Sunday, January 25, 2009


Dateline: January 24, 2009


One recent Saturday night the TV network broadcast the Adam Sandler/Chris Rock remake of the early 1970’s movie, “The Longest Yard.” In the original movie, Burt Reynolds starred as the washed-up quarterback who led Palm Beach police on a merry car chase and wound up serving time at a fictional Florida prison based on my alma mater, “The Rock,” AKA Raiford and Union C.I. The Florida prison people must have still had a bad taste in their mouths at how they were portrayed in “Cool Hand Luke,” with Paul Newman in the starring role, a few years before since they wouldn’t cooperate with Burt Reynolds’ movie production. Instead, Jimmy Carter gave them permission to film at the equally infamous Reidsville, Georgia, prison made over to appear to be in Florida.

That was then. The 21st century remake, cleaned up and more politically correct than the raw original, was situated at a ragged, corrupt federal prison in West Texas, sort of a Judge Roy Bean meets Mad Max. It had its moments, though, and a few flashes of humor channeled from the classic original.

If you’ve never spent Saturday night in a tiny, crowded TV room packed with prisoners watching a movie on a very small screen with a malfunctioning speaker, take my word for it that its an experience. Elbow-to-elbow with murderers, robbers, rapists, kidnappers, dope dealers, and crackheads is not my idea of an optimum evening, but after over thirty years in prison, what choice did I have? I’d seen the original at least 35 years before at a theater in Tampa. In my wildest dreams, I’d never have imagined that in the next century I’d be watching its remake in prison.

This is reality: most men in prison are homosexuals. I looked around at the men seated on the cold steel benches beside, in front, and in back of me, and realized that a Cuban and I were the only non-gays in the audience. Some prisoners are more overtly gay than others, though, and the front bench was filled with “sissies,” effeminate men with shaved eyebrows, chests, and legs, wearing homemade makeup and tight shorts, giggling in falsetto voices, going into hysterics when the movie “cheerleaders” appeared on the screen, encouraging the prison footballers. The muscle-bound testosterone prisoners who played the “man roles” as well as the outnumbered “straights” laughed equally hard.

Sitting there comparing the old with the new, I couldn’t help but flash back close to twenty-six years before when I was at Raiford and my brush with Burt Reynolds, “The Longest Yard,” the Tampa Bay Bandits football team, and owner, John Bassett.

Tom McEwen was the “Tampa Tribune’s” iconic sports editor. His daughter, Ginny, and I were King High School classmates in the 1960’s, and I bagged his groceries when he shopped most every Friday evening at the Kwik Chek grocery in Temple Terrace. I read his column, “The Morning After,” religiously.

Perhaps you’ll remember the USFL, the upstart football league that challenged the NFL for about three seasons in the early 1980’s. John Bassett, the Canadian millionaire, father of teen tennis star, Carling Bassett, and the man who helped singer, Gordon Lightfoot, get his start, became the majority owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits. Burt Reynolds, in his prime and height of popularity, bought a minority interest and became the public face of the Bandits.

Tom McEwen interviewed Burt for “The Morning After,” and asked him questions about the Tampa Bay Bandits and the role he would play. Burt told him that since he was so closely associated with his hit movie, “The Longest Yard,” that the team’s first football game might be against a prison team. That prompted me to write him a letter, in care of Tom McEwen.

I challenged Burt and the Tampa Bay Bandits to a football game against a team of prisoners at Raiford, the real “bandits.” I did it as a joke, not expecting anything to come of it. Little did I know.

A week later they summoned me to see my classification officer, Mr. Hicks. He told me that Mike Flanagan, a “St. Pete Times” reporter, had requested a telephone interview. Would I agree to it? I had no idea what it was about. He told me it had something to do with Burt Reynolds. Okay.

The reporter called from John Bassett’s office. Tom McEwen had forwarded my letter to him, and he called a friendly reporter. Mr. Flanagan wanted to ask me some questions about my challenge for an article. Fine. John Bassett wanted to talk to me, too. I didn’t talk to many millionaire team owners in my diminished circumstances, despite some early associations with the fledgling Tampa Bay Bucs in 1976, so what did I have to lose?

The reporter relayed John Bassett’s response that Burt was only kidding when he said he wanted the Bandits to play a prison team. Bassett didn’t want his players to get hurt before their season ever began. The reporter asked if I had a reply to that. I told him, “If Burt’s scared, just say he’s scared.” A series of guffaws from the other end erupted from the speakerphone.

We had a good time. John Bassett was a good sport, and he liked my sense of humor. We hit it off like old friends reunited. Even though he didn’t want to play our prison football team, he did promise to bring the Bandits, Burt, and some cheerleaders to Raiford for a visit and get together. A publicity stunt, but that was fine, too.

The visit was coming together until the last minute, when the prison people abruptly denied it. Perhaps those “Cool Hand Luke” hard feelings were still near the surface. Perhaps it was a failure to communicate. I don’t know. You never get a straight answer from those folks.

John Bassett had befriended me, taken me under his wing, so to speak, and accepted my collect phone calls. He sent “Bandits” banners and collectibles, which the prison allowed me to get in and pass around. The immediate success of the Bandits, Coach Steve Spurrier, and quarterback John Reaves from Tampa, compared to the inept Bucs, made them a prison favorite. I had told John about my case after he asked if I was willing to talk about it, which I was, and he volunteered to help me. I had no money, no lawyer, and no prospects beyond a life sentence for a murder I hadn’t committed, so his appearance in my life and desire to help me, all because of a joking letter, seemed like divine intervention. Then he fell ill.

He wrote me about it before it got too bad. We talked about it on the phone. I organized prisoner prayer groups to ask God to spare him, but the malignant brain tumor showed no mercy.

The last letter I got was from his manager who regretted to inform me that my friend was near the end and wouldn’t last much longer. But he wanted me to know that John had valued our friendship, that I’d brought him joy, and the get-well card that we’d all signed was in his hospital room. A week later, the “Tampa Tribune” reported that John Bassett was dead at 46, a life cut short. I said prayers for his family and his soul and grieved for a lost friend.

I am 59 years old now. Burt must be at least 70. But there he was, on the TV, taking the ball from Adam Sandler and running for a touchdown. Run, Burt, run! We applauded him.

I couldn’t tell any of those men in the TV room about all that past. They wouldn’t understand. Most of them weren’t even born when Burt played his original role and was seduced by Bernadette Peters in the warden’s office. Bernadette who? Nevermind. Burt’s still running, and so am I.


Thursday, January 22, 2009


Dateline: January 16, 2009


Since the Florida Gators football team and quarterback, Tim Tebow, won the BCS national championship, the media has focused attention on Tebow’s faith and open sharing of his Christianity. In this age of wacko and loony scammers (televangelists) living the jet set high life off donations from the gullible, it can only be expected that doubters would question Tebow’s sincerity, and try to figure out what his angle is.

After being in the front row to witness an incredible parade of nutcases, religious zealots, and con men intermingles with an occasional sincere “man of God” coming in to address us state prisoners for over thirty years, I’ve developed a fairly well-tuned sense of discernment when it comes to who is true or false. I’ve been watching this incredible young man, Tebow, for three years, and I can tell you right now that he is “the real deal.” You will hear a lot more from him in the coming years, and I don’t mean just on the football field.

You might not think that there is much humor in prison, but when it comes to God and man, you’d be amazed at how crazy and wild it gets sometimes, so weird that you couldn’t make this stuff up.

For several years in the 1980’s, I wrote a column titled, “Christ Is Alive and Well in Prison,” more of a serious recounting of prisoners whose lives changed through accepting Christ.

Prison is an evil place and many scoff at the “chain gang conversions” some prisoners profess. The ones who “fall back” and renounce their faith, or get out and screw up again make it hard on those who’ve had true life-changing experiences. But it is in society’s best interest, I believe, to encourage spiritual programs in prison, despite the phonies and poseurs. Who would you prefer to be walking the streets—an ex-con who’d forsaken his evil ways, found God, and led a law-abiding life, going to church every Sunday, or a heathen who worshipped Satan (we have plenty of those, too), who hated society, who lived to wreak havoc, sell drugs, burgle, rob, rape, murder, until he got caught? That’s a no-brainer, as they say.

There are many well-meaning religious zealots in prison, prisoners and guards, who, though sincere, are sometimes misguided. I want to tell you about two I knew at Raiford.

Tom looked like Clark Kent in a prison blue uniform, tall, handsome, clean-cut. Put him in a suit on the street, and you’d never guess he was a convicted felon. He took his religious conversion seriously, and like a chain gang John the Baptist, he spent his days trying to save as many lost souls as possible.

Raiford had a large school and vocational building. Ty Jordan, the education chief, had a fish pond built outside next to the school, perhaps three feet deep, and brought in a couple buckets of tropical fish to populate it. The fish reproduced so well that prisoners would scoop up guppies and swordtails to populate their own little aquariums spread throughout the prison.

Tom would go around every day preaching to anyone who’d listen. One day he pegged a guard who professed his desire to accept Christ. Tom told him he needed to be baptized. Fine. Where? The prison chaplain wouldn’t let them use the chapel baptismal font. Hey! How about that fish pond by the school? Perfect!

The water was kind of green and full of little fish, so Tom got a gallon jug of Clorox bleach to sanitize it. Worked fine—all the fish went belly-up in seconds.

A crowd gathered round as Tom and the guard climbed into Ty Jordan’s fish pond. Tom believed in full immersion baptism, just like John and the River Jordan. He said the words, dunked the guard, and everyone applauded.

It didn’t take more than a minute or so for someone to snitch them out. Ty Jordan was mightily offended that two nuts were wading in his fish pond, and all his fish had been killed. The “goon squad” appeared, handcuffed Tom and locked him up for “destruction of state property.” The newly-baptized guard, still soaking, was escorted out, chewed out by the colonel, then fired. I can’t imagine what the grounds were. Tom did no more baptisms in the fish pond. “C’est la vie.”

“Trooper” was the nickname of a wild-eyed guard who looked like a cross between Woody Allen and Charles Manson. When he was loose on the compound, he would approach prisoners and guards singly and in groups, pull out a handful of tracts, little religious booklets, and ask them questions.

“Are you a Christian? Have you been saved? Have you been washed in the blood of the Lamb? Where are you going to spend eternity? Heaven or Hell?”

These are important questions, but Trooper’s wide-open zealotry was a little too heavy for some people, and he scared many of them off. They’d see Trooper coming from one direction, and they’d head the opposite way. He was the butt of a lot of ribbing, too. He took it all good-naturedly.

One day Trooper was addressing a group of prisoners standing by the weight pile sharing his faith, when a prisoner asked him a question.

“Trooper, how can you call yourself a Christian when you’re up in that gun tower with a shotgun? I thought God said, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ True or false? Are you a hypocrite?”

Trooper thought for a moment and said, “I’ve told the colonel the very same thing. Why do you keep putting me in that gun tower? Thou shalt not kill. I wouldn’t shoot anyone.”

Hmmm… A couple of prisoners took him at his word. The next time Trooper was in the gun tower, they hit the fence. Raiford had three twelve-foot fences encircling the prison. They got over the first fence, were climbing the second fence, almost to the top, when there was a “BOOM, BOOM!” double shotgun blasts. They fell to the ground, wounded, but luckily not dead.

A month later, Trooper was back on the compound. Some prisoners approached him, and one asked, “Trooper, I thought you said God forbid you from shooting people?”

Trooper had a pained expression on his face, and answered, “You know, God doesn’t want me to lose my job!”

End of story. It takes all kinds. God bless ‘em.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Dateline: January 1, 2009


When I came to prison, the system held about 20,000 unfortunate souls, guarded and administrated by several thousand public servants. Thirty years later, the system is bursting at the seams with ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND!—count ‘em—100,000 prisoners nervously guarded and administrated by a bloated bureaucracy that has equivalently swollen by FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT! That nearly seventeen percent annual increase has outpaced the Dow Jones, Standard & Poors, and NASDAQ indexes to a current budget of over $2.5 billion a year.

Now the Tampa Tribune reports that Florida citizens must bankroll the construction of nineteen more prisons over the next five years to contain the still-burgeoning prison population. In this era of economic collapse, decreasing tax revenues, budget deficits, widespread home foreclosures, job losses and bankruptcies, something’s got to give. How can we possibly afford to imprison an even greater percentage of our citizenry? It’s simple—we can’t. We must look in a new direction.

As someone who has lived under the long arm of the law and order, lock ‘em up and throw away the key criminal justice “philosophy” of the 1970’s, it seems clear that something drastic must be done to arrest these developments.

Open your eyes, people! This isn’t working. Cut four percent here, four percent there, that sounds good, but at the end of the day all we’ve done is dig the hole deeper. And the deeper we dig this giant prison hole, the harder it will be to climb out of it.

It makes dollars and sense that a new “philosophy” of crime and punishment in Florida must be implemented before this system swells to such gargantuan size that it collapses and implodes, creating problems unknown, unexpected, and unforeseen by our current “experts.”

From inside the fences we can see the seismic waves signaling the forthcoming 9/11 corrections collapse of the twin towers of crime and punishment. Why doesn’t the public pull its collective head out of the sand and do the right thing before it is too late? Good question. Now, for some answers.

You can’t unbuild a prison. It is a fact in Florida if you build a prison they will come and fill it. It is another fact that prison construction costs are one of the biggest hidden ripoffs you’ll ever find. Someone should check and see if that Ponzi-schemer, Bernie Madoff, invested in prison construction over the past twenty years.

I live in a concrete “cell” of a hair less than sixty-seven square feet. I share that sixty-seven square feet with a push-button toilet, a sink, two steel lockers, steel double bunk beds, and a cellmate. There’s not much room to maneuver. Close quarters.

We hear that word, “infrastructure,” frequently these days. Our nation’s infrastructure is aging and crumbling, and must be replaced at a cost of trillions of dollars. Along with that, all those cheaply-constructed prisons that were hastily built to house the current population of 100,000 people are aging and crumbling, too. Forget about the nineteen new prisons they want to build. We need to worry about the ones we have now that are falling apart and the escalating repair costs they require.

You think it’s tough living in a small bathroom-sized cell with another person 24/7, wait until you’re locked inside that cell with the water pipes broken, non-functioning toilets, and no drinking water for eighteen out of the past twenty four hours, as we have done this day, January 2, 2009. This is not a rare occurrence. We went for weeks without water a few months back when they had to dig up and replace several hundred feet of cracked pipes. And it is only getting worse. There is little money available for maintaining these aging prisons.

They price these prisons by the cost per cell. I don’t have the exact figure—you bet the DOC does—but some years back I was astounded that new prison construction averaged out at $50,000 a cell. $50,000! For my sixty-seven square foot cell, that comes out to about $746 a square foot. That’s right—$746. A square foot. Where is Conrad Hilton when you need him? Where are the rare carpeting and wood paneling, the gold toilet fixtures?

Those are the old numbers. The “new” numbers talk about $100,000 per cell, almost $1500 a square foot, or $120 million for a twelve hundred man prison. How can they get away with that? How can we afford it? We can’t.

Once you build them, the problems are just beginning. Now you have to pay to keep them running in perpetuity.

What is the greatest expense item in the prison department’s budget? Not construction, not prisoners’ food, not health care, but payroll, the salaries for the guards and administrators, and they never go down.

Recently I wrote about the high cost of prison discipline, how the “costs of incarceration” are increased by the lost “gain time” resulting from bogus and undeserved disciplinary reports written by malicious and vindictive guards. Those costs could be up in the millions, but they pale when compared to the incredible bi-weekly payroll checks sent out to the thousands of corrections employees.

Do you want to save a quick million dollars? Prison rules require all prisoners to be “clean shaven,” which entails issuing two disposable razors each week to 100,000 people, or over ten million razors a year. Surely those razors cost at least ten cents apiece, or over one million dollars. Dispense with the clean shaven rule, as many states and the federal government have done, let those who want to shave buy a cheap razor from the canteen, and shave off a million dollars from the budget. Chicken feed. That’s not a drop in the bucket.

Would you rather save a bigger chunk, up in the millions of dollars in health care costs? Quit selling tobacco products in prison, and ban all smoking on prison property for staff and prisoners. Millions upon millions.

Smoking-related health costs are skyrocketing. Recent studies have shown that secondhand smoke kills a minimum of 46,000 Americans a year from heart attacks. Although state and federal laws forbid smoking inside prison buildings, including dormitories, most guards don’t even try to stop it. Sometimes I’ll walk down the hall to the water cooler and almost choke on the billowing clouds of smoke pouring out from cells. The tiny TV room is even worse. One person surreptitiously lights up and threatens the lives of two dozen others. Quit selling tobacco products and reduce medical expenses.

That is a bigger drop in the bucket. We can do better than that. How? How can we save ten percent—$250 million a year, every year, starting in a year? Reduce the prison population ten percent—10,000 prisoners—reduce the staff ten percent—close ten percent of the prisons. Impossible? Not hardly. Tough times call for extreme measures. Let me tell you how.

Prison is a revolving door. Criminals get out, criminals come back in. The actual recidivism percentages are debatable and up for grabs. Some say fifty percent get out and come back in within three years of release. Some say two-thirds. Certain crimes result in higher recidivism rates while certain others are very low. Some prisoners never get out, but grow old in the decades inside, then die. But for the last ten to twenty years of those long sentences, those aging, toothless (literally) old men cost the taxpayers $100,000 to $200,000 a year and more, depending on their medical conditions. I heard of one man whose outside hospital cost $250,000. And he’s still kicking, running up an incredible tab.

Forget about rehabilitation. There wasn’t room in the budget. They cut that out over twenty years ago. The fact is that prison is a young man’s game. I see teenagers coming to prison every week, getting younger. They are mostly uneducated, ignorant, drug-addicted, ruthless, uncaring about society, amoral and uninterested in change. We are growing bumper crops of these people, and doing little to prevent them from coming to prison, or doing their short bits of two or three years, getting out, re-offending, coming back in for two or three years, hustling in and out of that revolving door, doing life on the installment plan.

We have two classes of prisoners I propose we focus our budget-cutting attention on the young and the old, the short-timers and the long-termers. I admit I have a self-interest in this. I am a long-termer, having spent thirty-one years in prison (that’s another story), and I happen to know for a fact that if they let me out tomorrow, I would spend the rest of my days as a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen, contributing to society. I’m not the only one. There are thousands more like me, men who’ve served decades in prison, rightly or wrongly, who, if they were released tomorrow would never see the inside of a prison again. Some of these men are fifty-sixty-seventy-eighty-even ninety years old. It’s ridiculous to keep them all in prison.

Let them go. If the person is fifty years old or more, has done twenty years in prison or more, put them on the list to be released. Take the oldest 5,000 prisoners in that category, screen them, and let them go. Don’t just kick them out the front gate and leave them to the wolves, but give them a chance to get out and stay out. You can do it. Try it—you’ll like it. Reduce the prison population by 5,000 of the oldest, sickest, least likely to re-offend, and save the state close to $125 million, or more, a year.

That’s half the plan. Now for the short-timers. That’s where they usually focus their early release attention, those serving the last thirty, sixty, or ninety days in prison, kick them out a little early, save a few million. Even so, there are hardcore law-and-order types who scream when somebody suggests “early release” of a month or so, people who are determined to squeeze the last drop of blood from the turnip, no matter how much it costs. For those people I say, get over it. We have to stop nitpicking. They’re going to get out soon, anyway. Go ahead and save everyone some money.

Make a list of the 5,000 prisoners with the least time remaining on their sentences. See where the numbers fall, It might be six months, even a year. Evaluate the list, figure it out. I’m not advocating for sex offenders—put an asterisk by their names, deal with them separately. Take 5,000 of the youngest, shortest-time serving, non-violent prisoners, and let them go. Save another $100-125 million dollars this year. Add it up—we’re talking a quarter billion dollars here. Close some prisons, don’t open them up. Cut the staff. Cut the budget. Put fiscal responsibility to the forefront.

I’m not saying it will be easy. It will take work. There are many considerations, such as re-training and re-hiring all those extra prison guards into different jobs, implementing the abandoned educational and vocational programs back into the prisons so that the remaining prisoners can be prepared for law-abiding lives in society. Education and job training are the biggest bargains in crime fighting, and the first ones to be cut when money is tight. That makes no long-term sense.

In addition, we as a society must rethink our ideas on crime and poverty, work toward reducing the precursors to crime, the unemployment, widespread drug use, failed school systems, the broken-down family structures that foster child neglect and abuse, all our societal ills that guide an innocent child down a crooked path that leads to eventual imprisonment. The money we spend to keep that eighteen-year old in prison for eighteen more years could have been better invested on the front end, when there was still hope for intervention, to save the life of that child and his brothers and sisters, to prepare them for college, rather than prepare them for trial.

Let’s do something drastic. Let’s do the right thing. What do we have to lose? A quarter billion dollar debt

Friday, January 9, 2009


Dateline: January 3, 2009


I’ve gotten much positive feedback from some surprising sources on Jessica Gresko’s Associated Press article and Suzette Laboy’s video clip on the Anne Frank Prison Diary project. My friend, Libby, was surprised when she turned on her computer and saw my face on the Yahoo News site. A Google search of Anne Frank + Charles Norman turned up dozens of newspapers and web sites that picked it up.

At our prison visit a young correctional officer told Libby and me that she’d read the story on DOC Web, which I assume is the prison system’s employee web site. Several guards reacted positively to the article in the local Daytona Beach newspaper. I haven’t been pepper –sprayed, Tased, or shipped off to some distant prison near the Alabama border (knock on wood), so I suppose the DOC powers-that-be weren’t offended either.

I am thankful for some of the interesting responses from concerned citizens to the Free Charlie Now web site and the blog. I appreciate new friend, “Vox Populi” and his/her advice. Others I won’t mention, but will reply to personally.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but the widespread anger generated by Hillsborough County’s notorious state attorney, Mark Ober, continues to bubble to the top. Each week, it seems, we find out more and more about the man behind the mask. Thanks for sharing.

There have been numerous comments about the blog, “The High Cost of Prison Discipline,” and I am following that up with “How To Save The State a Quarter Billion Dollars,” my proposal to reduce the prison population and budget by ten percent, rather than building nineteen more prisons in the next five years and wasting more money we don’t have. If you could forward this blog to legislators, other Tallahassee politicians, and anyone else possibly interested in new solutions, I’d appreciate it.

In answer to “How in the world can you get internet in prison,” the answer is I can’t. I don’t have a computer. But I have dear friends “on the street,” in free society, who have computers and internet skills, and as long as I have paper, pencils, stamps, and envelopes, and The First Amendment is still in effect, my alternative voice will be heard. And thanks to the Tampa Writers’ Alliance, the PEN American Center and Jackson Taylor, The Anne Frank Center USA, and others who’ve helped me keep my works in print and available.

Hopefully 2009 will be more fruitful and less painful for all of us. I still seek freedom from wrongful imprisonment and will never quit fighting for it.