Sunday, November 22, 2009


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.


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