.

After I’d made my statement to that group of men from Tampa, we had a question and answer session. I told them they could ask me anything.

One man seemed especially uncomfortable and bothered. We were about the same age and size, he was bright and well-spoken, and side by side, we could have been mistaken for brothers. He was married, with a beautiful wife and child, had a well-paying job and a nice home in an exclusive neighborhood, was active in his church, living out the American Dream.

I had seen it before. I wasn’t the illiterate, drug-addled junkie-dropout from the projects, the image many “citizens” had of the typical prisoner who they could feel sorry for, who’d been deprived and victimized by society, but instead was an educated white man who bore too close a resemblance to themselves. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

On this day my troubled new friend – his name was Denny – asked me what I’ve been asked many times over the years. He shook his head, told me that he could never do this, serve time, and asked, “How do you do it? How do you do all this time?”

I answered him, “Like a man. You do it like a man, Denny.” I couldn’t describe it any more briefly than that. It seemed to satisfy him. And that was true. You do it like a man. Be strong. Be forthright and resolute, maintain your moral values, never compromise with evil, never take the first bite from the apple, for when you do, you are lost.

The years fluttered by like a calendar in one of those old movies where the dates flash across the years in a blur. Seven years became ten, ten became twenty, twenty became thirty. It seemed like forever, a lifetime. It was. It still is.

It’s curious how people react differently to you when they learn how incredibly long you’ve been in prison. People expect you to be scarred, toothless, diseased, covered in tattoos, broken down, a mere husk of a man. It is beyond their comprehension that I have survived this long, seemingly unscathed. I’ve heard it countless times from other prisoners, staff, and free people – “Why are you still in prison? You don’t belong here.” Amen. I agree. But here I am.

I’ve asked that question myself many times, and the preacher-types I’ve asked have usually said something along line of “God has a plan for your life.” And when God’s plan for me is fulfilled, I’ll be released. Not to be so bold as to second-guess God, but I’ve also asked several times why couldn’t God in His infinites wisdom have a plan for my life in freedom? No answer.

It took me a long time, but after years and years of trying to do the right thing, as some singer once said, I realized why I am here, in prison. It became so clear.

I am here to bear witness. I am here to pay attention, observe, document, record, and bear witness to what happens inside prison. I know no one else here who is able or willing to do it, so the task falls to me. I’d been doing it for years already, but I didn’t realize why. I’ve been locked up, deprived, threatened, and transferred to distant prisons far from home for bearing witness, and still I didn’t stop. I slowed down and licked my wounds a few times, but I never quit. And I won’t quit now. I will keep bearing witness to this evil place until they run me out, then I’ll do it “out there.” I’ll keep telling the world how it is, so perhaps one day this will change for the better. It is a small sacrifice to endure.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Dateline: Wednesday, October 29, 2008 1:00 PM

Thanks to Jackson Taylor at the Pen American Center in New York City, the Anne Frank Center asked me to participate in their Prison Diary Project, which I did.

Jessica Gresko of the Associated Press in Miami wrote in September and asked if I would answer some questions for an article she wanted to do. We exchanged e-mail, I answered her questions on paper, then she asked if I’d do a “live” interview here at Tomoka. Why couldn’t I go to Miami?

After much ado with permission from the D.C.C., they got the interview scheduled for 1 PM.

At 9:00 AM on the day of the interview, a sergeant came to me in my building, told me the colonel had assigned him to “presidential duty,” to to handle the details on this end, make sure everything looked right.

He took my best prison uniform and my jacket to have them pressed, and my state “work boots” to get them shined. I don’t shine my work boots, “brogans,” they’re called, because usually as soon as they get newly polished, someone steals them to resell. My regular boots were “retreads,” old boots with thick “Frankenstein” soles on them, hard to walk in, no support, painful, but what do you expect in prison—no Florsheims.

Three hours later the sergeant came back with a new set of blues (prisoner uniform), freshly-pressed, jacket pressed, new web belt, new photo I.D. card, and brand new brogans, no retreads, that the staff shoeshine boy had spent a couple of hours polishing to a high spit shine. Colonel’s orders. Must be done.

Video camera coming in—no way did they want the public to see anything but spit and polish. No old, ragged outfits.

Jessica Gresko, the print reporter, came in with Suzette Laboy, the video producer, promptly at 1 PM, after a fast, four-hour drive from Miami, “just for you,” she said.

Everyone in authority above lieutenant made themselves scarce. The gatehouse/visiting area was a ghost town. They certainly didn’t want to be asked any questions about the events here over the past few months, so I understand their strategy. Can’t blame them.

And they were quite worried about what I might say. I reassured them. I told them this was about my writing, the prison diary project, Anne Frank, not an exposé of abuses of power. They were relieved.

Jessica had asked me to bring my copy of “Diary of a Young Girl” with me, but in the mass lockdown/shakedown of October 10th, when a hundred or so guards from across the state came in to cut off our drinking water and toilets, then ransacked, trashed, and took much of our personal property, the Anne Frank book was one of three personal books thrown away by the guards. Before I went in for the interview, one female guard came to me and asked, “You aren’t going to tell them about the book, are you?”

I told her to reassure her bosses that I was not going to embarrass or offend anyone during this interview, that this was a “positive” story, and I was going to stick to the theme. It wouldn’t do for me to air the prison’s dirty laundry at this time, I was trying to get out of prison, not get buried deeper by vindictive officials. She was relieved.

When you’re surrounded by harshness and negativity 24/7, in an environment where hostile eyes watch you like goldfish in a bowl, waiting for the slightest slip or deviation to write a “disciplinary report” (D.R.), or lock you in confinement, it is a strange relief to meet and talk with two intelligent young women who mean you no harm, who are actually interested in what you say, and treat you as a fellow human being, not a lower life form. That’s the feeling I got when I met Jessica Gresko and Suzette Laboy. Which is it—are they so young, or have I grown so old? You know.

We had a pleasant hour to talk about Anne Frank, her diary, my diary, and writing. I had a passage I’d written in May, and a couple of passages from Anne Frank. The prison was hardly mentioned. They filmed me leaving the room three times, we shook hands, they headed for I-95, I went back to my cell. I kept the new boots and uniform. They haven’t asked for any of it back yet.

Suzette said a two-minute video slip will be posted on the www.ap.org web site. The print story will appear wherever it is picked up. Jessica will let me know.

Things are still bad here. They would be no better had I trashed them to the media like they trashed my cell, several times. I would just suffer more. I am following the administrative grievance process, as fruitless as that is. I can only hope that I will be freed before much longer, the ransom paid. Perhaps the Anne Frank story will be a down payment.

During the interview, the sergeant who’d gotten my new uniform and boots and escorted me to the gatehouse, stood right there with the door cracked, listening the entire time. I knew what he was doing—what he was told—monitor the conversation, let them know if I went negative, against the prison. I didn’t mind. I had no intention of getting on a soapbox and railing against prison abuses. Different topic, different time. Let him listen and report back. I knew that they would see the finished video clip and print article anyway.

After the reporters left, the sergeant walked me back to my building. It was just a little past two PM, but the yard was closed. He wanted to talk about the interview.

Jessica had asked me to read a couple of passages from Anne Frank’s diary, and talk about why I chose them. In one, Anne said that she had changed drastically since going into hiding for years, but that despite the bad parts, she had become a better person, her changes were positive. That entry was made just a short time before they were snitched out, reported to the Nazis, captured, sent to their deaths.

This particular passage had a profound effect on me because I felt such close parallels to Anne, even over a sixty-four year gap in time and place. I had been in prison over thirty years, I explained on camera, under very harsh conditions, and I had also changed drastically. I wasn’t the same person as that twenty-eight year old who’d been arrested so long ago. And despite all the negativity, I had changed in better, more positive ways.

That’s what the sergeant wanted to comment on. What I’d said had affected him. First, he couldn’t comprehend how long I’d been in prison, close to thirty-one years, still had a positive attitude, and yes, had changed drastically. He said that I wasn’t the same person, that they weren’t punishing the man who’d come to prison all those years ago, but someone entirely different. He knew that to be true because in the fourteen years he’d worked for the state, he had also changed, was a better man, was not the man he’d been before, knew so much more about himself and others.

I thought that insightful comment showed a shared point of view between two men on opposite sides of the table, often at odds over what one considered his job, and the other considered oppression. Perhaps there’s hope for us yet. Thank you, Anne.