Thursday, December 17, 2009


Dateline: December 5, 2009



I love Oprah. No apologies, no excuses. Perhaps that seems incongruous, since I am a sixty-year old white guy serving life in prison, but I am not alone. I am in good company. Millions of other people love Oprah, too. It hasn’t always been that way. We’ve had to fight for the right to see Oprah, or should I say, the privilege.

When fifty desperate men must share one television, there is a process called, “channel check.” In theory, it is a democratic process where the men vote on which channel the TV is set, majority rule. If you don’t like it, go to your cell and read a book. There are many disturbed men in prison, however, who never played well with others, would not share their toys, and think that what they want is the only thing counts, to hell with anyone else, cartoons rule.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Maury Povich. I’m sure he’s a fine gentleman. He married Connie Chung, didn’t he? And he has brought DNA testing to the common people. But for God’s sake, how many times can anyone bear hearing his pronouncement, “You are NOT the father?” Bring out the next batch of bar patrons, please, and let’s see how many of them are NOT the fathers.

The same goes for Jerry Springer. So he can dance. I have nothing against him, either, or his former bodyguard, Steve. Jerry Springer has brought serious sociological issues to the forefront of television, mining trailer parks across America to the point where “trailer trash” is no longer a scorned moniker, but a potential media star. But come on, people! How many times must we reveal poverty-stricken Americans deprived of dental care being told that their mother is having sex with her daughter’s husband, who’s having gay sex with his brother-in-law? Enough is enough.

Don’t get me started on the Spanish channel! Is it a requirement that those Spanish talk show queens have massive breast implants, wear skimpy dresses several sizes too small, and jump up and down, squealing, trying to see how close they can come to flopping out the top? Then, they have the old 1960’s and ‘70’s American movies shown over and over again on the same station. I never realized Clint Eastwood was such a fluent Spanish speaker, or Jean-Claude Van Damm, for that matter.

Things were going well there for awhile. Four p.m., afternoon count clear, an hour before evening chow, about twenty of us sit down like gentlemen and watch Oprah. I’ve learned so much from her, our window on the world, a look at what is right and decent, on the one hand, and examination of what is wrong, or evil, or must be fixed on the other. Oprah is equally at ease talking to a child dying of cancer, or a psychotic serial killer sitting on death row. And the entertainment! Isolated as we are from society, I had no idea who WILL.I.AM was, how to spell his name, what a genius he is, or what a remarkable man in so many ways. Thanks, Oprah!

Like most men in prison, my family has fairly-well given up on visiting me after over thirty-one years’ imprisonment, so in many ways we have adopted Oprah and her family and friends as our own. We can count on Oprah. Monday through Friday, Channel 9, Orlando, four p.m., she comes to see us. Her best friend, Gayle King, is our best friend, too. We loved going on that road trip across America, and rejoice at all the gifts she shares with her friends. Seeing her wonderful school for girls in South Africa softened our hearts, and that’s saying a lot. Her endorsement of Barack, then her refusal to give McCain’s veep candidate a forum was cheered. Go girl! Oprah’s probably done more to rehabilitate a core of prisoners in my building than all the phony paper programs the prison system pushes to pretend they actually care about improving society, recidivism, and crime rates.

Let’s get back to the fight. Things were going well. Every day before chow we got to visit with Oprah and friends. I had a spot on the third bench staked out, and my Texas homeboy, Jerome Dickey, a very large, heavily-muscled, young black man who played in the prison tennis league with me, sat nearby on the second bench. In prison, the men like consistency in an inconsistent world, and claiming the same seat every day is an important part of it. Then one day, a wild card was inserted in the deck.

Let’s face another fact. There are a lot of nutty, dangerous people in prison, as they should be. That doesn’t make it any easier on the rest of us. We have to live with them and deal with their bad behavior.

An intellectually- and psychologically- challenged prisoner got transferred in from some psych-crisis ward one day. When we were released from our cells and drifted to the TV room to watch Oprah, that new individual—I will refer to him as “the nut”—snatched the remote control from another prisoner’s hand, proclaiming, “We ain’t watchin that shit.” He began scrolling through the available channels. Maury’s trying to find out who’s the daddy. Jerry has a scag hunching on a pole showing off her new Clairol dye treatment—coyote brown with trailer trash red streaks. Squealing silicone Spanish girls, Japanese cartoons, PBS. No, no, no.

Most prisoners don’t want trouble. That’s the essence of institutionalization, to go along with the program, obey all orders, keep your mouth shut, don’t express any opinions, don’t get involved. For the first few minutes of “the nut’s” channel surfing, no one said anything, sitting passively, waiting to see what someone else would do, what might happen. Some glanced at me, as one of the oldest, others glanced at Dickey, as one of the strongest, to see how we reacted.

Dickey and I looked at each other, no words necessary, the implications clear. Prison is fraught with racial implications, the cauldron simmering, one little incident having the potential to ignite a racial situation. Had “the nut” been a white man, I would have stood up and said something, but since he was not, it became “a black thing.” Anything Dickey did to “the nut” would be acceptable, whereas if a white prisoner attacked him, things could devolve into a riot. It was better this way.

Dickey sighed, remaining seated. “Hey, bro,’ we watch Oprah down here,” he said. “I’d appreciate it if you’d switch it back to Channel Nine.”

Very polite.

“The nut” didn’t give Dickey a glance, just kept mindlessly pushing the “up” arrow, flitting from station to station. “Fuck Oprah. I hate that bitch. We ain’t watchin’ that shit,” he declared.

Uh oh. Now it had gotten personal. “The nut” had dissed Oprah! That could not be allowed to stand. If drastic action weren’t taken immediately, we might never see Oprah again.

Dickey stood. If “the nut” ignored Dickey while he was sitting down, it was much harder to ignore him standing. Dickey stood several inches taller and easily forty pounds heavier, not counting his obviously superior musculature and athletic appearance. In prison terms, “the nut” was “a dumbass masquerading as a badass.”

With one hand, Dickey grasped “the nut’s” neck. Another prisoner took the remote from “the nut” so it wouldn’t fall and possibly break, clicking it to Oprah immediately.
The audience was torn—watch the crucial opening minutes of “Oprah,” or watch Dickey manhandle “the nut” with an attitude adjustment. Dickey won, this time. It only took a minute.

Dickey’s strong right hand stood up for Oprah, squeezing “the nut’s” throat tighter and tighter cutting off his air and the blood flow to the brain (not that he needed much), face swelling, darkening, eyes bulging. As he tried to kick and struggle, Dickey’s grip tightened. “The nut” weakened, realizing resistance was futile.

Dickey put his nose almost touching “the nut’s” nose. “We watching Oprah, or I’m beating your ass. You understand that?”

Almost unconscious, “the nut” couldn’t nod or turn his head.

“Blink your eyes for yes,’ Dickey said.

“The nut” blinked. Dickey loosened his grip slightly, allowing “the nut” to breathe. “Now apologize,” Dickey said.

“The nut” appeared confused. A strangled, gargling sound came from his throat. “I’se sorry,” he whispered, bug eyes looking at Dickey.

“Not me, asshole,” Dickey said. He turned “the nut’s” head toward the TV. “Apologize to Oprah.”

“I’se sorry,’ “the nut” gurgled. “I’se sorry, Oprah.”

“And you’ll never disrespect her again.”

“That’s right,” “the nut” agreed.

Dickey dropped him. “The nut’s” knees buckled upon landing, and he had to catch himself not to crash face first onto the steel bench. He coughed a few times, then sat down quietly on the end of the first bench and watched Oprah with the rest of us.

Things happened. New people came and went. The top prison officials got replaced with new, harsher “experts” who deigned to put their imprint on the institutional rules. A haughty, arrogant head guard took over, one who walked around with his nose in the air, always wearing his Smokey Bear hat high on his head, like he was a state trooper. Inevitably, he was given the prison nickname, “The Cat in the Hat.’ Even the guards and the family visitors referred to him as “The Cat in the Hat.”

“The Cat in the Hat” had all the trees inside the prison chopped down, all the hedges pulled up, the flowers destroyed. That was bad enough. But when he decreed that the TV’s wouldn’t be turned on until five p.m. daily, precluding us from watching Oprah, that was when he earned our everlasting contempt and enmity. What “the nut” couldn’t accomplish, “The Cat in the Hat” did in an instant. If we were lucky, a benevolent guard would cut the power on five or ten minutes early, allowing us to get a small Oprah fix, but it wasn’t enough.

That lasted a year. A female guard got murdered. “The Cat in the Hat” and all his cronies had to fall on their swords, got demoted and transferred to other prisons. New people took over. Nothing changed at first, leaving the last rules in place. Finally, a few months ago, new guards were assigned, and the new sergeant began turning on the power to the TV at four o’clock. “I like Oprah, too,” he said. “She’s cool.”

That she is.

Now the earth has trembled again, the seismographic needles jerking. Oprah is going off the air. One season left. What “the nut” and “The Cat in the Hat” couldn’t do, Oprah did herself.

Many of us have gone into shock. We are already suffering Oprah withdrawals. What are we going to do?
I suppose we’ll just have to settle for Jerry and Maury and discover who’s NOT the father. It will not be the same.


Sunday, November 22, 2009


Dateline November 10, 2009


Prosecutors Like Tampa’s Mark Ober Labeled “Overzealous and Dishonest”

Did you know that under Florida law, a state attorney (prosecutor) can use a false witness at trial, can coach that witness to commit perjury, to fabricate false testimony, to withhold evidence favorable to the defense, and be immune from penalties or lawsuits? Anything a corrupt, overzealous, and dishonest prosecutor does at trial is protected by law, except perhaps, punching out the judge. Framing an innocent person for murder is okay.

According to a November 5, 2009, article by Joan Biskupic in “USA Today,” titled, “High Court Weighs Lawsuit Against Prosecutors,” twenty-seven states and the U.S. Justice Department “…are trying to shield prosecutors from claims for damages tracing to any trial testimony.”

The article goes on to say that the Supreme Court justices struggled with whether prosecutors can be held responsible for framing defendants with false testimony and fabricated evidence.

Two men in Iowa were convicted for a 1977 shotgun murder and went to prison. Twenty years later, one of the men’s friends obtained the police report, discovering that the two prosecutors, Joseph Hrvol and David Richter, had coached the key witness and withheld evidence about a leading suspect. The Iowa Supreme Court threw out their conviction, and the freed men brought suit against the crooked prosecutors under federal civil rights law, known as a “1983 suit.”

I think I may be in love with new justice Sonia Sotomayor after what she told a lawyer defending the Iowa prosecutors. Let me quote:

“When Katyal said prosecutors would ‘flinch’ from their duties, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested a prosecutor should flinch ‘…when he suspects evidence is perjured or fabricated.’ Sotomayor, a former prosecutor who seemed more sympathetic to McGhee and Harrington [the men wrongfully convicted], elicited from Katyal that the Iowa prosecutors were never sanctioned.”

“Justice Anthony Kennedy responded heatedly to arguments by the Iowa prosecutors’ lawyer, Stephen Sanders, that they cannot be liable for any fabrication that ends up being used at trial.”

“So the law is the more deeply you’re involved in the wrong, the more likely you are to be immune?” Kennedy said. “That’s a strange proposition.”

The deputy solicitor general, Katyal, said that the court should focus on the “overriding goals of the justice system,” which, to hear him tell it, should protect prosecutors, no matter how egregious their actions. Funny, I thought that the overriding goal of the justice system was “the truth.” It seems to me that such dishonest actions by “officers of the court” should be prosecuted as “obstruction of justice.”

Concerning “sanctions for failure to disclose,” according to Florida law (Hunter v. State, (Fla.2008), 2008-WL4348485, Fla.Law Wkly 5721), “Remedy of retrial for the state’s suppression of evidence favorable to the defendant is available when the favorable evidence could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict.”

Nowhere does it mention the offending prosecutor should receive so much as a slap on the wrist. How about this one?

“If false testimony surfaces during a trial and the government has knowledge of it, the government has a duty to step forward and disclose.” (Ventura v. Attorney General, Florida (C.A.II, Fla.2005) 419 F.3d 1269) (Federal Appeals Court).

“Government has a duty not to present or use false testimony.” (Brown v. Wainwright, 785 F.2d 1457, (CA II Fla. 1986). (This was the Barksdale murder case out of Tampa, Hillsborough State Attorney’s office—sound familiar?)

“Deliberate deception of a court and jurors by presentation of known false evidence is incompatible with the rudimentary demands of justice.” (Criminal Law 110 K 2033).

What we are talking about here is a case of “manifest injustice.”

If a wrongfully prosecuted and convicted person can somehow discover the wrongdoing, and can comply with restrictive appeal rules, he may have a slim chance at a retrial, but the offending prosecutor gets away with his crimes.

I know this from personal experience. False testimony, perjury, coached witnesses, withheld evidence, immunity from prosecution for the guilty, and more are all present in my case. Go to the web site,, and read the case facts. The fight for justice is exceedingly difficult.

There is one exception to the “absolute immunity” of prosecutors. Although everything they do at trial in their own jurisdictions is protected. Once they step out of their counties and insert themselves into other jurisdictions, other matters, they lose all their immunities and protections. When Mark Ober leaves his Tampa sanctuary and travels to Tallahassee, making false statements before a state agency hearing such as the parole commission, under the law he is just another witness, subject to legal remedies if he oversteps the law. Hopefully, Justice Sonia Sotomayor will be watching.



Dateline November 5, 2009


You know the story. One day a long time ago, Rip Van Winkle walked out of his little village in the Catskills, sat down under a shady tree to take a nap, and woke up twenty years later. He had a long gray beard, his clothes were much the worse for wear after enduring twenty hot summers and twenty winter weathers without benefit of shade or shelter. It’s amazing he lived through the experience. He returned home to find everything changed. No one recognized the elderly old man, not his aged wife nor his grown children, who had gone on with their lives after the husband and father disappeared, nor his neighbors, who looked upon the scruffy stranger newly arrived in their midst with mistrust and disdain.

I know how the poor man must have felt. I am the modern-day Rip Van Winkle. But rather than fall asleep under a tree and disappear from my family for twenty years, only to materialize out of the blue one day, I have been held captive in a cage for over thirty-one years, or 11,544 days, as of this Veterans Day, 2009 (but who’s counting?). I passed Rip’s record over 4,000 days ago, and the clock is still ticking, the calendar page clicking over, fluttering in a blur like in those time travel movies.

Unfortunately, this is not a fairy tale or a movie, the script’s still being written, and there’s no guarantee of a happy ending.

I am not alone. There are many, many more like me. Imagine an eight foot by eight foot by eight foot glass cube with a man or a woman sealed inside. That’s me, trapped in a square goldfish bowl. Now place ten identical glass cubes filled with individual prisoners in a row, flush, side-by-side, eighty feet wide, then line up more cubes to make it ten rows deep, ten times ten, one hundred cubes of humans, eighty feet square, one layer.

We’re not done yet with our construction. Add a second layer of one hundred glass cubes of prisoners, and a third, and a fourth. Stack the layers of one hundred until you reach one thousand stories high, eight thousand feet above ground level, several times taller than the Empire State Building and any other manmade structure in the world. One hundred thousand people. Think about it. What an amazing sight that would be.

That is the Florida Prison System, stacked impossibly high. Can you imagine what a daunting task it would be just to feed those one hundred thousand people stacked up so high? Three times a day? What about giving them water, or figuring out how to let them use the toilet (what toilet?), take a shower, or provide medical treatment to the thousands of sick, elderly, or the mentally ill? It is mindboggling, the logistics. But that is what happens every day, 24/7, 365 days a year, and it never slows down. It only gets worse, the cubes keep getting stacked higher, and as soon as they free someone from his cage, someone else is waiting to fill it.

I used to wonder about old Rip lying there beneath that tree, snoring away the years, and how he survived being bitten, nipped, and chewed on by all the critters and creepy-crawlies that must have happened upon him over all that time. Thinking about that brought to mind my own such experiences in the opening weeks of my “commitment,” as they call it, to the Florida State Prison System.

In those distant days, every male prisoner spent four or five weeks being “processed” at the lake Butler Reception and Medical Center (RMC), before being assigned a permanent institution. The 1970’s brought heavy overcrowding to the prison system (sound familiar?), and at one point large tents were erected next to Florida State Prison (FSP) to house the overflow, aptly named “Tent City.” We had some highly-qualified “chain gang lawyers” in those days who petitioned Federal Judge Charles Scott, who closed down “Tent City.” The D.O.C. still had some tricks up its sleeves, however.

Up until the late 1970’s, the prison system was in the tobacco business. They manufactured “DC cigarettes,” called “RIPs,” (Rolled In Prison), that were distributed free to state prisoners, a couple of packs a week, to satisfy their nicotine addictions. Several large, old tobacco barns, all in a row, occupied a plot of land next to FSP. That’s where they made the “RIPs” for years. Once they stopped making cigarettes, and the federal judge closed down “Tent City,” the next logical step was to fill the old tobacco barns with bunks and prisoners. After I left RMC, and while I was waiting for a bunk to open up at “The Rock,” Raiford, they sent me to “Butler Transit Unit,” (BTU), or as we called it, “Wild Kingdom,” for all the animal life that resided there.

Each tobacco barn had two huge ventilation and exhaust fans in opposite walls, way up near the high ceilings, which sucked in a wide assortment of night-flying critters from small gnats and mosquitoes, to large moths, birds, and occasional bats. It’s a freaky feeling to be newly-arrived in prison, in the dark, with dozens of men crammed into a tobacco barn that seethes with wildlife that considers you an intruder. I admit I yelled when a large palmetto bug ( a species of giant flying cockroach) landed on my face as I drifted off to sleep. I wasn’t the only one. Across the building men slapped and screamed as a variety of creepy, crawly, and flying things practiced touch-and-goes on unsuspecting prisoners.

Mice scurried across the floor in front of me as I made my way to the urinals. One man yelled in triumph every time he chased one down and flattened it with a flip=flop swat. Cockroaches didn’t bother scattering. To say that seeing a red-eyed rat staring back at me as I relieved myself was disconcerting is a vast understatement. I was actually relieved to make it to the relatively vermin-free prison after experiencing “Wild Kingdom.” You want to develop an effective “Scared Straight” program for wayward teens? Stick them in an old tobacco barn in the middle of nowhere to contend with strange beasts for a week or so.

I emerged, shaken, but fairly unscathed, from my BTU experience. It must have been much worse for Rip Van Winkle out there in the mountains, asleep, being chewed on all those years.

It has been hard on me, too, hoping that I am near to returning home after being lost, away for so long, everything changed, so many people grown old, died, left me behind, so many others grown up with families of their own, nephews and nieces born, grown tall, having no idea who I am, or not caring for that matter. I don’t need to mention the changes in our society since I’ve been sealed in my glass cube with the 100,000 other sharing my plight. I watched the first space shuttle blast into space while standing in a prison recreation yard, and now they are about to retire what’s left of that battered, dilapidated fleet. I hope I don’t look that worn out!

I look forward to the challenge. Unlike Rip Van Winkle, who slept away his twenty years, my eyes are wide open, and I’ve been watching carefully, preparing since Day One for the day I am free, doing my best to counter and overcome “The Rip Van Winkle Effect,’ against all odds.


Thursday, November 19, 2009


Dateline: October 26, 2009


The other day, the “Powers That Be” who run the prison shut the place down much of the day. Riot? No. Assaults? No. Escapes? No. Everything got shut down because the “Man Versus Wild” program came into the prison.

I’ve never seen “Man Versus Wild.” We don’t get cable or Direct TV, and this program is on one of those stations. As I understand it, the star is England’s answer to the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin crossed with Jeff Probst’s “Survivor,” with a dash of “Fear Factor” tossed in for good measure. “Bear” Gills? – is that his name? A fearless adrenaline junkie who was a British commando, climbed Mt. Everest, broke his back. “Man Versus Wild” takes a camera crew into dangerous places, pits its star against wild beasts and natural hazards and shows how he can survive under the worst, most primitive circumstances. Prison might have been his sternest test.

After surviving over 31 years in Florida’s worst prisons, I became intrigued with the idea that a “survival expert” would come inside the razorwire and film some survival scenarios. How would they know what to film? With my experiences, I thought I would propose a few “real-life, chain gang” scenarios, see how the “expert” might deal with them.

SCENARIO # 1— Our star is trapped in the TV room with forty desperate men screaming at Eli Manning and Kurt Warner tossing the football, scrambling, and getting sacked. Our star can camouflage himself in a prison blue uniform, sit among the madmen, and scream along with them, or he can take his life in his hands, grab the remote, and switch the station to PBS, a documentary on seabirds.

RESPONSE — “Are you out of your mind? Are you trying to get me killed? Take me back to Tanzania, and let me sit next to a den of hyenas, but please, please don’t leave me in a prison TV room filled with felons!”

SCENARIO # 2 — Our star approaches a line of 200 prisoners waiting their turns to get their laundry bags. The first ten men are young crack dealers from Miami, rival street gang members, and “Latin Kings,” trying to get their clean towels so they can beat the crowd to the showers. To test his survival skills, our star cuts the line, goes to the front, and demands his laundry.

RESPONSE — “Where did they get all those knives? Hey, folks, I was only kidding. I’ll go to the back of the line. Whew! That was scarier than when I was in that village of headhunters in Borneo!”

SCENARIO # 3 — Almost the same as #2, except this time our star tries to jump the line of women visitors who’ve been standing outside the prison gate for hours waiting to get in to visit their husbands, lovers, sons, and brothers.

RESPONSE — Similar to # 2 above,; however, the verbal assault is more intimidating than the knives.

SCENARIO # 4 — Our star waits his turn in the prison chow line with a thousand other men for a lunch tray. The “food” will have to be analyzed by “CSI” to find out what it actually is. Our star is joined by a 300-pound behemoth who is starving and eyeing the little guy with the full tray beside him and decides he’s taking the tray. How does our star respond?

RESPONSE — “Almost the same thing happened in Ethiopia when I tried to take an antelope bone from the kill of a pride of lions. At least I knew it was meat! The small taste I got of the entrée before the giant took it from me reminded me of a cobra I once sampled in Bangladesh. The cobra was tastier.”

SCENARIO # 5 — Our star is issued a tiny towel and a sliver of prison soap, then enters a steaming shower to wash off the sweat and grime from a hot day on the dusty, shadeless “yard.” Four grinning, gap-toothed, muscle-bound Sodomites greet him with, “Come on in, the water’s fine,” and, “You got a purty mouth.”

RESPONSE — “I really don’t need a shower. Tell my producer I changed my mind about spending a week with Jane Goodall in Gabon. Hey, wait, fellas, that’s my towel…!”

SCENARIO # 6 — It is “count time.” You will be locked in a tiny cell with a psychopath infected with “HAGS” (herpes, AIDS, gonorrhea, and syphilis) not to mention hepatitis and tuberculosis. He thinks you look like his co-defendant who testified against him, or perhaps his prosecutor.

RESPONSE — “How sharp is that razorwire? Do those gun tower guards have live rounds in their rifles? Hey, you should always cover your mouth when you cough, dude!... Get me out of here!”

It seems that wild beasts, poisonous snakes, swamps, and river rapids are no match for a prison survival course.

That’s not really how it went when “Man Versus Wild” came to Tomoka C.I. with their star and camera crew. About 125 prisoners were allowed to sign up to attend the program held in the prison chapel, and each one had to sign a release for consent to be photographed. The place was packed with guards to maintain order and make sure nothing happened to the “Hollywood” visitors, particularly the women. Nothing did. The men were on their best behaviors.

The whole event was actually a program to promote the “Alpha Program,” a Bible study of sorts for beginning Christians, that began in England and has been apparently spread around the world. This was the first foray into the fertile fields of the prison system. Good luck! Anything that will distract a lot of negative, dangerous men with little hope for the future and give them something positive, to perhaps change their lives, is something I approve.

About that cobra, though—I wonder how it would taste in a chicken-flavored Ramen noodle soup?


Saturday, November 14, 2009


Dateline: October 15, 2009


This morning on the way to “chow,” I stood in a long line of fellow prisoners being head-counted in the fog before we marched single-file to the kitchen. A few men ahead of me, an old man who has served even more time than I have, commented, “The parole man is walking the fence,” which was obscured by the fog rolling in from the nearby swamp.

A couple of spots behind him a “newcock,” a young, inexperienced prisoner who hasn’t served much time and thus has no knowledge of “old school” prison, asked, “What’s the parole man doing walking the fence?” A couple of other old timers, some of the few who are left, chuckled.

“He’s handing out paroles,” the old man said. “All you gotta do is get outside the fence, and he’ll give you one.”

The newcock was baffled. He didn’t understand the joke at all.

In the old days, before electronic security gadgets and endless rolls of razorwire turned modern American prisons into virtually impregnable escape-proof fortresses, at prisons across the country, whenever thick fog rolled in and blanketed the compound so that the guards in the gun towers couldn’t see the fences or the desperate men trying to climb over them, the expression, “the parole man is walking the fence,” or, “the Man is handing out pardons on the other side of the fence,” had very real connotations to many prisoners who otherwise had no other hope for eventual freedom. To them, reducing the odds of getting blasted off the fence by a shotgun guard in a tower was a good bet. Of course, many of those desperadoes who managed to make it to the parole man outside the fence had no further plans—they hadn’t thought it through—and were quickly caught, often by the local populace, and returned to lockup.

Some years ago, at Raiford, a “citizen,” who captured an escaped prisoner could choose either twenty-five dollars or a pig as their reward. I don’t know what the reward is today, but with the menu changes, they’d probably substitute a couple of cases of turkey sausage for the pig.

Jorge Silva, a New York Puerto Rican, who made it over the fence at Raiford many years ago, stumbled around lost in the woods and brambles for three days before making his way to a highway. He had no idea where he was. Dehydrated, hungry, covered in thorn scratches and thousands of mosquito bites, desperate Jorge stuck out his thumb at the first farm truck that puttered his way.

The old farmer stopped beside bedraggled Jorge and asked him where he was heading. Jorge held up a ten dollar bill he’d brought with him and told the driver that he’d give him the ten in exchange for a ride out of there. The farmer asked Jorge if he was an escaped prisoner and Jorge confirmed he was. The prison blue uniform was a dead giveaway.

The old man told Jorge to get in the pickup, but crouch down by the dash so no one would see him. Jorge complied, thrilled to escape the woods and mosquitoes more than he had been to escape from Raiford. He told Jorge he’d drive him to town and took the ten dollar bill. The truck finally slowed and came to a halt. The farmer told Jorge they’d arrived and to get out. Jorge did, and discovered that the farmer had driven him to the Lake Butler Police Station. Resigned, Jorge turned himself in. He never found out whether the good citizen claimed the twenty-five dollar reward or the pig.

Over twenty years or so ago, The Florida Legislature abolished the Parole Commission in favor of sentencing guidelines and other mandatory terms of imprisonment. Supposedly, this would correct a lot of abuses in disparate, discretionary release decisions by ivory tower bureaucrats making arbitrary rulings in the distant state capital. The top heavy Parole Commission members would be gradually phased out as their terms expired, or so the plan stated.

That didn’t happen. Like a beaten and battered boxer who takes every punch, refuses to go down, and keeps swinging to the end, the Parole Commission fought for survival and maintained its power for years beyond all expectations and annual efforts by certain legislators to put them out of business. One argument in their favor was that since there were still thousands of prisoners serving time under parole sentencing, the parole commission had to continue to decide when those people would be released. Out of about 100,000 people in Florida prisons, close to 5,000 survivors still are subject to parole. Until the last of these dinosaurs are released or die, the Parole Commission clings to life. For the other 95,000 prisoners, the parole system is irrelevant. Since they only release twenty-five to thirty people on parole each year, however, as long as these old men (and a few old women) keep breathing, the commissioners will hang on with them.

It seemed fitting this morning walking in the fog, after the old timer’s comments and explanations about the parole man walking the fence, another clueless newcock asked, “What’s a parole man?”


Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Dateline: October 10, 2009


You think you have it bad, with the neighbor who cuts his grass with a loud mower early Sunday morning, or the one whose Great Dane loves to plop huge, smoking piles of doggy-doo on your St. Augustine lawn, or the little old lady across the street who’s always spying on you, writing down tag numbers of your visitors, calling the cops and complaining about the truck parked in your driveway, or the dog barking?

You think you have it bad? At least you can close your drapes when the reflection off Granny’s binoculars keep glaring through your dining room window at breakfast. At least you have drapes!

You think you have it bad? You should see my neighbors. I live packed in a two-story concrete and steel building, capacity 228 convicted felons in 114 little cells the size of small bathrooms, two hard steel bunks with thin, lumpy mattresses, a toilet, and a sink with pushbutton cold water. My neighbors range from convicted murderers (myself included), armed robbers, kidnappers, child molesters, rapists, carjackers, and burglars, to drunk drivers, probation violators, and “gunslingers,” particularly irritating idiots and sickos who expose themselves to (mostly) female prison guards and publicly masturbate until the guards come and get them or they get done. Thirty days in lock-up, get out, do it again.

In my neighborhood, forget about doors or burglar bars or personal security. Go to breakfast and you’re likely to come back to your little cell to find your locker broken into, your meager possessions stolen, traded for drugs, or to pay gambling debts. Throughout the day you have hammering sounds reverberating as desperate men straighten and bend pieces of steel into crude, but effective stabbing “shanks” for self-protection or revenge to satisfy rampant paranoia.

One of the biggest problems in prison is dealing with the mentally ill. “Back in the day,” criminals went to prison and the insane went to Chattahoochee, Florida’s main nut house, insane asylum, looney bin, whatever you chose to label it. They had satellite nut houses at Arcadia, Macclenny, and many “county hospitals,” as they called them. Then the political winds shifted, they began closing all the facilities for the mentally ill, resulting in thousands of hapless people incapable of shifting for themselves filling the streets, parks, homeless shelters, jails and prisons.

I have learned something about mental illness since I was put in a county jail cell over thirty years ago with a pitiful soul named Willie McGee, a toothless, stunned, over-medicated man who’d spent the previous eight years at Chattahoochee waiting to be judged competent to stand trial. In my untrained psychological opinion, Willie McGee was no more competent to stand trial than was Calija, the wooden Indian, in that Hank Williams song. What do I know?

One thing I’ve learned is that the average high school graduate prison guard is poorly-equipped to deal with or even understand the thousands of seriously-mentally ill people crowding the prisons. For an excellent account of how the federal court got involved in Florida’s pepper spraying and tear-gassing of the insane for rules violated, check out “Prison Legal News” at, September, 2009, edition, page 22, “Using Chemical Agents on Mentally Ill Prisoners Unconstitutional,” by David Reutter. Paul Wright, a former Washington state prisoner, publishes a monthly paper that is despised by prison systems across the nation. Needless to say, thinking prisoners love it. Check it out.

The federal court got involved when guards at Florida State Prison (FSP) continued to spray prisoners with “Liquid Jesus,” our name for pepper spray, with good reason. Take a good shot in the eyes with a chemical about a thousand times stronger than Tabasco sauce, and you will either find Jesus, become a believer, or scream, “Jesus Christ” at the top of your lungs as you writhe on the cell floor, eyes on fire.

This could become a powerful conversion tool, since every guard is now issued a personal spray can of “Liquid Jesus” to use when the industrial-sized fire extinguisher-type sprayers aren’t handy. The only problem is that sometimes particularly belligerent disturbed prisoners take the spray cans of “Liquid Jesus” away from the guards, and use it on them, with negative results.

The federal courts’ position is that some prisoners are so crazy that they don’t have the ability to obey the rules, resulting in repeated cries of “Jesus, Jesus” throughout FSP.

Just how crazy are these people? Let me quote the court’s descriptions of two prisoners, who I now nominate as candidates for “Cellmate of the Month.” Don’t laugh—I’ve had cellmates little different from these characters.

“Thomas’ symptoms include auditory hallucinations, impaired thought process, and paranoid delusions, and his behaviors while incarcerated have included acute agitation, maniacal banging on his cell door (to the point of breaking his own hands), eating his feces, pouring urine on his hands, exhibitionist masturbation, urinating on his mattress, attempting to cut his penis, and repeated suicide attempts.”

“McKinney has marginal intellectual functioning and propensities for anger and anti-social behavior. His ‘pathological’ behavior has resulted in 320 disciplinary reports over 18 years in prison. He has a history of self-injurious behavior and has been diagnosed at various times with having an adjustment disorder with depressed mood, anti-social personality disorders and major depression with recurrent psychotic ideations.”

If you can’t figure out what all that means, ask your friendly, local psychologist or shrink to explain it to you.

Down the hall from me lives a man who gets monthly testosterone injections because he castrated himself some years back. He’s one of the better behaved ones I have to live with.

In their endless drive to classify and pigeonhole prisoners and their conditions, the D.O.C. labels prisoners with “Psych. Grades 1, 2, or 3,” in open population. A “Psych – 3” is one of those prescribed psychotropic medications who have moderate impairment in adaptive functioning due to serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression, or borderline personality disorder. Nearly 80% of FSP’s 1400-plus prisoners are Psych-3’s. And you thought you had problems. Take some cookies to nosey Granny across the street and thank God Thomas or McKinney don’t live there.

I am a “Psych-1,” no mental illnesses, no psychological counseling, or psychotropic medications prescribed or needed. According to the D.O.C. experts, I am as “normal” as a person can be, especially considering that I have been living in nut houses for over thirty-one years and am surrounded on all sides by hundreds of “Psych-3’s” in varying states of mental disrepair. So why am I still here? Good question.

Thirty years ago, Dr. Walter Afield, a psychiatrist, Harvard Medical School, etc., testified at my trial after examining me that he had his doubts that anyone could twenty-five years and emerge to be a functioning member of society, but if anyone could do it, Charles Norman could. Thanks, Dr. Afield, for the endorsement. You were right. I just hope I get the chance to prove it soon.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Dateline: October 9, 2009


Friday, October 9, 2009—still waiting for transfer to Sumter C.I.

Here is a word of advice—don’t get sick in prison. If you do, make certain your illness is minor. For God’s sake, don’t come down with anything serious. Especially be wary of indigestion.

Some years back a fellow prisoner went to medical at a central Florida prison complaining of chest pains. He told the nurse he thought he was having a heart attack. She told him it was indigestion, gave him some “Alamay” tablets, chalky pink, horrible-tasting antacids, and sent him back to his dorm. He collapsed and died on the sidewalk. Indigestion can kill you! Happens all the time.

This past Monday morning the guards awakened me at 3:30 AM, told me to get dressed, I was going on a medical trip. After years of being roasted in the relentless Florida sun (cutting down all the trees and shade in prison didn’t help), for the past several years I’ve been dealing with skin cancer, specifically squamous cell carcinoma, on my arms, scalp, and face. It is not fun.

An outside specialist, a dermatologist, has weekly clinics at the prison hospital at Lake Butler, in North Florida, a two- or three- hour drive from my prison home at Tomoka, Daytona Beach, depending on who’s driving. I haven’t driven in over thirty-one years. I could use the practice, but they won’t let me drive, for some reason. With the manacles, waist-chains, and leg irons, it would be difficult to shift and steer, anyway. The D.O.C. transports sick prisoners from across the state to see a variety of specialists—cancer, heart, and eye problems, particularly, referred by the local medical staff.

I’ve had several laser surgery treatments on my arms, scalp, and cheeks, and it is not pleasant. Last year I came out of the doctor’s office with the burning hair and flesh scents, and a prisoner waiting his turn for the procedure asked me if it hurt.

“Imagine someone holding a Bic lighter to your head,” I told him. No sense sugar-coating it.

This time I went to Lake Butler for a consultation concerning “actinic keratosis,” a precursor to the skin cancer. No lasers this time, thank God!

I was escorted (in handcuffs) out of my building before 4 AM to medical, to await my ride. I haven’t been outside at that hour in a long time, and craned my neck to see the full moon overhead and all the stars. Securely chained in the back of a van, doors padlocked, metal grills over the windows, a tight cage, I tried not to think of what would happen if a crazy driver smashed into the van, rolled it, and it caught on fire. There’d be no getting out. The Bic lighter held to my scalp didn’t seem too bad after all.

Staring through the steel mesh, taking it all in, my primary impression was how dark it was “outside,” in the night, away from prison. There is little darkness or shade in prison. Jack Murphy told me once that when flying across the country at night, he could identify isolated prisons from a long way off, square beacons of orange light beaming into the night sky. They burn cell lights all day long, and at night between 11 PM and 5:30 AM, cut the main fluorescents, but leave on dimmer “night lights.” It is never dark. One of the rules of the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners forbids “sleep deprivation” and the use of constant illumination as torture. It works. Those rules apparently don’t apply to us. With the lights, the racket, the slamming and clanging of steel doors, day and night, a twenty-minute nap is a luxury.

But “outside,” on the street, the absence of light, the darkness, struck me with its immensity. Mere blocks from the prison, twisting down a narrow, two-laned street without streetlights, tall trees on either side blocked off the sky and the dim light of the moon. I thought of the weekend visitors, the women,—wives, mothers, lovers—who parked on a sidestreet in the pitch-dark early every Saturday and Sunday morning, waiting for 7:30 AM, when they were allowed to enter the prison parking lot and wait for 9:00 AM visits. For the first time I realized the depths of their love, commitment, and sacrifice, to sit, alone, in that forbidding darkness, out of love. It gave me pause. Why can’t they be able to park in a safe parking lot?

The hospital at Lake Butler was as it always has been, filled with sick and dying prisoners. It’s not difficult to figure out which of these sad cases are nearing the end. One observation I made though, is the D.O.C. is actually doing a pretty good job concerning health care and treatment. The nurses and doctors are competent and professional, and patiently responded to my list of questions.

The highlight of the trip came along a lonely stretch of Highway 100, out in the middle of nowhere, when the van driver squashed a freshly-killed skunk. There was no mistaking what it was. The van instantly filled with choking musk. If the military could mass-produce skunk scent and drop it on al Quaida positions, the insurgents would quickly come out gagging, and surrender.

Several days later my wrists and ankles are still bruised and swollen from the steel restraints. Another word of advice—don’t ride in vans for hours in manacles, waist chains, or leg irons. It’s hell if your nose itches or you need to scratch your head. When the doctor examined me, he was concerned about the long, red bruises and abrasions on my wrists. I told him they were from the handcuffs, not skin cancer. He frowned at that.

Speaking of scratching, it seems many prisons are plagued with frequent outbreaks of some kind of skin disease colloquially known as the “itchy-scratchies,” for want of a better diagnosis. Last week one dorm filled with wheelchair prisoners, old men, and other impaired people was quarantined for three days with the “itchy-scratchies.” I should have known better than to mention that—now I have to scratch! Don’t you just hate that?

Thursday, October 1, 2009


NOTE: This is not my typical blog entry, but this particular prison memoir has just completed the first editing process, and I wanted to show how different prison was “back then,” as opposed to the present time. There’s no comparison. I’d appreciate any comments and observations. Thanks. Charlie.

A memoir by Charles Patrick Norman

Murf the Surf and I are walking in the rain past the steam plant heading back to the Southwest Unit. The chapel is off to our left, separated from the sidewalk by tall, thick hedges. We are coming from the Main Gate at the Old Administration Building after escorting out a group of students and professors visiting from the University of Florida in Gainesville.

We are prisoners serving life sentences for murder convictions at Raiford, otherwise known as The Rock, Union Correctional Institution, Florida’s oldest and toughest prison, filled to overflowing with over 2600 desperate men. Raiford is like a small town, with streets, buildings, trees, factories, stores, and housing areas. The steam plant to our right provides power to the laundry, chow halls, and other facilities. A tall brick chimney tower can be seen for miles, and the steam plant whistle, which blasts periodically throughout the day, sounds like a train whistle that can be heard for miles.

We come to the main east/west road and turn right. The school, vocational classes, and print shop are contained in a block-long two-story building across from us. We are talking about the past three hours we spent with Dr. Jack Detweiler and his college students, eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year olds, intelligent and inquisitive, who bombarded us with pointed questions about ourselves, our lives, our families, our sentences, and life in prison. Fresh-faced and scrubbed, neatly and fashionably dressed, they seem like naïve, adorable children after being surrounded by hard-eyed, stone-faced, feral prison schemers twenty-four/seven, day after day, for weeks, months, years.

Coming toward us from the Southwest Unit, a shirtless prisoner wearing athletic shorts and shoes without socks runs as hard as he can while pushing a wheelbarrow. Another shirtless man is sprawled in the wheelbarrow, arms and legs hanging over the sides, limp, reminding me of that sculpture, Michelangelo’s “La Pieta,” of Mary holding the dead Christ in her arms.
The laboring prisoner comes nearer. I see it is Floyd Price, another lifer, a young, strong, well-built man, bulging muscles defined by years of pushing iron. His eyeglasses are fogged and waterspotted.

“Make way, give me room,” he gasps, already winded from his exertions. There is plenty of room in the street, but we step aside. He doesn’t appear to need any help, nor does he ask for it.
Floyd pushes past us at a sprint. We look down and see that the man sprawled in the wheelbarrow is Jim Ealy, and his throat has been cut. A deep gash like a ravine slashes across his neck and down toward his Adam’s apple. Blood runs down his chest, rinsed and thinned by the raindrops that have turned into a shower. His head lolls. His lifeless eyes stare into nothingness. He looks dead.

We grimace and shake our heads in unison, silent in our thoughts. Life and death in prison is selfish. Better him than me. Self-preservation rules. We continue along the street. Floyd races to the prison hospital, a few hundred yards away. It is a good move. Had the guards called for a nurse and a stretcher from the hospital themselves, it might have been twenty, thirty minutes, or an hour, before they came to pick him up, if they got there at all. If poor Jim Ealy has any chance of survival before he bleeds out, Floyd is providing it by carrying him to the hospital himself.

Prisoners at Raiford live in three places. The Main Housing Unit is actually “The Rock,” a concrete and steel edifice first opened in 1913, a three-story fort-like structure that appears to be a strange conglomeration of The Alamo, a low-income housing project, and a haunted dungeon. Evil spirits permeate its cold, thick walls and dark tiny cells. Untold numbers of prisoners have been murdered or died there. Most “newcocks,” young prisoners fresh from the county jails and prison reception center at Lake Butler are initially assigned to the Main Housing Unit upon their arrival at Raiford, a sort of “welcome to prison.” Some of them never come out, consumed by the beasts within.

Reflecting the prison system’s obsession with compass points, the “West Unit” is, of course, on the west side of Raiford, as opposed to the “East Unit,” or FSP, Florida State Prison, a mile or so to the east, across the New River in Bradford County. The West Unit has a rusting, faded arch over its entry, recounting its original role as the “reception center” years before. Consisting of one-story warehouse-type buildings used as dormitories, a metal plaque embedded in the outside back wall of Dorm Five identifies it as “White Women’s Prison—1936.”

We are heading toward the Southwest Unit—that’s right—it’s at the south and west corner of the prison grounds. If you know which way is north, you’ll never get lost at Raiford. The Southwest Unit is the most “modern” prison housing here, built in 1976, during a brief enlightenment period when the Department of Corrections changed its name temporarily to the Department of Offender Rehabilitation. A long circular road loops around a former open field with four housing areas built on its outside edge. Each housing area is fronted by a building of offices, classrooms and canteen, and officers’ station. Inside, three two-story air conditioned dormitories house ninety-six men each in two-man rooms. A thirteenth building, aptly named Building Thirteen, is only one-story, holding forty-eight men, mostly the “elite” prisoners. A chow hall sits inside the circular road.

There is a commotion on the road in front of “A Area,” the first set of buildings we come to entering the Southwest Unit. It appears to be where Jim Ealy got his throat cut moments ago.
Three prisoners with homemade knives are jabbing and feinting at each other while two large, pot-bellied sergeants, one white and one black, stand back and urge them to stop. Don’t get too close! “Shanks” aren’t prejudiced. They will kill white and black alike, prisoners or guards.

It is obvious what this is about, a fight between two pairs of prison homosexuals. The two “female” members, known as punks or sissies, babies or boys, are more slightly-built, have shaved eyebrows and lisp their threats and insults at each other. The “male” counterparts, the “husbands,” “my man,” or the war daddy, as he is known sometimes, play the more masculine role, is often larger and more dominant, but no more dangerous than his chain gang lover. Knives are great size equalizers. A tiny matador can slay a large bull.

In this scene, the two war daddies have taken most of the damage. Jim Ealy and his slashed throat are almost to the hospital by now in Floyd Price’s wheelbarrow ambulance. His “boy” appears unscathed. “Moose,” the other war daddy, another shirtless big man, staggers in the rain, one hand barely holding onto what appears to be a sharpened steel spike, the other hand trying to cover up several holes punched in his chest. Every time he inhales and exhales, bright red blood bubbles and foams out of the holes, a sure sign the wounds have punctured his lung. He is ready to drop.

The black sergeant, a very large man nicknamed by the prisoners as “Idi Amin,” for obvious reasons, is urging Moose to drop his knife and lie down on the road, wait for help, he’s hurt.
“I’m all right, I’m all right, I’m—” Moose drops the blade, teeters, falls to his knees, then sags to the wet pavement onto his back. Falling rain mixes and rinses the foaming blood bubbles that whisper out of his chest. The two “boys” ignore Moose, dancing, pirouetting, making half-hearted stabs at each other. Back down the road from where we came, we see a crowd of prison guards half-hustling in our direction, the “goon squad,” or “doom squad,” as some black prisoners call it, a special group of tough guards who respond to violent incidents. Anyone in the vicinity when they arrive is likely to get jumped on, their heads busted, tossed in lock-up, or worse, so Murf and I hurry up and make haste on down the road, around to “C Area,” where we are housed, and where the GOLAB program operates. Over our shoulders, we look back and see the two “sissies” in handcuffs, on their way to confinement. Moose still lies on the road. Party’s over.

Entering the “breezeway,” we turn right into a hallway that leads to the GOLAB classroom. The control room is to our left and the barber shop to the right. The classroom is empty of people. After the college students and professors left, the prisoners who work with us in the program left to go to their buildings and cells, or “rooms,” to unwind, get ready for supper, take showers, whatever. Folding chairs are set up in a large circle. Several tables line the walls. A blackboard covers one wall. I make sure the coffee pot is unplugged and the trash cans emptied. Murf sweeps the floor with a push-broom.

When the University of Florida students entered the classroom at one o’clock, they were bunched up and scared as rabbits. Eight or nine prisoners sat scattered in the circle of chairs, forcing the students, a majority female, to sit next to and on either side of us. An hour before their arrival down here, a couple of guards had run a little “orientation” session on them, to prepare them for meeting us for the first time. They showed the students a variety of prison weapons, clubs, knives, pipes, chains, that had been confiscated in shakedowns. They told them horror stories. They scared them shitless, as they say.

“You kids be real careful down there with that bunch. They may act nice to you, to get your trust, but that’s all it is, an act. Them boys is murderers, rapists, robbers, kidnappers, child molesters, you name it, the scum of the earth, and if any one of them get half a chance, they’ll put a knife to your pretty little neck, they’ll rape you, they’ll murder you. They’ll sweet talk you, tell you sob stories, try to get your address and telephone number, con you into coming to see ‘em at the visiting park, bring ‘em dope and money, next thing you know, they’ll have you helpin’ them escape. Then you’ll be left high and dry, heading to the women’s prison at Lowell, and they’ll be gone, laughing at you. Don’t believe a word they say. They’re all a bunch a liars and homosexuals.”

Those briefings were so consistently the same that we figured they must have had a script of some sort, and followed it closely each time a new group came in to see and speak with us. And it worked, at least for the first fifteen minutes or half hour, until the college students got a chance to observe and listen to us, and discover that we were scarcely different from them, except that our lives had been ruined by some misstep, and theirs were just starting out.

We usually began the sessions by introducing ourselves, where we were from, what we were in prison for, how much time we had, and any other personal details we wished to share.
“My name is Joe, I’m from New York, I’m in prison for robbery, I’ve done four years, I saw the parole man last year, and I hope to get out in five or six years.”

“Hi, my name is Jerry, they call me Chicago, I’ve done eight years on an attempted murder charge, and I get out on parole this year.”

“My name is John. I go by the nickname of “Tex.” I came in with an eighteen month sentence over twenty years ago. I got involved in the murder of another prisoner, and I never got out. I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I call myself “Tex” because I don’t want anybody to call me Louise!” (Laughter)

My turn. “My name is Charlie, and I’m from Tampa, where I went to the University of South Florida. (cheers). I’m serving a fresh life sentence for a murder someone else committed, and my parole man hasn’t been born yet. (More laughter). When he is born, I hope he has good parents who love him, who don’t abuse or molest him, who raise him in a good home, he grows up a decent, well-adjusted person, so when he comes to see me in twenty-five years or so, he has a positive attitude, isn’t on some vindictive crusade, doesn’t give me a Buck Rogers date for parole. (Nervous laughter). I’m glad you all could come here today, we are open to any of your questions about prison and the criminal justice system, ask whatever you like. First, though, how about each of you introduce yourselves, tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, what you’re majoring in, what your goals are.”

That usually got things going. After thirty minutes or an hour, the room would be abuzz with chatter, the din increasing, as everyone talked at once, it seemed, to the persons on their lefts and rights, prisoners and students, the only discernible difference being some wore prison blues and the rest didn’t. Some were female and some were male. When it was time to go, it was difficult to get them to leave. They’d have plenty to write about in their class assignment papers on their trip to prison.

Murf the Surf and I walked with them from the Southwest Unit to the Main Gate. We each had an umbrella, and of course we had to share them with friendly coeds. Dr. Detweiler, a lean, scholarly man, walked alongside Murf, listening intently as Murf postulated about a fascinating subject—himself—that sounded great, but would be forgotten ten minutes later. The escorting guards had disappeared in the rain and four o’clock shift change. Our little group scuttled across the empty compound, Raiford appearing to be a ghost town in bad weather. An occasional lone prisoner would pass by, gaping, surprised and wondering how and why a covey of young women and men wandered through this ultimate no-man’s land.

For a short while we had been seemingly transported out of the prison and into a university classroom. Walking back from the main gate, we were energized with the mental stimulation that the supercharged students had provided us. Seeing Floyd pushing a bleeding Jim Ealy to the hospital in a wheelbarrow and the aftermath of the knife fight on the road by “A Area” brought us back to earth swiftly to the reality of life in prison.

We heard later that the incident began with an argument between the two “boys” that escalated to threats and shanks. Once the two “feminine” counterparts armed themselves and squared off, the “husbands,” or “war daddies,” were obligated to pull out their weapons and defend their chain gang lovers. Moose was now at the prison hospital. The two “boys” were in lockup, in the same cell, presumably reconciled. Conflicting reports claimed that Jim had died, that he was in the Lake Butler prison hospital, that he was on life support at Shands Hospital in Gainesville.
Prison is an unrepentant rumor mill, fueled by deranged fools who truly believe the made-up facts that pour from damaged brains.

Saturday night we go to the movie in the Main Housing Unit theater, the biggest screen in Union County, a cavernous room on the second floor filled with hundreds of actual theater seats, broken and battered as many of them are. The Rock movie theater looks like something transported out of the Depression in the 1930’s, a dark, dirty, forlorn place, with an ominous slice in the screen that could have been made by some maniac with a sharp knife chasing someone else.

They show the same movie first thing Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday night. I have my own reverse movie critic, a psychotic from Duval County named Jimmy, who races to the Rock first thing every Saturday morning to hurry down front and center on the first row to stare up at the fuzzy picture. When Jimmy comes back at eleven o’clock, I’ll ask him, “How was the movie, Jimmy?”

If Jimmy’s eyes light up, his face crinkles into smiles, and he tells me, “Brother, that was the best movie I ever seen. Man, you ain’t gonna believe it. Don’t you miss this ‘un, Bubba, or you’ll regret it,” I know I’ll pass. It will be trash, unwatchable. I’ll make other plans for Saturday night—read a book, write a letter, watch TV.

If Jimmy’s face contorts in disgust, he snarls and spits, balls his fists, scuffles his feet and tells me, dead serious, “Don’t waste your time, bro. That movie sucks. It is pure garbage. That’s the sorriest movie I’ve seen in a long time,” I make my plans. I’m going to see it, it’s probably going to win the “Best Picture” Academy Award. Jimmy is that good. After my friends see me talking to Jimmy, they’ll nod, I’ll toss a thumbs up or thumbs down their way, and they’ll make their plans, too.

The Rock Movie Theater in the Main Housing Unit is one of the most dangerous places in the prison. No guards go in there. Two or three hundred of the deadliest prisoners locked in a dark room, with the inherent grudges, gang enmities, racial issues, bad debts, angry lovers, and who knows what else adding to the violence stew makes for a potential bloodbath every week.
Men go in groups for self-preservation. I’m not affiliated with any cliques or gangs, more an independent who cruises along above the fray, but several other men from our housing area and I ride with the Jacksonville Boys, a loosely-confederated bunch of prisoners mostly from the west side of Jacksonville, forty miles or so to the northeast. I have gained the respect and friendship of their leader, Junior Bullard, the “Bull,” another chain gang legend who had survived the last twenty years at the Rock and FSP.

To long-term prisoners like Junior, men who are “fresh off the street,” comparatively speaking, are like missionaries who’ve been dropped into the jungle amidst a lost tribe long out of contact with civilization. They thirst for information concerning how life is “out there,” a strange and alien world of the future that has passed them by. I am happy to oblige, answering Junior’s questions, and although we have vastly different lifestyles and beliefs, being accepted by him means that I gain the acceptance of his entire crew. Thus I could hitchhike along with his group to the movies, while still remaining a free agent, sort of like the white man who was allowed to travel with an Apache war party, but never participated in scalping. An observer.

In each group will be two or three men armed with large sharp shanks, prepared to step up and bare their weapons if something jumps off. Since every group knows everyone else is strapped down and ready to rumble in an instant, an armed truce usually ensues, allowing us to enjoy the movie in peace.

In our movie group I know of at least two men who are carrying, one, Larry Jefferson, “L.J.,” also called Pinhead, a slightly built thirty-something who sells bags of pot for Junior, who came to prison as a teen, accepted into the Jacksonville Boys, who has grown up in prison, the only acceptance he has ever known. Larry is a quiet, shy man who still looks like a skinny kid, but don’t let that fool you. If necessary, he will pull out that big knife and wield it in an instant.

Roy Yates isn’t really one of the Jacksonville Boys, either, and although he’s a bonafide psychopath, he is trusted. Roy has been in prison for fifteen years and looks it, worn and wrinkled from smoking “RIPS,” the pungent state-issued prison tobacco, drinking buck, potent prison wine, and doing any kind of drug or pill he can get his hands on.

Roy is missing his top and bottom front teeth, which gives him the disturbing appearance known as “cat mouth,” more commonly seen in the discarded men who come to American prisons after serving years in Cuban hell-holes, where new arrivals commonly had their front teeth knocked out. There’s no excuse for Roy not to get his teeth fixed, since Raiford has a large dental office and a dental lab, where prisoners make dentures for other prisoners statewide. He just doesn’t care.

Roy is actually a short-timer, ready to be released in a year or so. He has minimum custody, and works outside the prison at the slaughterhouse every day.

Every Wednesday, they butcher hogs. They call the slaughterhouse the “cold storage,” another prison euphemism, and we can see the large building on the other side of the triple fences along the Rock Yard, the Main Housing Unit recreation field.

Pigs aren’t stupid, but none of the hundreds that are run through the chutes at the slaughter house have ever experienced this, so they don’t know what’s coming until it’s too late. We listen to the squeals and squalls of confusion and hesitation as the first ones are run through the chutes up to the slaughter house killing floor. A “free man” wields a bolt gun, a compressed air-powered tool with a trigger that he places up against the pig’s head, that fires a steel bolt into the pig’s brain, supposedly instantly killing it. The bolt retracts, ready for the next victim right behind the first.

From our vantage point on the yard, we couldn’t see what happened, but the pigs told us everything. We could hear it all. The pigs at the front of the line, the first victims, complacently followed the leaders, never suspecting this was death day. We’d hear the squeals, then the bolt gun would start killing, and Roy would wield his butcher knife. The pigs would see the carnage in front of them, smell the blood, and start freaking out. The squeals would become more panicked and high-pitched, in pig language they were saying, “RUN! Run for your lives! They’re killing us! Stop! Get away!”” But there was no getting away, no turning around in the chutes, no mercy. The bolt gun and Roy waited for them all. Soon every pig down the line would be screaming, but after a time, it would be quiet. All were dead.

Roy acts as the cutthroat. He wields a razor-sharp butcher knife, and as soon as the free man fires the bolt gun, dropping the pig, Roy starts the butchering process by cutting the pig’s throat.
Roy straddles the dead pig, grasps its snout, and raises its head upward. “You sorry ass Anderson, I hate your damn guts. You talked all that shit to me, thought you was bad, you ain’t so bad now, are you?”

With that, Roy brings the knife around, cutting through the pig’s neck with a growl and shout of triumph, blood gushing everywhere. That pig is hooked and dragged away for scalding and gutting, and the next one takes its place.

“Bobby Joe, you piece of shit, you thought you was slick, beating me out of that money, I got your ass. What ‘chu gonna do now?” And he slices, yells, grins, wipes blood from his face with a rag. All day long.

One day the free man with the bolt gun, the prison employee who oversaw that part of the job, became particularly disturbed by some of Roy’s comments to the dead pigs. He’d told others that he’d considered re-assigning Roy to another job, but he was actually afraid of him, and he was the best butcher they’d ever had. He enjoyed his work. He stopped the line for a minute and spoke to Roy.

“Roy, some of this stuff you’re saying might be going a little too far, pretending you’re cutting the warden’s throat, and the colonel’s, and most of the officers here. You ever think you might need some help, go see the psychiatrist, talk about that? You may have a problem, Roy, and with you getting ready to go home, I’m worried about you. What do you think?”

Roy just looked at him, straddled the pig, lifted its head, brought the butcher knife around, held it there. “You wanna know what I think? You wanna know what I think of all of ya’ll? Watch this. This is you, motherfucker,” and with a practiced stroke, Roy dug deeply and almost decapitated the hog. Bloodsoaked from head to toe, Roy stood up straight, looked the free man in the eye, and asked,” Any more questions?”

Shaken, the man shook his head no.

“I didn’t think so.” He went back to work.

Roy’s proclivities were well-known, and when he’d offered his security services to Junior, they were quickly accepted. No one doubted that Roy would use his knife. In fact, he couldn’t wait to use his skills on a human. Heaven help anyone he got a hold of.

There we were, hundreds of prisoners in a long line in the dark, waiting to enter the west gate that led inside the main housing unit. We stood on a wide sidewalk along an old brick street lined with huge spreading oak trees that had been growing there since the Rock was built. If you didn’t know you were inside a prison, you could imagine you were on a tree-lined small town residential street.

We hear the clang, clang, klink, clang, clattering sounds of metal hitting bricks. The armed men at the front of the line are tossing their knives into the street. The guards must be using metal detectors at the gate. There have been rumors of something jumping off in the theater tonight, resulting in the use of metal-detecting wands, and an inordinate amount of steel is skittering into the street. Roy and Larry stick their shanks into the ground next to a large oak tree root so they could find them. Their knives had been specially ground and sharpened in the furniture factory from carbon steel, and they dodn’t want to lose them.

The movie is uneventful. No one gets killed but on the screen.

When we exit The Rock, after 9:00 p.m., it is dark. No guards are seen past the West Gate. The brick road is still littered with discarded shanks, scattered where they were thrown. Men pick through them and continue on. Pinhead and Roy recover their specially-made blades, concealing them in their waistbands. We walk unescorted the quarter mile back to the Southwest Unit in the spooky darkness. The only light comes from blinking stars and distant fences. Just another night in prison.

The next day, Sunday, I go to the visiting park. My mother and father, brother, sister-in-law, and my nephew and niece, Timmy, eight years old, and Tammy, seven years old, have made the four-hour trip to see me.

Timmy is fascinated by the tattoos covering the arms, necks, and some faces of various bikers in the visiting park.

“Charles, why do those men draw cartoons all over theirselves like that?”

“I don’t really know, Timmy. I guess they are bored, or they like those pictures.”

“Will those cartoons wash off?”

“No, you can’t wash them off. They’ll wear them till they die.”

“If I did that, my Mom would kill me.”

“You’re right, young man,” Sandy added.

After visit, I went to the bandroom to talk to Murf. The bandroom is part of the old “Flat Top,” a walled structure that used to house Death Row up until 1961, when FSP was built, the new Death Row opened, and they moved “Old Sparky,” the electric chair, across the New River to its new abode. It gave me an odd feeling walking along the hallway of the old Death Row, lined with tiny one-man cells that once upon a time was home to Florida’s condemned, many of whom had made this same walk to the electric chair.

Now the cells were occupied by prisoner musicians. I quickly passed a man playing a guitar, one with a keyboard, another guitarist, a drummer, a man with a trumpet, then a sax. Murf was in the main room where Old Sparky once sat, which now held all the speakers and amplifiers for the band practice. Plenty of electrical outlets were available in the room that held the electric chair. I didn’t like it there—too many ghosts—and I left quickly.

Outside, I passed a little old man they called The Colonel, supposedly a retired military man who tended the colorful flowers growing next to the concrete walls. I was glad to get back to the relative sanctuary of my cell in the Southwest Unit.

A month or so later I was walking to the patio canteen, the prison restaurant next to the visiting park, where you could buy breakfasts, hot coffee, meals, burgers, fries, and whatnot if you had money. Coming out of the canteen restaurant was Jim Ealy and his boy. A bright red scar defined the grave injury to his neck.

“Jim!” I said, surprised. “I thought you were dead. Last time I saw you, Floyd Price was pushing you down the road in a wheelbarrow, your throat cut open.”

He fingered the scar automatically. “Nah, they tried, but they couldn’t do it, Bubba. I guess I got eight lives left now.”

“Uh huh. Hey, could I talk to you for a minute, privately?”

Jim’s homosexual lover eyed me suspiciously, correct in assuming I had something to say that I didn’t want him to hear.

“Sure, Charlie. Wait a sec, babe,” he said to the boy, who huffed and turned away.

“Jimmy, you’re a good guy,” I said. “You are a decent person, and everyone respects you.”

“Yeah? Thanks.”

“But you’ve got a serious flaw, man,” I said, cocking my thumb toward the boy. “That punk almost got you killed, and next time, you might not be so lucky.”

“What do you think I should do?”

“You gotta give up that boy. That boy is death. You stick with him, you’re not gonna make it.”

Jim grimaced. “Listen, I know you’re right, but you don’t understand. I can’t give that boy up. I love him. I appreciate what you’re saying, though.”

He left with the boy, and I went inside and ordered a hamburger and French fries.

Jim was an electrician, working for maintenance, wore a tool belt anywhere on the compound. That’s a big deal in prison, being permitted to carry hammers, pliers, and other legal weapons as part of your job, providing a degree of deterrence from attack in most cases. While he’d been recuperating in the Lake Butler prison hospital, his boy had not been pining away waiting for him, but as those things happen in prison, he’d been fooling around, playing the very large field, and had linked up with a new war daddy that Jimmy knew nothing about.

Chain gang divorces aren’t like those done in a free society, with no-fault, lawyers, alimony, child support, and the rest. There is an element of violence attached that is rarely seen outside prison.
Jimmy got a work order to replace a light bulb in the West Unit. It was a set-up. When he walked through the doorway, a person unknown ran him through with a very large screwdriver that went in his abdomen and poked out from his back. There was no saving him this time. Floyd and his wheelbarrow were nowhere to be found. By the time the nurse got there with two stretcher bearers, Jimmy was dead.

That night, Jimmy’s former chain gang lover was curled up in the bunk of his new husband. It’s doubtful that he gave a second thought to Jimmy, who thought he loved him. That’s the way it is in prison.

Murf the Surf got out of prison twenty five years ago. Jim Ealy and legions of men like him are skeletons mouldering in the ground of “Boot Hill,” the sad prison cemetery that rests in the piney woods outside the fences and in sight of the Southwest Unit. Many thousands of other men have come and gone and returned to these prisons over and over again. The Rock is long gone, battered to rubble by a wrecking ball, setting loose all those ghosts and evil spirits to find new places to roost and haunt.

As for myself, I am still here, an eternity later, trapped deep inside the pit, watching the bus come in each week, disgorging a new crop of “newcocks,” ignorant young men who think it is a game, who think they have all the answers, who haven’t yet experienced the rude awakening of chain gang reality, but soon will. That’s also the way it is in prison.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Dateline: August 17, 2009


There are no more “chain gangs” in Florida per se, but the term lives on, applied to the down and dirty life in prison that continues unabated inside the razorwire fences. Picture a huge dog pound, a barren cage teeming with over a thousand stray dogs of all sizes and shapes collected from across the state.

Each day surly keepers arrive and toss barely enough food into the cage to sustain the thousand-plus hungry beasts. The pit bulls, mastiffs, Rottweilers, Dobermans, and German Shepherds snap, growl, and muscle their way to the food troughs and gorge themselves as fast and hard as they can. The Chihuahuas, toy poodles, Shih Tzus, Yorkies, and other small, weaker, decorative dogs must stand back and wait until the bigger, fiercer dogs are done, hoping they can scrounge the scraps without getting attacked and bitten.

Life in prison has many parallels to that fictional dog pound. “Survival of the fittest” rules. The weak are at the mercy of the strong and heartless. The keepers do little to limit the anarchy. For those prisoners who receive help from family and friends outside, enabling them to buy extra food, supplies, and essentials like soap, shampoo, deodorant, writing paper, stamps, envelopes, shoes, and socks, items taken for granted in society, they must be strong enough to hold onto their possessions from the jackals, robbers, and thieves who prey upon the weak.

For those who have no outside support, their choice is to do without or find a hustle, some way to earn money in prison, to carve off slices of the prison cow for themselves.

For virtually all kinds of hustles that exist in society’s “underground economy,” there are corresponding prison hustles, both legal and illegal, although illegal predominates.

Legal hustles are rare. Fifty men out of 1200 may work at a low-paying prison factory job, such as the Florida PRIDE Prison Industries, furniture factory, print shop, garment factory, auto tag plant, and others scattered singly in various fortunate prisons.

The handful of prisoners who operate the prison canteens, mini-convenience stores that sell junk food and basic necessities to those with money from home, are paid a monthly pittance, which is usually outweighed by the illegal earnings, extending credit at usurious rates for one example. The shoeshine boy and “staff barber,” direct descendants of the former glory days of slavery, also receive monthly pittances on top of tips they receive from guards, along with several hustles they run on the side. The guards usually turn a blind eye to their minor goings-on. One of the unspoken perks of prison staff is access to the inexpensive shoe shines and haircuts available in the staff barber shop. These plum jobs generally go to snitches, who conveniently pass on information behind closed barber shop doors.

Some men sell their trays for cigarettes and cups of coffee. The desire for nicotine and caffeine overrides their hunger. Meals such as baked chicken legs and hamburgers or turkey sausage are prime bartering subjects. Such men who sell their trays are usually rail-thin, a diet fad undiscovered by Jenny Craig.

Food is an overriding concern, and stealing from the kitchen is one of the main preoccupations and money sources. Some prisoners will wrap up their hamburger, stuff it down their pants, and smuggle it back to the housing unit to sell to someone who missed chow or is still hungry. Other men in cahoots with the cook will steal twenty pieces of chicken and attempt to sneak them out of the kitchen. If they are successful, they reap a hefty profit. If they’re caught, they go to confinement for thirty days. No risk, no reward.

Making wine is becoming a lost art in prison. Everyone is locked down more and more, movement is restricted with constant searches and shakedowns, and the easily identifiable smell of fermenting oranges or other fruit have cut back on the wine-making, but hasn’t eliminated it. A huge percentage of alcoholic prisoners fuels the market.

Drug sales and use are endemic. Despite dope-sniffing dogs, urinalysis, widespread snitches and shakedowns, the prisons are filled with drugs. Authorities typically blame the visitors coming to see their loved ones in prison as the main culprits, but everyone knows that is a smokescreen, scapegoats used to cover the drug sales of corrupt guards and other employees who have no qualms about tapping into a ready, captive market. The occasional guard who is snitched out or slips up and is caught bringing in drugs is quickly fired and quietly prosecuted, making barely a ripple on the criminal justice pond. Plea bargains and no mention in the press squelch any public outcry.

Sex sells on the street and in prison. I could write a book about that and probably will. Homosexuality is rampant—some estimate that as many as ninety percent of prisoners engage in homosexuality, although a portion of that number may be otherwise heterosexual husbands and fathers with wives and children who succumb to prison sex to satisfy their urges while inside, living a secret life. They justify their behavior by saying that they aren’t actually homosexuals or gay, and will return to their normal lives upon release, leaving their homosexual lovers behind. Often they take something with them—HIV—and infect their unsuspecting wives with a deadly disease. When that happens, all too often, their secret is out.

There is a large subset of effeminate gay men who actually sell sex, bartering their favors for coffee, food, cigarettes, and other necessities. These men are quite popular. Far more prevalent are the homosexual relationships where one man with money pairs up with a poor homosexual without, like a chain-gang sugar daddy who purchases solo sexual service on a long-term basis. Some of these “business propositions’ evolve into little chain-gang “families,” the “father” paying the bills, subsidizing the “mother” and one, two, or more “children,” younger prisoners they take under their wings and bring along into the incestuous family relationship. It all boils down to money, however. If the “father’s” finances dry up, the “family” quickly scatters.

Some of the traditional prison hustles still hang on, even in the crippled economy which has struck hard in prison. Some men will make beds and clean cells in exchange for cigarettes and cups of coffee. Some prisoners would rather pay someone than to do these chores themselves. Other men wash athletic shoes or personal clothing in their toilets, a primitive, chain gang “washing machine,” and earn their coffee and smokes that way.

The prison laundry harbors one of the best hustles—men pay by the month to have their uniforms washed and pressed, “specials,” and to insure that their laundry bags with underwear, socks, towels and sweatshirts aren’t stolen.

Artists can always make a buck drawing pictures or making birthday cards. At prisons with hobbycraft programs, some prison artists support their families selling artwork. Woodworkers make picture frames and jewelry boxes. Leather workers sell purses and wallets.

Some men run private prison canteens from their cells, extending credit to their customers at a rate of two-to-one. Many prisoners will run up huge bills, struggle to pay them, and “check-in” for protective custody. The large “PC” inmate populations at some prisons are known as the “bankruptcy squad.” The high interest rates charged make up for the frequent losses.

Law clerks and “jailhouse lawyers” reap hefty profits from newly-arrived prisoners desperate for appeals to be filed. Like their “street lawyer” counterparts, many of these “legal experts” are no more than con men, scamming checks from their customers’ families, cranking out fruitless appeals that only damage their chances for relief.

Like their animal world counterparts, men trapped in the chain-gang dog pound must deal with a “dog-eat-dog” world of brutality and subjugation. The weak with money pay “protection” to the strong to keep from being beaten up and robbed. Without protection they are at the mercy of small gangs of marauders, “packs,” who strip them of possessions, so it is advantageous to pay a smaller portion to a “big dog” to act as a “war daddy.” For those small dogs with no resources, subjected to gang rapes by unrepentant sodomizers, submission to one alpha male’s desires is preferable to being passed around by a group. In this hustle, the strongest men gain either canteen purchases or several favors for their primitive protection racket.

Income tax check refunds have been a major hustle and source of cash for decades. Neither the state officials nor feds have been able to staunch the flow of cash from the treasury. Prison con men obtain social security numbers from other men who have been in prison for years, with nothing to lose, and file phony tax returns with refunds into the thousands of dollars. The IRS checks go to addresses outside, where confederates, often prison employees, collect the checks, cash them, and distribute the money.

Gambling constitutes a major prison hustle. Poker games, dominos, Cash-3, football pools, and numerous other activities not only keep a lot of money flowing from losers to winners, but also fuel other illegal activities. Big winners will spend a large chunk on drugs, keeping that economy rolling. Losers will rob, break into lockers, and commit numerous other thefts to get back into the game to recoup their losses. Surprisingly, considering the effect gambling has on thefts and violence, the prison authorities virtually ignore it for some reason.

From just this brief introduction, it should be obvious that that the prisons are modern-day Sodoms and Gomorrahs, cesspits of lawlessness, immorality and degradation, not much different from collections of beasts in dog pounds and zoos. Is it a surprise that humans can revert back so easily to their primitive roots? Perhaps what is more surprising is the fact that even in such a degenerate, perverted environment, a minority of upright men actually resist the evil natures and lead exemplary lives in the midst of such immorality, refusing to compromise their moral values. Unfortunately, it seems that the people involved in determining who is to be released to return to society are as likely to choose the very worst candidates as they are the most law-abiding ones. Is it any wonder that prisons are described as having a revolving door, with men returning as fast as they are released?