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?”


1 comment:

Vox Populi said...

Good news ! Now when you search your name on the www this sarasota herald article appears which pops up Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Saturday, November 28, 1998

JAMES J. KILPATRICK/Pardon Charlie Norman

A rare plea for a Florida convict

Over the past 50 years, as a newspaper editor and columnist, I have urged clemency for only three prisoners in state institutions. Today will make it four.

My plea is to Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida. He has the power to free Charlie Norman, No. 881834 at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City. A better case for executive clemency would be hard to find.

I cannot recall how I became caught up in Charlie’s case. The mail annually brings a score of poignant letters from prison inmates seeking a columnist’s support. There must have been something about a letter from Charlie that bespoke an unusual level of honesty and intelligence. Three years ago, we struck up a lively correspondence.

That's very VERY good because tons more people will be likely to read that. Your buddy mark ober sent another of his emissaries out after my family today.
So, again, you're welcome. Ferret out whatever it is i told you that has him so upset. Go over every word until you figure it out. You're a very smart man. He seems to be afraid of smart people. Like most people afraid for their position he surrounds himself with idiots. It's a top-down thang. A smart man surrounds himself with SMARTER MEN or the best he can find. Not in Mark's case.
Each of his emissaries say, 'you must appear in person.' I have every bit of it on video. It's awesome.