Monday, April 19, 2010




It’s not that I’ve been slacking off, returning to my prison diary three days later, but instead I’ve been trying to dig myself out of this hole in solitary confinement. If someone tosses you into a twenty-foot well, then fills it with stones and dirt until you’re buried neck deep, it’s not easy digging your way out. That’s the way it is in here. You need people “up there,” on the surface to throw you ropes (hopefully not looping the ropes around your neck) and rescue you, or you’re liable to be left at the bottom of the pit for the duration. A handful of people whose names I won’t mention have been doing just that, furiously moving the rubble of bureaucratic obstinacy and abuses of authority out of the way, trying to make a path for me to climb out. Hopefully, I’ll be freed soon. In the meantime…

Know your opponent. In a supposedly “free society,” things like this aren’t supposed to happen. One of the ways that our new country of the United States set itself apart from the oppressive “Mother England” was our Constitution and Bill of Rights, particularly the freedoms established such as Freedom of Speech. In England you spoke out at your own risk. They didn’t have freedom of speech. Say something someone in authority didn’t like and you might find yourself in lockup, like I am right now.

In the meantime, our courts have hammered out over the years the parameters of “free speech,” what it is and what it isn’t, so we’d know what is protected and what isn’t. Yelling, “FIRE!” in a crowded theater is not protected speech. There are many other examples that I don’t have the paper or ink to go into now.

Although some people don’t agree, our wise judges have ruled that there is no iron curtain separating the Constitution from the prison walls. Even prisoners, the lowest caste in our society, retain some freedoms, although often on a restricted basis. Freedom of Speech is one of them. There are only three areas of unprotected speech or communications involving prisoners, and those restrictions make sense in this environment.

First, if you write or speak out about planning an escape, as they say in New York, forget about it. You write a letter to Uncle Sid telling him to mail you a hacksaw blade and meet you outside the fence at midnight with a getaway car, they will stick you under the jail. You may not come out for awhile. Prisoners do not have the right to make escape plans, unless you are an American prisoner of war, which maintains that you have the duty to escape, evade capture, and return to your lines. That’s different.

The second area of unprotected speech in prison is the threat of riot, disruption, or insurrection. Think about Attica in 1971. They took over the prison, took hostages, and burned the place down. Why? The prison grievance procedures weren’t working, and after awhile, the prisoners got so fed up with not being able to redress their complaints they started setting fires. When Governor Nelson Rockefeller met their televised demands and appeared in person to hear their complaints, most of which seemed fairly mundane – food, medical care, visiting, and others – he asked them why didn’t they just say something before rather than do all that? They replied that they’d tried for years, but the prison authorities turned deaf ears to their grievances. Now they were listening.

You can’t advocate riots or destruction in prison, or they will mail you. You can’t stand in the recreation yard and urge everyone to engage in a sit-down strike or a hunger strike. You talk about organizing a prison union, they put you on the bus so fast your head will still be spinning when you wake up in a dungeon somewhere. That is not protected speech.

Neither is talk of criminal activities. If the mailroom trolls with their thick glasses down in their basement censorship office read your outgoing mail and you are discussing bringing in drugs, cell phones, weapons, or other illegal items, if you’re talking about bribing the warden to get a parole, or any other criminal act, so long. They got you. No freedom of speech involved in any of those areas. Don’t write Mama and threaten the life of the guard who took your contraband, either, or you’ll find yourself in a world of hurt.

The four-volume set of law books, “The Rights of Prisoners” (4th Edition, Vol. II Prisoner Writings, p. 62-68), exhaustively covers what prisoners can and cannot write about, with landmark case references. You’d think the prison system would get a set of those books and familiarize themselves with the law, rather than letting their personal prejudices and feelings guide their repressive actions. (Excuse me, they did buy a set – they’re in the law library – prisoners know the laws that the guards and officials are unaware of).

The following quotes (at 6:18 – 6:19) from this excellent work have close parallels to my own situation:

“The legal problems that an inmate’s original expression engenders depend on whether the inmate is writing primarily for a prison audience or whether instead, the author seeks a wider audience for the work. This section will consider whether inmates may be punished for their writing.”

“Without a specific factual record showing legitimate dangers that are reasonably related to an inmate writing for the outside world, they cannot be prohibited.”

“The first case involved Murmia Abu-Jamal, a journalist turned inmate, who was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer, who was approached by National Public Radio to broadcast his commentaries to a national radio audience. When police organizations protested these contacts, prison officials began to inspect all of his mail, including his legal mail, and thereafter invoked a prison rule that prevented all inmates from engaging in “business” while incarcerated. In fact, this rule had not previously been enforced against another inmate who had written a novel while in prison. Mr. Abu-Jamal sued, claiming that the rule as enforced against him violated his First Amendment right to speak and write.

The Third Circuit agreed. It found that the rule was imposed on the plaintiff “in retaliation against the content of his writing.” See Abu-Jamal v. Price, 154 F.3d 128 (3rd Cir, 1998)

“Unlike the Rison case, the court noted that here there was no evidence that the plaintiff’s writings and broadcasts ‘had strained prison resources, contributed to unrest among the inmate population, or enhanced Jamal’s status as a prisoner, resulting in danger to himself or others.’ (at 134). The court concluded that while prison officials could validly prohibit a business operation that placed a substantial burden on prison staff, it could not prevent a First Amendment activity that did not threaten corrections officials or incite the inmate population.” (154 F.3rd at 134-135).

When I sent a request form to the mail clerk who’d originally censored, “To Protect The Guilty” as it appeared in “Wordsmith 2010,” I sought the actual date the book had arrived at the mailroom, which would be the initial date when all the time and deadline calculations would begin. I received the following surprising admission: [spelling and punctuation uncorrected]:

“After receiving the book in the mailroom and reading the first few pages of the story I determined it should be looked at to see if it could come in and sent it to Mr. Hodgson. I have no way of knowing the date the book was received a we do not log incoming mail except for legal. The day it arrived does not change the content of the story [emphasis added]”

The content of the story! How similar is that to what the federal court said about Abu Jamal? “…the rule was imposed on the plaintiff ‘in retaliation against the content of his writings.’ ”

I don’t know what Abu-Jamal writings were about, but I know that mine was a humorous account of a dark subject, Ku Klux Klan prison guards and retaliation I suffered for telling the truth about what I thought of them. Sometimes you have to speak out, and that was one of them. Taking it a logical step forward, I must agree with one of my reader’s comments that the only people who might be offended by “To Protect The Guilty,” would be KKK prison guards and their sympathizers. Either way, I should not be writing this from solitary confinement as a result of it. Case closed.

Prison systems copy the tired strategies, legal or otherwise, others have tried to invoke their will on their subjects. One way to suppress the writings and words of an outspoken prisoner is to label his efforts as “running a business,” forbid it, lock him up, and throw away his pens (they took six pens from me). That has what is called “a chilling effect” on Freedom of Speech. The message—express yourself and go to lockup, lose gain time, stay in prison longer. Keep silent and maintain the status quo, stomp on the Bill of Rights.

It’s not supposed to be that way. Would someone speak out, please? I’m outnumbered.


Thursday, April 8, 2010


Dateline:  Wednesday, March 31, 2010 DAY SIXTEEN IN SOLITARY


In the midst of all the adversity I’ve been faced with the past month or so over my prison diary writings, I’d like to report two interesting and positive developments that have resulted from my literary work.

If you’ve been reading my messages since March 16, 2010, and following the censorship and confiscation issues surrounding my memoir, “To Protect The Guilty,” this will seem ironic, especially since one memoir landed my butt in disciplinary confinement.

A few days before I went to solitary, the mailroom received and delivered a copy of the “Journal Of Prisoners on Prisons,” (Volume 19, No.1, 2010 – published by the University of Ottowa Press, edited by Bell Chivigny. Included in the Journal was my 2008 PEN award-winning memoir, “Fighting the Ninja,” about AIDS in prison, with the photo I took in 1985 of “Mama Herc,” a legendary chain gang homosexual, along with powerful works by men and women prisoners nationwide.

No issues, no official complaints, no confiscation of a story about prison homosexuals and AIDS, but only a few weeks before, the “authorities” blew their tops over a memoir about Ku Klux Klan prison guards. Content-wise, the “…Ninja” memoir, to me (but what do I know? I just write the stuff that I have lived), was a much stronger, more raw, and potentially more controversial work than the more humorous KKK memoir. What’s the difference? Perhaps they learned a lesson the first time around, though I have my doubts.

Today I received a nice letter from Maureen McNeil and Cynthia L. Cooper about a book they are doing. Here’s what they said:

“March 15, 2010

Dear Participants in Anne Frank Prison Diary Project,

We are writing a book about the Prison Diary Project and would like to have your permission to include your diary. Please see the enclosed form and envelope, which must be signed and returned if your wok is to be included.

As currently planned, the book is about the remarkable journey of Anne Frank’s diary, read and replicated by contemporary inmate-writers participating in the Prison Diary Project of the Anne Frank Center in NYC since 2008. Built upon central themes in Anne Frank’s diary, we anticipate that this book will reflect on Loneliness, Hardship, Love, Loss, Confinement, Nature, Small Pleasures, Writing, New Beginnings, Self-knowledge and other topics. For you, as for Anne, diary writing became a personal travelogue. While locked inside, you dug into your inner self, learning to live in the moment and find richness in spare surroundings.

“I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart,” Anne writes at the onset of her diary excursions. Anne’s words are an enduring testament to the human spirit. This book brings her inspiration to a contemporary audience, offering a guide for all to overcome the barriers and walls they encounter through the search for personal freedom.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an award-winning journalist, playwright and author, whose books include, Mockery of Justice (Penguin), Who Said It Would Be Easy, (Arcade) and the soon-to-be released book of her play, Silence Not, A Love Story (Gihon River Press). Co-author Maureen McNeil, author of Red Stories Hook, is the Director of Education at the Anne Frank Center.

The book is a work in progress, so it may take awhile to complete, but a percentage of the proceeds will go to the Anne Frank Center to help with the upkeep [of] the Prison Writing Project and its archives.

Thank you for your help in making this book possible. We look forward to receiving your signed release form.



Maureen McNeil

Cynthia Cooper”

I hope they choose something other than my recollections of the KKK in prison!

The Anne Frank Prison Diary Project has spurred a ton of literary work from me the past almost two years, and I am grateful to the folks at the Anne Frank Center USA for their encouragement and support. It is a very worthy project to which I hope to continue to contribute. Of course, I would prefer to do that in freedom.

Two memoirs, two publications, two far different results. How can that be explained? I can’t.


Saturday, April 3, 2010


Dateline: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 DAY FIFTEEN IN SOLITARY


Today is Passover. In a few days we’ll celebrate Good Friday followed by Easter Sunday. I take that back—you may be celebrating Holy Week, but there is no celebrating in “disciplinary confinement.” We are the forgotten ones. Today, being Passover, seems fitting, since we have definitely been “passed over” by those charged with our care, custody, and control. Yesterday, the prison chaplain made his obligatory rounds through “the hole,” passing by us so fast that for a moment I flashed back to the Vancouver Olympics, watching the speed skater, Apolo Ohno, zoom past the finish line for the gold.

In a few minutes I’d like to tell you about a memorable Easter experience in prison, in another time and place, but first I must comment on my appeal of this egregiously retaliatory “disciplinary report” that resulted in my letters from solitary the past fifteen days.

When I first learned on February 22, 2010, that mailroom clerk, Ms. T. Gronik, had intercepted, read, and arbitrarily decided on January 28, 2010, that my memoir, “To Protect The Guilty,” published in the anthology, “Wordsmith 2010,” was a “threat to security,” I put aside the crucial legal research I was doing on my criminal case and focused on the law pertaining to mail, censorship, prison writings, the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and other applicable laws. Little did I know that the content of my story about my factual experiences with retaliatory Ku Klux Klan prison guards many years before at an unnamed prison would trigger reprisals by prison higher-ups in 2010.

I soon realized that like jungle predators they had been “lying in wait” (operative word: lying, in verb form) for an opportunity to get even with me, to teach me a lesson for the contents of my other writings, specifically formal written grievances seeking redress of wrongs committed by them in their heavy-handed misapplications of state laws and rules. Kill the messenger. Ms. Gronik’s actions gave them the opportunity to slam me and silence my protected writings on two fronts: to punish me for telling the public about another one of the prison system’s “dirty little secrets,” rampant racism and tension among many prison staff (not an isolated problem), and to hinder, intimidate, and otherwise retaliate against me for bringing up their mishandling and abuses of their absolute discretion over our lives in formal complaints. In their minds, the state laws and rules don’t apply to them, and Heaven help anyone who calls them on it.

Because they screwed up the initial paperwork (it is still screwed up), requiring them to rewrite the D.R., I had more time than usual to research the law on the First Amendment and Freedom of Speech. What I found is that there is a huge body of law, much of it decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, that protects prisoners’ rights regarding mail, correspondence, permissible reading materials, and their own creative works. I also found that everything the “authorities” did in this instance was not only dead wrong, but violative of a plethora of state and federal laws, so much so that the first question I had to ask myself was, “where do I start?” Two quotes that apply:

“A prisoner’s allegation of being punished in response to the exercise of First Amendment rights to free speech and redress the government states a claim. An inmate who proves that he was retaliated against for filing an administrative grievance establishes a violation of his First Amendment rights.” (See Wildberger v. Bracknell, 869 F.2d 1467, 1467-68 (11th circ.1989)


“The gist of a retaliation claim is that a prisoner is penalized for exercising the right of free speech.” (Mitchell v. Farcass, 112 F 3rd 1483, 1490 (11th cir.1997), quoting Thomas v. Evans, 880 F.2d 1235, 1242 (11th cir.1989)

One of the landmark cases, Procunier v. Martinez, (416 U.S. 396, 1974), offers a tremendous lode of wisdom from the U.S. Supreme Court. One brief quote is on direct point for what the authorities at this prison did concerning, “To Protect The Guilty,” and sounds like it was written for them: “These regulations fairly invited prison officials and employees to apply their own personal prejudices and opinions as standards for prison mail censorship.’ (416 U.S. 415)

Over the years, the courts have let the prison systems nationwide get away with many violations of law, justifying their inactions at times by saying that since running a prison is so challenging, the courts must allow administrators “considerable deference” and latitude in how they do their jobs; however, another landmark case sums up so accurately the situation I am dealing with that I want to close this part of my letter with a revealing quotation: “The ‘considerable deference’ to prison officials does not apply to prison officials who are so inexperienced and unaware of constitutional rights and law that they allow their personal prejudices and feelings to override existing regulations, in violation of well-settled law…Prison regulation which impinges on inmates’ constitutional rights cannot be sustained as ‘reasonably related’ to legitimate penological interest, where logical connection between regulation and asserted goal is so remote as to render policy arbitrary or irrational, or where goal is not legitimate and neutral one.” (See Turner v. Safly, 482 U.S. 78,89,107,s.ct.2254, (1987).

What is even more amazing is that the rule I was sent to solitary confinement for allegedly violating does not even exist! If you have your computer or volumes of the Florida Administrative Code handy, which contains “Chapter 33,” the rules governing much of the Department of Corrections, look up Chapter 33-201.101, (9) (12) and (13). Look hard! Can’t find it? I couldn’t either. It is not there. It does not exist. But there it is, plain as day, on assistant warden Angela Gordon’s D.R. statement of facts, “a direct violation…as stated in Chapter 33-201.101, (9) (12) & (13).” The law is clear. The D.R. is defective and void. Yet here I am.

Back to Easter celebrations in times past.

The prison system experienced a veritable renaissance in the theory and practice of how to run a prison fairly and smoothly in the mid-1980’s. This enlightened period came about when mature, responsible prisoners worked together with experienced and knowledgeable wardens to improve the overall prison conditions, giving the prisoners the chance to show they deserved more privileges. The Easter Sunrise Service at Zephyrhills C.I. in 1986 serves as an excellent example of what could be accomplished by everyone working together for a common goal.

At four a.m. a work crew of prisoners began taking all the folding chairs from the building and setting them up in a large paved area by the chapel, at the front of the prison. A wooden stage had been set up, and a large wooden cross built by prisoners was erected behind the stage.

At five a.m. prisoners’ visitors from the outside, families and friends, began entering the visiting park, where coffee urns, orange juice, and milk for the kids were ready and waiting. The chow hall bakers made cinnamon rolls and snacks for the early risers. Jaycee members handed out carnation corsages to the women and girls.

After check-in and processing, over one hundred visitors joined two hundred fifty prisoners outside, within the prison, for the Easter Sunrise Service.

At five-forty-five a.m., an outside church choir joined with the prison choir and band to sing several hymns. An outside minister opened with a prayer. As the sun rose to the east, State Senator john Grant, a devout Christian and attorney from Tampa, gave a moving and enlightening sermon concerning the trial and execution of Jesus from a legal point of view. That got everyone’s attention.

In light of our own laws and procedures for accusing, trying, convicting, and executing a condemned man, Senator Grant went step-by-step through the entire process endured by Jesus, and showed how many legal violations and errors occurred. In spite of all that, Jesus never protested, but let it continue on. An innocent man was tried, convicted, and executed based on false evidence and false witnesses. I could identify with that. It gave us all a lot to think about, in God’s plan.

After a few more songs, we had an Easter egg hunt. It wasn’t easy. I wrote the memos weeks before, made all the arrangements, got all the permissions from the top dogs, but on Good Friday, I got called up front. The warden and his subordinates had the schedule and memos I’d produced spread out on a table, seriously contemplating them. He spoke.

“Norman, you’ve done an excellent job putting all this together, but we have one major concern.”

“Let me guess, sir, the Easter egg hunt.”
“That’s right. It’s never been done before. How many children do you expect?”

“Between twenty and fifty. We have enough baskets and eggs to cover more, if necessary.” (Actually, twenty-nine children participated).

“Do you know how many child molesters we have at Zephyrhills, Norman?”

“Quite a few.”

“That’s right. And we can’t afford to have one of them harm a child. I’d lose my job. How are you going to deal with that? We don’t have enough staff to isolate and watch all the perverts.”

“We’ve got that handled, sir. You don’t have to worry about it.”

“You have? How?”

“We’ve already identified every Chester the Molester, we’ve talked to them, and told them we will have a line set up that they can’t cross. They can’t come within a hundred feet of the area marked off for the Easter egg hunt, or they will suffer serious consequences.”

“How are you going to enforce it?”

“We have our own security crew of volunteers, a dozen large men, convicted murderers and armed robbers, no sex charges, who have pledged to guard those children with their lives. No perverts will be in the vicinity.”

The warden broke out laughing. “Murderers and robbers are gong to guard against the child molesters. That’s brilliant. The lieutenant here will be on duty Sunday, so get with him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Norman, I’m going to stand way back out of the way. If you need any assistance, give me a wave.” The warden had one more question. “I’ve been looking over these work assignment lists. You’ve got over eighty inmates working on this project in their off-duty time for weeks, and they’ll be up at four a.m. working their butts off Sunday morning. I have a hard time getting anyone to work around here. We have to threaten them with lockup to get cigarette butts picked up. You have crews picking up trash and cigarette butts all weekend, to make the place look good. How do you get so many men to work voluntarily when I can’t?”

“Don’t you know, sir? That’s why they call it, ‘organized crime.’ ”

We didn’t need any assistance from security. Everything went like clockwork. A blessed time was had by all. We even gave the molesters the leftover cinnamon rolls after the visitors returned to the visiting park.

That will never happen again in prison. Where once our families could attend prison church services with us, thereby strengthening our bonds, in their infinite wisdom, all those programs have been shut down. Meanwhile, I pray you have a nice Easter celebration of your own. I’ll do the best I can.

A Note: One thing about being in lockup is that it gives me time to catch up on my Bible studies. It is easy to get behind. If you have trouble with that, too, let me recommend an excellent free publication by Rev. Charles Stanley, “In Touch” Magazine. Besides inspirational stories, it has a section that will help you read the Bible in a year, with a daily calendar and lists of verses to read each day of the month, an easy task, with explanations of the reading.

Go to to subscribe. Tell them Charlie sent you.