Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Dateline December 27, 2011

One of the drawbacks of long-term imprisonment is the social exile and isolation. Being shipped off in crowded, creaky buses to distant, anonymous Florida prison backwaters far from family and friends causes one to identify with the despair of the European Jews shipped away in cattle trains to Polish concentration camps and unknown fates in the Holocaust. Limited access to hometown news and news in general contributes to the feelings of loss, separation and despair. Few people get newspapers. I can’t afford them.

For the past several weeks, some of those sensations have been assuaged. A fellow prisoner with the finances to afford a daily newspaper mailed into the prison shares the Gainesville Sun with me, a few days late, which is how I learned of the death of Dr. Laura Parado, a psychiatrist and prison original, and one of the most delightful and intriguing people I’ve met during my incarceration. She died at age 80 in Gainesville, Florida.

Over thirty-one years ago, in 1980, as I began serving this fresh life sentence, I participated in and then joined the GOLAB Program at Union Correctional Institution, “The Rock,” Raiford, arguably the most effective and life-changing prison program before or since. The GOLAB Program, “Growth Orientation Laboratory, Inc.,” was a private corporation with a contract from the Department of Corrections to provide prisoner self-help and self-improvement programs in Florida prisons.

“GOLAB” was conceived when DOC Secretary Louis Wainwright, Assistant Secretary Ron Jones, and Florida Parole Commission Chairman Anabel Mitchell participated in a week-long executive management training program sponsored by Jerome Barnum at the Key Biscayne Hotel in Miami. Retired U. S. Navy Captain Martin J. “Lucky” Stack was their group facilitator, leading them through a series of structured exercises designed to build the confidence, self-esteem, and self-awareness of corporate CEO”s and managers, sending them back to their companies and government agencies more capable of understanding themselves and others. The program had such life-changing effects on the three state officials that during a brainstorming session (which they learned to do that week), they had a “Eureka” moment. If this self-awareness program has such a positive effect on competent, accomplished business and government executives, what would happen if prisoners, who could never afford the hefty fee or ever hope to attend executive training seminars, had the opportunity to participate in such a program? The seeds of GOLAB were planted and quickly grew to fruition.

“Lucky” Stack left Jerome Barnum, formed a corporation, obtained a state contract to provide a prisoner self-help program, and GOLAB was born. Its trial by fire began quickly. The first class was held at Florida State Prison (FSP) in Starke, Florida’s worst prison, home of Death Row, the electric chair, “Old Sparky,” and 1198 of the most desperate and dangerous prisoners, the end of the line. If GOLAB worked at FSP, it would work anywhere.

“Lucky” Stack led the first class, in December, 1975, and the results were amazing. Jack “Murf the Surf” Murphy signed up for that first class, and he and several others men who completed the class became facilitators and instructors in the classes that followed.

The point of the GOLAB was “peer-to-peer facilitation,” prisoners helping prisoners, without “free people” involved, something mandated today by the Florida Legislature in the growing “faith-based initiative,” but highly-controversial and contested when first proposed by Lucky Stack at FSP.

“You are going to allow inmates to be alone in a classroom with other inmates, with no teachers or guards watching them?” No way would that work, they said. Prisoners couldn’t be trusted, they were always up to something, and no telling what would go wrong. Prisoners would not accept other prisoners as teachers or class leaders. No good would come of it, the argument went.

They were wrong. Perhaps the original incentive for some prisoners was to get out of their locked-down solitary cells for a few hours a day to associate with other prisoners, but the results couldn’t be denied. As more and more of the most dangerous, violent prisoners completed the eight-day GOLAB Basic Workshop, FSP’s violence level against prisoners and guards fell. Rather than fighting, stabbing, and killing each other, the prisoners began talking more to solve their conflicts and problems. And for prison officials who had to deal with the highest murder rate in Florida, reducing violence got their attention. Soon, they expanded the GOLAB Program across the New River to Union C.I., Florida’s oldest and largest prison, with 2600 equally desperate, violent men with little hope for salvation.

It turned out that serious, dedicated prisoners determined to improve themselves and assist their fellows in gaining insight and self-awareness of who they were, how they came to be where they were, and how to become better people in the worst environment imaginable were far more successful in achieving life-changing, palpable results than the most accomplished “professionals.” The con games and manipulation that prisoners tried to run on therapists and psychologists in their mandated groups didn’t work on experienced, jaded prisoners who’d seen and done it all. The prisoner group leaders and participants saw through the facades and masks, demanding truthfulness, honesty and self-revelation, decidedly foreign concepts and attributes in a system built on falsehood and injustice. For the first time in many of the men’s lives, they had to hold up a mirror to their true selves, and make decisions as to what kind of person they wanted to be from here on out.

Enter Dr. Laura Parado, head psychiatrist, a petite Filipina in her late forties, in charge of the prison’s psychology department and all its programs. It took me awhile, in a roundabout way, to get back to my subject, but in order to appreciate who she was and the role she played in prison, and with the GOLAB, I needed to put that time and place in perspective.

I first met Dr. Parado one day in 1980 when she led a group of “professionals,” newly-hired psychologists filled with trepidation at walking the open grounds of a maximum security prison populated with droves of prisoners passing by and gawking at them hungrily, to the GOLAB classroom complex in “C” Area, of the Southwest Unit of Union C.I. We had a class in session, but we welcomed the opportunity to introduce ourselves to people who might one day be making decisions whether some of us were psychologically fit for freedom.

In her charming, Filipino-accented voice, Dr. Parado said, “I don’t know what happens down here in this GOLAB. All I know is, it works. I tell people I can do nothing with, to sign up for GOLAB, before I give up on them. And when they come out, they are different. It is a good program. I wish we had their results.”

She won me over the day we met. Every month or so she would lead a new group to our classroom and sing the praises of GOLAB,and frequently prisoners would show up at my office with a referral from Dr. Parado to sign up. We took them all.

As an aspiring writer, I was always writing down ideas in my journals for essays, short stories and books that I wanted to write based on my experiences, or things other people told me. And so it was with this life sentence hanging over my head.

Someone once said that facing the hangman tends to sharpen one’s senses. The same holds true when one is at the beginning of a life sentence, with little chance of early release. I had to confront my mortality. Would I give up, or fight to live and survive? In GOLAB I met men who had served ten, twenty, or thirty years imprisonment, for better or mostly worse, and I listened to their stories of travails, loss, and survival. I decided that I would emulate their determination and do my best not just to survive, but to constantly improve myself and become a better person. The GOLAB experience equipped me with the tools I needed to do just that.

Considering “life in prison,” what it meant to a mortal man, I mused about a story idea of a person who was immortal, who would not die, but was trapped in a life sentence in a prison he could not escape from, what would become of him. It would be one thing for someone to serve thirty or forty years in prison and not appreciably age, but to spend fifty, sixty, seventy or more years in the same prison, as the men you came in with aged, withered and died, and you didn’t change, would present an entirely different problem. How would that immortal being deal with the issues? How would that person’s psychology develop and change as he lived decades longer than anyone else, through all the societal and world changes, passing eighty, ninety, or one hundred years, and more, mentally, but physically being a much younger man?

My idea coalesced, and my protagonist became a scientist in the nineteenth century who discovered the secret to eternal life, who made no permanent attachments over the next century, to avoid discovery, but then one day found himself imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, trapped in prison, with no way out. Would he be a grumpy, cantankerous old man in a younger man’s body, a person with nineteenth century mentality stranded in a future world, alien to all he knew, or would he perhaps go insane from the stress and futility? I wondered how to develop such a character, and where I could find the answers. The light bulb in my mind lit up. Dr. Parado, of course! I could ask her.

The next time she brought a tour group to GOLAB, I asked her if I could make an appointment to talk to her. I told her I was working on a story idea with psychological implications, and I would appreciate it if she would give me the benefit of her insight as a psychiatrist, off the record.

“Most certainly,” she said. “Come to my office first thing in the morning.”

I did.

The Union C.I. prison hospital was a throw back to a different time, a two-story building with concrete walls as solid and foreboding as the neighboring “Main Housing Unit,” built decades earlier, its fortress-like construction looking like it could withstand cannon fire and a siege of Assyrians. For many years the U.C.I. hospital was the only hospital in Union County, Florida’s smallest county and one of its poorest. In years past the prison hospital was the only place available for emergencies, and many guards and their families availed themselves of treatment there. Richard Dugger, the warden of FSP at one time and later Secretary of the Department of Corrections under Governor Bob Martinez, considered it a badge of honor that he was born in the prison hospital. Cradle to grave, state-raised.

Dr. Parado’s office was deep inside the hospital, and I had to ask directions a couple of times to find it. She welcomed me, continued to read the file before her, then closed it and smiled. She’d been reading my file, she said, curious about me, and told me that I appeared to be a well-balanced young man, based upon the tests I’d taken when I entered prison at the Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center. What did I want to discuss with her, she asked?

I told her that I was kicking around an idea for a book I’d like to write, and explained the plot to her, just like I explained it to you a page or so back, about the immortal person trapped in a prison with a life sentence, what would be the psychological implications? Since she was a trained psychiatrist, perhaps she would share her insights.

Dr. Parado lowered her reading glasses from her nose and peered over them, studying me, saying nothing. Then she said, very slowly, deliberately. “I have just one question, Charles.”

“Of course.”

She leaned forward over her desk and asked very seriously, “Just how old ¬are you, really?”

I thought for a moment, then laughed. “No, Dr. Parado, you have the wrong idea,” I said. “This is fiction, a product of my imagination. I just made it up. This is not about me. I’m thirty-one.”

“Of course you are,” she said, smirking. She stood. “It was very interesting talking with you. I must think about this. Please come back any time. My door is always open.”

I left. In the months and years that followed, until I left Raiford in 1983 to open a new GOLAB Program at Zephryhills C. I., I saw Dr. Parado several more times when she came again to our classroom with a group, or if I met her in passing on the sidewalk, but I never returned to her office in the prison hospital. She would always greet me like an old friend or colleague, her face lighting up, and she would reach up and pat my shoulder or squeeze my arm. She would give me a warm introduction to the groups, expound on the miracles worked in “that GOLAB,” but we never mentioned my book idea again. I shelved the book idea of how an immortal man would survive a life sentence, and focused instead on how a mortal man ─ myself ─ would survive. I learned to set and achieve long-term goals for self-improvement, taught the principles to over two thousand other men, and developed skills that would serve me for the rest of my life. I never really knew if Dr. Parado actually thought my immortal prisoner was a thinly-veiled reference to myself, or she was just putting me on, playing a head game, using her intellect to match wits with me in some way. It didn’t matter. She was a fascinating, intriguing lady who loved her work with prisoners and genuinely wanted to help them navigate and emerge from the maze of madness many of them found themselves lost inside.

Dr. Laura Parado was survived by children and grandchildren. She was loved. And if she could work in prison for over thirty years and survive the experience, so could I. My condolences to her family. She was quite a person, and I’ll never forget her.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011


DATELINE: Dec. 21, 2011

I was the first person called to the visiting park last Saturday when my dear friend, Libby, drove across Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and then south to the Wakulla Annex to spend a few hours with me.

The visiting area was still uncrowded at nine AM. A brightly-decorated Christmas tree drew my eyes to the far corner. The prison Christmas season had officially begun, in one small way, weeks later than the commercial hoopla in “free America.”

Since Wakulla Annex began the conversion to a “faith- and character- based” correctional institution a few months ago, the weekend visiting population has steadily increased. There were times in the past year that only ten to fifteen prisoners were in the visiting park at the Noon count, but more recently it has been crowded with sixty to ninety or so visitors coming in to see thirty prisoners. On Thanksgiving Day some people waited over one and a half hours to buy sandwiches from the canteen, then lined up for an hour to heat their purchases in the two anemic microwave ovens.

That may sound like a crowd, but out of 1500 prisoners in this camp, thirty men receiving visits comprises only two per cent of the prison population. Ninety-eight per cent of the prisoners do not receive visits from family or friends, and that is a shame. That fact should worry “society.”

Why? Because the vast majority of the 100,000 Florida prisoners will leave prison one day, and without a support group of family and friends to help them adjust to freedom, to have a place to stay, to help find a job, to lead a law-abiding life, many of those released will be rootless, unemployed, and on the fast-track back to prison after they return to a life of crime. Those are the Lost Boys.

Holidays are hard times in prison. No one is immune! We watch the news clips of families shopping in the malls, spending money, smiling, laughing, carrying i-Pads, i-Phones and plasma TV’s to their brand new SUV’s, juxtaposed with scenes of homeless families living in their junk cars, ragamuffin children with tousled hair carrying canned goods from the food bank or waiting in a long line for a tray at the church soup kitchen, and wonder if our own families and children are in similar lines.

Many do not know. Their telephones were cut off months ago. They cannot expect to receive any money from home when their families have already lost the foreclosure struggle. The jobs dried up and the unemployment ran out. The poor feel like political pawns in the health care and prescription drug battle being waged in Washington. For many men the joy of Christmas is buried beneath worries for their loved ones’ predicaments. Such situations make for short tempers and harsh words spoken in frustration, leading to violence.

There are prisoners with money and support from home, the “haves,” but times are so hard that most keep their money and canteen food purchases to themselves, resulting in the “have-nots” staring enviously at better-off prisoners sharing with other prisoners with money. The ones whose families sacrifice to send their loved ones something hold tight to what they have, fearing when that runs out, there will be no more. I decided to try to do something about it.

There is nothing new under the sun, and the same holds true in prison. Over ten years ago, at a very tough prison, we had a similar situation. The haves and the have-nots were sharply divided, and there was no Christmas spirit. The prison certainly had no plans to make things better. If anything happened, it was up to us to put it together.

We put together a Christmas party. Those who were blessed with money pledged to chip in for enough food to feed everyone in our housing unit. Even the greediest crabs contributed a few dollars a-piece. Fixing up a large quantity of Ramen noodles, adding cheese squeezers, chopped up beef and cheese sticks and other canteen items, served with saltines and Ritz crackers, sharing with everyone, it wasn’t a feast, but the closest we’d get to one where we were.

The guards freaked when we began singing Christmas carols. They watched from their glass booth, but didn’t intervene, and became even more puzzled when sixty men stood in a large circle holding hands and reciting the Lord’s prayer. Someone read from the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story, and a few men said prayers. Everyone was welcomed, and in that circle stood a couple of Jewish prisoners and several Muslims. Our only avowed atheist sat on a bench during the prayers, but he was seen saying the words to “Silent Night” when we sang the Christmas carols.

That little Christmas party changed the atmosphere in our unit. Men were friendlier. More “haves” shared what they had with the “have-nots.” One man said he never realized how good giving things away could make you feel. The guards looked at us differently, too, a grudging respect.

If it worked then, it could work now. A couple weeks ago, I approached a few better-off prisoners and asked them to participate in a Christmas party. I told them it would cost them some money. Everyone agreed instantly. Great idea. They went around to their friends and recruited them. Soon, over half the eighty-plus prisoners in this unit had signed on pledging to chip in what they could to the group party. Others volunteered to form the core of our Christmas carolers, to lead the rest in Christmas songs for a week ahead of time, to seed the Christmas spirit. The Muslims agreed to contribute food, too. We are all People of the Book, they say. We respect their beliefs, and they respect ours.

Libby copied twenty-four of the best-known Christmas songs and mailed them to me, so we’d have the words and music. I gave a set to our choir leader, and that set off a medley of impromptu Christmas caroling.

“I like this one.”

“Let’s sing this one.”

“This is my favorite.”

“Man, it’s been so long.”

I am not immune to the power of Christmas songs. Each year I try to go to at least a couple of chapel Christmas programs just for the chance to sing those old favorites in a group. There is a healing effect. But intermingled with that healing effect can come some emotional pain as the significance of our separation from family and loved ones sinks in. So it was for me with “Silver Bells,” for some reason.

“Silver bells, silver bells…it’s Christmas time in the city. Ring-a-ling, hear them ring…soon it will be Christmas Day."

Singing those first two verses to myself triggered an upwelling of emotion as it hit me again, what I had lost as I approached my thirty-fourth Christmas in prison, far from home.

“City sidewalks, busy sidewalks…dressed in holiday style. In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas…children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile…and on every street corner you’ll hear...

Silver bells, silver bells…It’s Christmas time in the city. Ring-a-ling, hear them ring…soon it will be Christmas Day.”

For some reason my sinuses became severely congested. No, those weren’t tears. It was just an allergy. Whatever it was, I had to blow my nose and wipe my eyes. The images evoked by those simple words created a longing for a regular life “out there,” from whence I am banished and exiled, where bright lights and decorations are everywhere, even with the economy, and families come together to celebrate Christ’s birth despite the commercialization. We are denied that.

When you join with family and friends to exchange gifts, and sit down to share your turkey, ham, or Christmas goose with loved ones, we’ll be having our own celebration in prison. Our noodles and cheese on saltines, and peanut butter squeezed onto cookies may not be as traditional and delectable as the food you get at Publix, but it will be much-appreciated by those who share it with their less-fortunate brethren. Isn’t that some part of what Christmas is all about?

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you!

We wish for you to be surrounded by those you love,

not only at Christmas, but all year.

With love,

Charlie and Libby

Saturday, November 26, 2011



Attorney William J. Sheppard and my friend, Jack Murphy, represented me at the parole hearing and will return to again lobby for my release at the December 14, 2011, re-hearing. Murf’s words were so powerful that I’ve been asked to make them available to our readers. He has previously stated that “If Charlie Norman can’t get a parole, NOBODY can.”

Thanks, Jack, for the endorsement.


“Mr. Sheppard: I would yield to Jack Murphy, who is here on behalf of Charlie Norman.

Mr. Murphy: Good morning. I was there when Charlie Norman drove up to Raiford. I was the inmate coordinator of the very first human behavior program, college accredited program in the state, a program called the Growth Orientation Laboratory, the GOLAB.

Charlie went through that program, and because of his intelligence, his background, his education and his participation, we put him on staff. This is in the ‘70’s. He continues in programs to this day, not as a participant, but as a major, major force in impacting and changing men’s lives in prison. He was sent from Raiford to Zephyrhills to start the program down there.

Everywhere he has gone, he has gone, not as a participant, not as just a moderator, but as a leader in the programs in a system that is waving the re-entry flag, the program flag. I can think of no one in the entire history of this prison system that has had the influence, the impact and the passion to help change people’s lives as Charlie has.

Okay. He gets in trouble for writing some articles that receive standing ovations in New York, and in Chicago, and in Denver, at these international writers’ conventions. And he writes, as Attorney Sheppard said, about the system. No DR. There’s no contraband. There’s no violence. There’s no weapons. It’s something that he wrote.

If the man who wrote 'Cool Hand Luke'  had put that stuff in the mail, he would probably get a DR for writing that award-winning movie then.

Charlie voices the conversation and the attitude that you hear every single day in prisons. They have an animosity towards the parole board, towards the system, towards everything, but that’s just, that’s just talk, and all that is, is talk. You talk about society, a safeness of society.

And Mr. Scriven, you can remember this, because I came before you, years ago, seven out of the nine people voted for me. You didn’t vote for me, and I understand why. A guy with my kind of background isn’t supposed to get a whole lot of favor.

Recently, another official said, 'Oh, Murphy, you got lucky.' After 19 years in prison with a double life sentence, I got lucky. But there were people who believed in me, people who went to bat for me.

And the thing is, I’ve been working with the largest prison ministry in the entire world for the last 24 years. I’ve been in over 2,500 prisons. I spoke in Chicago Saturday at a large convention, because people believed in me and went to bat for me. And I’m going to bat for Charlie Norman, because I know that sitting in the room over here are some men coming in here for other cases that are products. We’re the products of programs. And it’s men like Charlie Norman who make these programs work.

And people say, well, 'We’re afraid of that guy.' Well, he’s not going back to Hillsborough. They didn’t let me back to Miami or Dade County for years, and years, and years. The county doesn’t have to worry about him going back there.

I’m talking about a man with an incredible ability to impact lives in a positive way. The few things that he wrote that caused a little bit of stir and all don’t compare to the volumes that he has written that have passion in them, that clearly illustrate what it’s like living behind bars in prison in this situation.

And as I wrote to Lawton Chiles, as I wrote to Jeb Bush, as I wrote, I’ve worked in prisons, and I’ve met many, many people that also, 'I’m innocent, I’m innocent,' and I just, I don’t even bother with it. But I was there with Pitts and Lee, I was there with James Richardson, who were innocent.

I saw Jesse Tafero die in the electric chair, who was innocent, because I know the man who killed the officer. And I was there with Daniel Grant, who spent 11 years on death row until a dying police officer said, 'I’m not going to the grave with this on my conscience.' He said, 'That man is totally innocent.'

I know that things happen in our system that we’re not proud of and that they’re uncomfortable for us.

And this situation with Charlie Norman, Charlie Norman is a safe, safe prospect for consideration, and I just pray that you would look at what he’s done, and the letters Senator Grant and so many others that have looked at the case are on the same train there. And I just appreciate the chance to go to bat for him. But he’s welcome in my home, and I’ll do everything that I can to help in his transition, as I have for many, many other people that you’ve let out that none of them have come back. They’ve all turned the corner, and they’re products of the prison. Charlie’s not a product. He’s a teacher and an innovator of the programs.

Ms. Pate: Thank you, Mr. Murphy.

Mr. Murphy: Yes, ma'am."

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Dateline: November 20, 2011

The past couple of weeks have been momentous, considering the strides toward freedom we have made. The October 26th parole hearing resulted in a “no decision,” and we will be going back for a new hearing on December 14th. Same rules apply – we need prayers and positive thoughts to give us the edge over the forces of evil. I am grateful for all the support in the past, and hope it will continue.

Since we started the “Free Charlie Norman Now” blog over 3 ½ years ago, well over one hundred blogs have been read by thousands of people in over fifty countries. The power of the Internet is amazing, and I thank Professor Chip Brantley in the Department of Journalism at the University of Alabama, for opening that door for me. Now we are trying to figure out how to get the 55-page “Life In Prison – A Photo Exhibit,” online and available. Chip, can you help with that?

The “Google Age” has resulted in some surprises and reconnections, most notably with my college friends, Sombat and Keila Tasanaprasert, of Bangkok, Thailand, who visited with me in July. They recently went through a severe flood in their country. Some people who googled my name thought I was dead, but it wasn’t me. It was the “Charlie Norman” who was a famous Swedish composer and died in his seventies. Also, courtesy of Google, there was another Charles Norman who was on “The Bounty, “ as in, Captain Bligh and the mutiny, but that wasn’t me, either. He’s been dead a couple hundred years. Interesting story, though.

My Thonotosassa Elementary schoolmate, Ruth May, also located me, alive and well, which was a great encouragement – it’s a good feeling to be remembered. The Exums, Bonnie and Sharron, surfaced a couple of times, but disappeared again. I never did hear from David Hutto, Kathy Sumner, or any others from school days fifty years ago.

My best man, Steve (Stephen John) Wyman and his brother, Bruce Wyman, seem to have vanished from view. Steve, if you’re googling yourself, click on the “Contact Us” button, and give Libby your information.

Same goes for David Tal-Mason, formerly of the RITE Program at Sumter C.I. and now a free man. David sent a nice message, but no contact information. David, if you read this, please reconnect. We need to talk.

Some sad news for our friend and investigator, Dick Rivett, who has been dealing with personal tragedies for over a year. Most recently, he suffered the death of his beloved wife, Sally Ann. Our prayers are with you, Dick. Be strong in your faith, old friend.

For those who just happened upon this blog, we’d like to hear your comments and suggestions. “Contact Us,” and Libby will add your e-mail address to our list for updates. The messages in the electronic bottle float along in cyberspace – no telling where they end up.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Oct. 30, 2011

Dear Editor of the St. Pete Times:

After having been the target of Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober’s false accusations for over thirty years, I offer the following observations concerning his latest rants to the Florida Parole Commission on October 26, 2011 [“Hillsborough state attorney Mark Ober fears for his safety if inmate gets parole” ]:

The only person who ever threatened to kill anyone was Mark Ober, when he threatened to have me electrocuted if I did not accept his plea bargains during my 1980 trial for a murder I did not commit. I refused his deals and was found guilty on the perjured testimony of convicted felons who received immunity from Ober. The actual killer walked free.

When Mark first voiced his fearful, “Charlie hates my guts. If he ever gets out, he will kill me,” mantra, I wrote him a letter on September 11, 1991, stating that nothing could be further from the truth, that I had forgiven him years earlier, and bore no animosity toward him whatsoever. Mark’s response to one of his prison clients who was also a friend of mine was that although he did not share my Christian beliefs, he felt that I was sincere, and he would not oppose my efforts at release.

What a difference an election makes!

For the record: No, Mark, I do not want to harm you, I’ve never said that, not even joking, and you shouldn’t stake your reputation on the false statements of con men. In fact, Episcopal priest, Father Bob Anderson, retired, of DeLand, can vouch that for many years, I’ve asked him to pray for my prosecutor and those who hate me.

My suggestion to Mark Ober is that he get right with God, clear his conscience, make amends to those he’s harmed, and give up the alcohol that is obviously killing him. He faces a much greater threat from his own hand than he ever did or will from me. One can’t simultaneously live in irrational fear and live a productive life.

Charles P. Norman
Wakulla Correctional Institution Annex
110 Melaleuca Drive
Crawfordville, FL 32327

Monday, October 24, 2011


On Wednesday morning, Oct. 26, 2011, the Florida Parole Commission will decide whether I will be released on parole or remain longer in prison, after 33 ½ years of incarceration.

I don’t know exactly who will be making the long trip and standing up on my behalf. Attorney William J. Sheppard of Jacksonville will lead our presentation. He is a fine lawyer, believes in my case, and is well-prepared to briefly argue for my release. Our side only gets 10 minutes, and most of our evidence has been sent to the parole commission in advance. My dear friend, Libby, who has tirelessly worked for months to prepare the parole plan, photo exhibit, letters and other documents, at considerable personal expense, will be there with Bill, to provide answers to any questions that might be thrown at us. I ask that anyone who goes to the hearing let Libby and Bill know you are there. Bill will ask for everyone who is there on my behalf to please stand when it is our turn.

Since the “opposition” has gotten away with making false, malicious, and highly-prejudicial and improper statements at previous hearings, we will have a court reporter present to make an official transcript, if we need it.

Jack Murphy will be batting “clean up,” and will speak after Bill Sheppard presents the legal points. I met Murf at Raiford over 30 years ago, when I first came to prison, and I was there when Frank Costantino took him out of Zephryhills C. I. in November, 1984. He is standing up for me now. Gary Smigiel has been there for me all along, and I am sure better days are ahead for us.

A lot of people will be praying for my release Wednesday. Even were they to grant me a much-deserved parole, it would take a couple of months to actually get out. I have been accepted at the “Prisoners of Christ” residential program in Jacksonville , and hope to get out and get a job and make the most of every minute I live, in freedom, just as I have done these past 33 years in captivity.

If they decide against my release, we will deal with that with dignity. We are already preparing a court suit, “just in case.”

I ask that you keep my situation in your thoughts and prayers on Wednesday, and pray that those who are making that trip will return home safe and sound. I am thankful and grateful to all who have helped me, and promise not to disappoint you.


Sunday, October 2, 2011


Dateline: October 2, 2011

Wednesday, Sept. 21, I had a phone call with attorney William Sheppard in Jacksonville about my October 26, 2011, parole hearing in Tallahassee.

Bill hopes that some of my family and friends will attend the hearing, as a show of support, even though there’s not much opportunity to speak, with the ten minute time limit for our side. At my January, 2002, parole hearing, Gary Smigiel asked everyone to stand who was there on my behalf, and over twenty people stood. Since that time, people have grown older, become disheartened, or passed on, and the numbers have diminished. I’m not asking anyone to attend who doesn’t really want to, but we are praying that enough people will be moved to go there that it will have a positive effect on the commissioners. If few people care enough about my release to make the trek to Tallahassee, why would the parole commission care?

For those who do plan to go, I express my heartfelt gratitude. Your support and faith in me is not misplaced. The address of the hearing site is 4070 Esplanade Way, Tallahassee, FL 32399. Visitors need to sign in by 8:30 AM the day of the hearing, and you can leave after my portion of the hearing is over, most likely well before Noon. I’d appreciate it if you let Libby know of your intentions. Sorry, but I won’t be able to attend. Unlike some other states, Florida doesn’t allow us to attend the hearings.

For those who do not support my release, I’d like to remind you of some of Florida’s famous attractions where you can spend the day and have some fun. Busch Gardens in Tampa is always a good choice, and Weeki Wachee Springs has live mermaids, or at least they did when I was last out there. By now, those mermaids are probably in their seventies or eighties, and long gone, but perhaps they’ve been replaced by the younger generation.

If you’re in the North Florida region, I hear St. George Island is nice, and so is Wakulla Springs State Park. For that matter, New Orleans isn’t that far away. Whatever you do, in the interest of justice, please leave Leon County off your itinerary on that date.



Monday, September 19, 2011


Dateline: August 1, 2011

Someone stole my roll of toilet paper. Don’t laugh─it’s not funny.

I am sitting on a lidless, stainless steel toilet inside the bathroom of a maximum security prison in Florida. Take my word for it─seatless stainless steel toilets are cold! Raise the seat on your toilet at home and sit on the bowl rim, or, better yet, drive to the sleaziest, most rundown gas station in town, get the bathroom key, tread carefully to the toilet, raise the seat and sit down. That will possibly approximate the gross-out factor that I deal with every day when I must use the communal toilets that several men before me with bad aim used as urinals.

Before you sit, there are some preliminaries: flush first!─this is mandatory; ‘tis better to discover that your toilet of choice will flush when you need it to, or if it is clogged and won’t flush, or, horror of horrors, will overflow and flood when you flush it, than find out while you are perched there.

After trial flushing, make sure you have toilet paper. It may be difficult to call for help when you are stuck there indisposed, a situation that reminds me of the old joke about the intellectually-disadvantaged traveler who realized there was no toilet paper in the bus station stall just as the public address speaker announced last boarding call for his departing Greyhound.

Wondering what to do, the man heard someone enter the bathroom and use the urinal. “Hey, buddy, would you see if there is some toilet paper in that other stall, please?”

“Sorry, not a bit.”

“Well, how about some paper towels?”

“Nope, all they have is a hot air hand dryer.”

"Uh, how about the trash can? Are there any scraps in there?”

“It’s empty.”

“What am I going to do? My bus is leaving, and I can’t wipe my butt.”

“Do you have a dollar?”

“A dollar? Yeah.”

“There you go. You don’t want to miss your bus. Use a dollar to wipe with, and just throw it away.”

“Good idea. Thanks.”

A couple of minutes went by. The gentleman was washing his hands when the traveler emerged from the toilet stall, his hands smeared with stinky mess.

“My goodness!” the man said. “What happened? I told you to use a dollar.”

“I did,” the traveler said. “Have you ever tried to wipe your butt with three quarters, two dimes, and a nickel?”

I didn’t have a dollar, or any change, for that matter. We use canteen debit cards in prison, but I wasn’t going to use that, either.

The problem is that with the state budget deficit and funding crisis, there is a toilet paper shortage in prison. Up until recently, the guards issued each prisoner one roll of toilet paper a week, along with a tiny bar of motel soap and a disposable “Bic” razor for the mandatory daily shave. In June, a memo came out with a schedule decreeing that henceforth all male prisoners would receive a roll of toilet paper every ten days. Women prisoners would remain on the seven-day plan.

Why do women prisoners still get toilet paper every seven days, while the men do not? No one knows for sure, but speculation is that the women are more “stand up” than the men, more adamant about the erosion of their limited prison rights, and they won’t abide arbitrary edicts like limiting their ability to maintain their basic human hygienic needs. This theory is born out by the package permit experience of the late 1990’s.

When I came to prison a hundred years ago (it seems), at Raiford, we could send out a package permit to our families once a month (later, it became once every three months). Our families could send us six items: a pair of shoes, a package of three T-shirts or underwear, socks (four), a bottle of shampoo, deodorant, watch, radios, towels, things like that. It saved the state money by not having to furnish a lot of shoes, toiletry items, or other personal property, and it enabled us to have the satisfaction of having our own things sent to us from home. At Christmas we could receive a 15-pound box of food from home: fruit cake, cookies, candy, and nuts. That meant a lot, and provided a strong emotional connection.

Times changed. The “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality of the ‘nineties came to the forefront. Mandatory drug laws and harsh sentencing filled up new prisons as fast as they could build them. The prison budget expanded exponentially. Build them, and they will fill them. The package permits that so many had come to expect became threatened by new prison administrators who found one more thing they could deprive us of, to separate us from family and loved ones and the support that gives us. In 1997 a memo came out stating that the Christmas packages that year would be the last ones. At least they were for the male prison population. For the women, it was a different story. Didn’t I tell you that the women were more “stand up” than the men?

Whereas the men just rolled over and accepted fate, the women said, hell no, you’re not taking our packages. They raised holy hell.

Today, if you go to the Laws of Florida, Florida Administrative Code, Chapter 33, the Department of Corrections rules, and look up the listing for official D.O.C. forms, under “property,” you will find “Package Permit, Female Institutions.” Don’t look for “Package Permit, Male Institutions.” You won’t find it. Fourteen years later, the ladies are still getting their packages from home.

I said all that to explain why the men can get one roll of toilet tissue every ten days, while the women wait seven days. They simply won’t accept the extreme toilet paper rationing.

In years past, toilet paper was dispensed on an “as needed” basis. Bring the empty cardboard roll and trade it in for a new one from the guard as needed. That made sense. What if you had a bad cold, sinuses, or the flu, and had to blow your nose all day, for several days? Or perhaps you caught some salmonella or e. coli from the leftover, re-heated “sloppy Joe” meat that went into the spaghetti, got food poisoning, and suffered through a couple of days of dysentery-like diarrhea. That scrawny roll wouldn’t last long. You could become as desperate as the bus traveler, or as I was, sitting on the cold stainless steel toilet bowl rim wondering who stole my toilet paper.

Supposedly, according to the memo, anyone who found themselves without toilet paper before the ten-day date could do the same as before─present the empty roll and get a new one from the officers’ station. In practice, the answer is usually, “We don’t have any.” Such responses have led to a cottage industry of some prisoners selling spare rolls for food, coffee, or cigarettes, or, like in my case, snatching a roll off the concrete divider between toilets. These unsportsmanlike acts contribute to hard feelings and retribution. Someone stole mine, so I’m stealing yours.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had such shortages in prison. In the mid-1980’s, at Zephyrhills C.I., the shortage got so bad after a couple of weeks that men were ripping out pages from magazines and Bibles to wipe with, causing clogged pipes that kept the plumbers busy. I got so desperate that I wrote a request to the warden:

“Sir─would you please send me a roll of toilet paper? The dorms have been out for two weeks, and if anyone has toilet paper, I know you have an extra roll in the executive bathroom out there in the Admin. Bldg. Thanks.”

The next day the Major and a sergeant appeared at my cell door. The Major had a request form in his hand. The other hand was behind his back. “Step out into the hallway, Norman.”

I did. He nodded at the sergeant, who proceeded to search my cell. He finished, nodded “no” to the Major.

The Major held up the request. “You wrote Mr. Henderson a request for toilet paper.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You asked him to send you a roll from the executive bathroom.”

“Yes, sir.”

“He told me to search your room, and if you had any toilet paper, to lock you up for lying to staff. Otherwise, here.”

He produced a roll of toilet paper he’d been holding behind his back and handed it to me. Charmin! Hmm. Life was good in the executive bathroom. Smiling, I took it. They left. I retrieved the partial roll of scratchy state toilet paper I’d hidden, that the sergeant had missed, and gave it to a grateful neighbor.

Perhaps my plea to the warden had embarrassed him. That night a couple cases of toilet paper were delivered and passed out. The drought was over. I squirreled away a spare roll, just in case. You never know.

A few years ago, at Tomoka, where the pistol target range is only blocks from the prison, during another tissue drought, several of us marveled at the firepower as thousands of rounds of ammunition blasted away for hours on end. It sounded like the Taliban and al Qaeda were trying to attack Daytona Beach, and dozens of trigger-happy prison guards were mounting a valiant defense.

An old-timer groused, “Didja ever notice that they can’t keep toilet paper in this place, but they never run out of bullets?” The truth, as they say.

The present supply problem is exacerbated by the incredible shrinking roll of prison toilet paper. Not only have they decreased the frequency of issuance, but they have also shrunk the rolls! When they passed out the new rolls, they were noticeably smaller in dimensions than the old rolls. How low can you go? The old paper was nothing to brag about─tear off a sheet and place it over your newspaper, and you can read the printed text easily, without difficulty. It is that thin. You can’t do that with Charmin. Where does this stuff come from─North Korea? I’m getting worried now. I saw the prison canteen operator change the tape in his adding machine printer (yes, Virginia, they still have those old things in prison), a paper roll about three inches wide and three inches in diameter, and for a moment there, I had a flash of the future─that’s what they’d be handing out to us if we weren’t careful.

Back to the present. There I sat, seething. They’d be calling “count” soon, and I’d be required to go to my bunk. Eight men stood at the metal sinks, four or five feet in front of me and the line of other toilets, brushing their teeth and washing their faces. Gross! Did I tell you that there is little or no privacy in prison? It’s like that old joke, “How do you tell when the honeymoon is over? She brushes her teeth while he does his business on the toilet.”

I didn’t want to ask the guy in the next stall to borrow his roll. People are funny about such things in here. Fortunately for me, a young prisoner approached me, smiling, and handed the missing roll back to me. It had been his idea of a friendly joke. I had two ways to respond: I could become angry, scowl, and castigate him for taking the toilet tissue, which is probably how his father treated him before slapping him around every week of his formative years, or I could do what I did, smile, reach out, take the roll and say, “Thanks.”

Sometimes the best solution is the easiest solution.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Dateline: August 10, 2011

A four-decade-plus friendship was renewed Sunday, July 31, 2011,  when my dear friends, Sombat, Keila, and their son, Andy, made a trek from the other side of the world to visit with Libby and me at Wakulla Annex C.I. Homeland Security has nothing on the Florida D.O.C. when it comes to bureaucratic red-tape and paperwork. It was easier to travel 12,000 miles from Bangkok, Thailand, to Tampa, than it was to get to and into this place, but they persevered.
I met Sombat at the University of South Florida in 1968, through a mutual friend from the Yucatan, Mexico, who enrolled in King High School, not speaking any English. Since I spoke Spanish, I helped Tony Puerta learn to speak English well enough that he graduated from King, enrolled at USF, and eventually became a rocket scientist at Sperry-Rand. He repaid the kindness by introducing me to Sombat, who was studying engineering, thus beginning a life-long friendship.

Sombat and his beautiful wife, Keila, were there for me during some of the worst times of my life, offering non-judgmental friendship when I had nowhere else to turn. I hope I was able to do the same for them.
During college, Sombat played on the USF soccer team, and I was in the martial arts business, tae kwon do and Karate schools in Tampa and Lakeland, and tournament promotions. We played golf at the USF golf course, but I didn't know Sombat had been a champion kick boxer in Thailand until he offered to be a sparring partner for Florida black belt karate champion Ron Slinker, one of my partners in Martial Arts Institute, Inc., who was training for a professional kick boxing (PKA) match with the American kick boxing champion. After Sombat put on a "Muay Thai" kick boxing exhibition against the hapless Slinker, sending him to the hospital, Ron decided kick boxing was not for him. Slinker went on to become a professional wrestler with Vince McMahon's WWF. His biggest claim to fame was teaching "The Rock," Dwayne Johnson, to be a professional wrestler. "The Rock" is now known as a highly-paid movie star. In his biography, "The Rock" talked about Slinker, calling him the baddest fighter he's ever met. Obviously, "The Rock" never went three rounds with Sombat.

I was there when Andy, Sombat's and Keila's first child, was born. Until 1989, when they moved back to Thailand, Andy and his sister, Adrie, grew up visiting me in a sucession of prisons, dragging their parents along.

It was a very emotional time for all of us when my old friends and their now-grown son, who towers over all of us, entered the visiting park to hugs and tears. The years in between truly fell away. Afterwards, Libby, who had met them for the first time at the visit, said she felt like she'd known them all her life and was humbled in the presence of such special, loving people, whose feelings and words were so obviously genuine.

In the midst of such repression and negativity omnipresent in here, it was an incredible boost to my sinking morale to be in their presence for a few precious hours. Truly I am blessed and thankful for such purely good people in my life, who validate my own worth as an individual.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Dateline July 18, 2011

Early one subfreezing January morning in North Florida, eighty state prisoners lined up outside to march to the chow hall for a breakfast of two pancakes and a cup of hot oatmeal.

I was one of those prisoners. In the predawn darkness, glaring orange security lights mounted on tall concrete towers illuminated two Canada geese nibbling on the brown grass blades of the exercise yard. The anomaly of the wild goose pair juxtaposed with the razorwire fence beside them struck me. I couldn’t take my eyes off them as we headed for the chow hall, craning my neck to catch a last sight of them. I hadn’t seen a Canada goose in decades, since my imprisonment, and I didn’t know when I’d see one again, let alone two. It wasn’t that long a wait─just until the next day.

On the way to the law library to do legal research the next morning, there they were again, nibbling at the dry, dead grass in a different exercise yard adjacent to the prison school, oblivious to the activity around them.

Twice in two days! My lingering memory of Canada geese went back to my childhood in Central Florida and a group of children gazing skyward at a large V-shaped formation of honking wild geese migrating southward, far overhead. The image epitomized freedom, unrestrained by time, place, or national boundaries.

The following day the geese treated me to the sight of them taking to the air, their six-foot wingspan lifting them easily over the high steel fences that encaged the humans below. The continuing daily proximity to the wild creatures prompted me to find out more about them to satisfy my curiosity as to why, with all the Western Hemisphere to choose from, they’d selected a maximum security prison for their winter vacation.

The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds informed me that although Canada geese prefer wetlands, grasslands, and cultivated fields within commuting distance of water, they have adapted successfully to man-made habitats, such as golf courses and farms to the extent that they will chase off other nesting waterbirds. National Geographic can add prisons to that list now.

I also discovered that the Canada goose winters in the Northern Panhandle of Florida, from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf Coast. That explained it. I also found that they were closely related to the endangered Hawaiian goose, or néné, best known as a crossword clue, and had become so prolific in the last few decades that they are considered pests in some areas. Not in my area, they aren’t.

My paternal feelings of regard for the pair (mated for life─no divorce for geese) became conflicted, however, after I read an article with a recipe for roast Canada goose, said to be the tastiest of all geese. After a deprived bland prison diet of daily beans and soybean patty substitutes, my visions of the majestic birds with their black heads and white chin straps interspersed with the enticing image of a roast goose and all the fixins’ as the centerpiece of Christmas dinner at home with my family. I shook it off.

After several weeks of almost daily sightings, I realized that I hadn’t seen the geese in awhile. I speculated that they had relocated to (literally) greener pastures. Then one day a friend informed me that the geese were nesting in the prison farm field west of the law library. I surveyed the area from a window in the library, and lo and behold! There they were, the female sitting on a ground-level nest, the male a few feet away on guard duty, black neck stretched high to observe any possible threats.

Over the next few weeks I learned from prisoners who worked the farm plot of cabbages, squash, and collards, that the female sat on a clutch of four eggs. The prisoners kept a small drainage pond in the field filled with water, which the geese took turns visiting, the nest never left unprotected.

One morning I put down my legal documents on a table in the law library and hurried to th window to see “my” geese. They weren’t there! The nest was abandoned. What could have happened? Across the field in the distance, I spied a long black neck extended above a height of unmowed grasses by the drainage pond. A few minutes later, another Canada goose appeared, then I noticed a movement of something brown and small following the mother. A baby!

The geese headed across the farm field, the mother followed by the tiny gosling, the father maintaining a vigilant watch at the flank. But where were the other three? All I saw was one baby goose.

The farmworkers informed me that only one egg had hatched. After a couple of days the mother abandoned the cold eggs, focusing her attention on the survivor.

In the days and weeks ahead, the baby bird grew quickly. It went from timidly following the parents around to racing ahead for some tidbit. When a curious crow flew over the field the father launched himself into the air for a direct intercept of the surprised predator. No F-16 Air Force jet took off so fast with such singleminded purpose as that protective male.

Before long the gosling had lost its immature brown camouflage coloration and looked more like a slightly smaller version of its parents. The trio is inseparable as I watch from my window today, none of them ever more than a few feet apart. I thought that humans could learn some parenting lessons from geese, whose attentiveness to their young’s needs and protection never wavers. Scientists say they operate on instinct. Perhaps we’ve lost some of our important instincts along the way. The only geese I’ve ever seen in prison were there by choice, and could leave whenever they decided to take wing.

I haven’t seen the young goose fly yet. It is approaching full size, so it won’t be long. I do know that mom and dad aren’t going anywhere until their offspring can go with them. Perhaps ne day a V-shaped formation will appear overhead, and the wild geese will answer the honking calls of their kind, flying away home. Would that I had wings, and could join them, free at last.


Postscript: They flew!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


DATELINE: 06/12/11
The Ku Klux Klan prison guards are still getting their punches in, for over ten years now, since I had my first run-in with them. They don’t all fit into the popular stereotype of the ignorant, tobacco juice-spitting rednecks with pick-up trucks. The most dangerous and treacherous of their breed got “eddicated,” majored in “criminal justice,” got good jobs at the prison, clawed their way up through the ranks, and now wear white shirts and ties in their higher ranks. When a guy like me comes along though, their masks slip and their slips show, and every now and then they will reveal themselves. Their power and influence extend far in the South.

Thursday morning, June 9th, at 11 AM, I got called up front to the classification office, ostensibly to have an interview with a secretary. I was sitting outside the offices on a stainless steel bench, when two people came through the gate from the outside: a thirties-something white male wearing a dress shirt and tie, and a much younger woman who might have just stepped out of “Cosmopolitan” magazine. Russ Gallogly and Alexandra Campbell from the Florida Parole Commission, here to conduct my “parole interview.” Thanks for giving me notice that you were coming, I said. I could have brought some paperwork I wanted them to consider. Didn’t matter. The verdict and decision had been predetermined before I showed up. Like jaded old married couples contemplating divorce, we were just going through the motions.

The man asked the secretary for my prison file. The secretary brought him a photocopy paper box filled with my files going back over thirty years, and added an inch-thick packet of documents consisting of my most recent paperwork, a summary of “new information” to be considered by the parole commission, my parole release plan, list of accomplishments, literary body of work, my PEN World Voices keynote speech from April, etc. When we sat down in the tiny “interview room,” the guy absently flipped through the pages (not even Elaine Powers could read that fast) while I talked, then opened one of the thick “inmate files,” left it lying there on the table. According to law and rules, the parole people are required to review and consider all information, new and old, before making an informal decision concerning what is best for the prisoner and society. R-I-G-H-T. As my New York friends say, Fuhgeddaboutit.

The law says that there are two things the parole people are supposed to consider in deciding when to release someone─can this person live a law-abiding life and can he support himself and not be a burden on society? If you compare my case with dozens of others who have been paroled, been out on the street for years, served much less time than I have (over 33 years now), and accomplished far less, the question is why? The opposition of the corrupt state attorney, in a few words.

This time, I had to deal with the specter of the KKK prison guards haunting me.

You know the story. I’ve told it all before. The Anne Frank Center USA Prison Diary Project in 2008. Associated Press interview by Jessica Gretsky and Suzette Laboy. 3,000 media outlets. Thousands of web sites republished excerpts. A 2400 word excerpt from a couple hundred handwritten pages title, “To Protect The Guilty,” recounted my experiences with retaliation by KKK prison guards at an unnamed North Florida prison years before. That was in 2008. That memoir, a short story, and a poem I wrote were published in a book. In January, 2010, a copy of the book was sent to me and confiscated by a vengeful prison mailroom clerk who held a great deal of personal animosity toward me. She declared it a “threat to security.” Three months later, the Literature Review Committee in Tallahassee, consisting of educated, intelligent library types, reviewed the book and said it was not a threat to security, and ordered them to give the book to me.

The mailroom clerk failed to follow the rules, failed to give me a confiscation form, just took the book. She’d sent it to the assistant warden, Hodgson, who wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t file the confiscation paperwork, either. Finally, she and her boss lady took the book to the warden. “Look what that Norman’s sayin’ about yo’ kinfolks, warden. Let’s git that sumbitch.” And they did!

After I filed grievances seeking the delivery of my book, the book I’d never seen, the warden directed the other assistant warden to write a disciplinary violation for “mail regulations violations.” Since she must have come straight from her college basketball team to a good job in prison administration (it’s hard to find a white woman as tall as Shaq, especially in the piney woods), she didn’t have a lot of practice writing “D.R.’s” as they are called, and made enough mistakes to fill up several pages of grievance appeals. Didn’t matter. A sergeant told me, “The warden wants your ass in jail.”

When I went to the kangaroo court hearing, it was a “fait accompli.” Thirty days in solitary, thirty days loss of gaintime. All appeals summarily denied. Since last August, I’ve been fighting head-to-head against state lawyers and all their resources with a lawsuit I filed in court in Tallahassee.

It was all retaliation for pursuing my First Amendment rights, even though a guard once told me, “The Constitution ain’t in effect in Columbia County.”

Back to the “parole interview” on Thursday, the 9th. I covered all the bases, my parole plan, going to the “Prisoners of Christ” program in Jacksonville. Outstanding record of accomplishments. I told them the whole tawdry tale of the KKK prison guards and me that resulted in the retaliatory D.R., solitary, the punitive transfer from Tomoka.

I asked him to hold the D.R. penalty in abeyance, since it was in court, being appealed, unwarranted, and to penalize me for it by jacking up my date would be unfair, not allowing me to pursue my due process. Besides, I’d already been wrongly penalized with an incorrect and improper “death penalty aggravator” that tacked ten extra years to my parole date, anyway. Taking off that wrongful ten-year aggravation would have made my release date 2004, not 2014.

Didn’t matter. Gallogly smashed me with an extra “36 months” because of the KKK D.R. giving me a “July, 2017” release date, next hearing, April, 2017. Wrong, wrong, wrong. All I can do now is prepare the best I can for the actual parole commission hearing in Tallahassee in 90 days─sometime around September, for what it is worth.

I still need letters of support, and to find out who wants to attend the hearing, to make the arrangements for September. We are still working on putting documents together, like the updated photo exhibit. Expenses are mounting. Miracles do occasionally happen, though.

If the commissioners rubber-stamp the parole examiner’s adverse release date, I am preparing for a court appeal, on that issue. Meanwhile, I just hope all the KKK members take their sheets and crosses deep in the woods somewhere far away and leave me alone.


Sunday, May 8, 2011


Dateline: May 6, 2011

I couldn’t be there, but I heard about it from Libby, Stephanie, my literary mentor/editor, and others.

On Thursday, April 28, 2011, John Lonergan, read my keynote speech, “The State of Prisons and Prisoners in America,” at the PEN World Voices International Literary Festival at the Desmond Tutu Center Refectory in New York City.

Mr, Lonergan was an interesting choice to read my work, as he retired in June, 2010, as governor of Ireland’s Mountjoy Prison after 42 years working in service to the prison system. He has written a book, The Governor, about his experiences in a very hard place. He had some comments of his own that had the ring of truth in them. Here is a link to his web site http://www.johnlonergan.ie/

Salman Rushdie, award-winning author, had some introductory comments before the presentation of my speech:

“Charles Norman is unable to be with us as he is in jail. He says in a message, ‘I survived over thirty years in Florida prisons for the wrongful conviction of a murder I did not commit. He says he has poetry, short stories, essays, memoirs, and plays that have won numerous national writing awards…  He says, ‘I love the elasticity of English, how words can be pulled, shaped, and re-formed to express the thoughts and feelings in my mind. I view the good folks at PEN as benevolent hacksaw-wielding elves who’ve been steadily slicing through the cage bars that confine me, setting me free.’ ”

I’m taking the liberty of sharing excerpts of my friend, Stephanie’s, comments:

“… an update on Charlie's speech. Well....it was spectacular. His words took on so much meaning when I heard them live. Though I know it wasn't Charlie himself, I felt nevertheless like he was speaking to me. …

He received a thunderous round of applause...It was so special.”

We also heard from Shaun Randol, editor in chief of The Mantle web publication at www.mantlethought.org

This is an excerpt of what he had to say:  “…Among other things, we covered the PEN World Voices Festival.We heard your statement, as delivered by John Lonergan, and we would like to publish your text on The Mantle. Will you be willing to share your story with The Mantle and our global leaders? It would be our honor to publish you.”
I gave my permission for the publication and the story is at http://mantlethought.org/content/pen-2011-working-day-panel-discussion
It has been a great honor to have been included with such lofty literary figures in the World Voices Festival. Perhaps something positive will come of it. In approximately a month or so─sometime in June─a parole examiner will come here to the prison to interview me prior to my parole in Tallahassee. He will wnt to know what accomplishments I’ve had in the last five years, since my last hearing, and what I have to say for myself. I continue to cast bread upon the waters.

If you’d like to hear my speech delivered by Mr. John Lonergan in his fine Irish brogue, there is a recording for an mp3 file at   http://www.pen.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5694/prmID/2126

Click on “John Lonergan” next to the heading, “Clips.” To listen to all the keynote speakers, click on “Listen.”

The text of my speech is below if you’d just like to read it.

I welcome and appreciate any and all comments. Thanks.



My name is Charles Patrick Norman. I am a prisoner of war, a political prisoner of America’s war on crime. I live in a world far different from the one you live in, but you may find that our worlds are becoming more and more alike. My words come to you from inside a maximum security prison. The warden refused my request to travel to New York to give my speech in person, even though I promised to return.

Let me take an informal survey, by a show of hands.

If you are thirty-two years old or younger, please raise your hand. Now look around you at how many of the upraised hands you see. Thank you.

I ask that question for a reason. For those who raised their hands, I have been serving this life sentence for a murder I did not commit since before you were born. I have served your entire life, and over half of mine, in prison—one-third of a century.

If you did not raise your hand, take a moment and think how old you were and what you were doing 33 years ago, when I came to prison. Jimmy Carter was the American president. Jim Jones had not yet poisoned his followers in the Jonestown Massacre. Some of you were little children. Some of you were teenagers. Some were adults and had families—husbands, wives, sons, daughters.

Think about how your life has changed in the past 33 years, how different you are now from who you were then, and think about me as a man, a fellow human being with hopes and dreams, a 28-year old who woke up that Wednesday morning of April 5, 1978, never suspecting that was the last time he would awake in freedom, in his own bed, lying next to a woman who loved him.

I am 61 years old now, and have been in some of Florida’s worst prisons over the last 33 years. I have endured and survived horrors you do not want to imagine. The corrupt prosecutor was thwarted in his efforts to electrocute me, but was overheard saying, “Norman will never survive a life sentence.” I am determined to prove him wrong.

I am not the same person I was in 1978. I have changed. I have seen good men and bad men die, some easily, giving up the ghost, relieved to be free of this life at last. Others died hard, fighting to live and breathe, to stay a little longer in this world, but nevertheless, die they did, as each of us is destined to do one day.

You might ask, “what kind of person are you, Charlie?” As hard as it may be to believe, I am a better man now than I was then, better in virtually every way. Rather than allow the monolith of prison to crush and destroy me, I entered the flaming furnace and emerged, refined, purified, the base metals burned away, against all odds. I am stronger in mind and spirit, if not body. I refused to let them break me down, as they do to so many.

I am not the only one. Others, extraordinary women and men, have survived long imprisonments and emerged with their humanity intact. Even before his release from 27 years confinement, Nelson Mandela was one of my personal heroes. If he could do it, I could do it.

A dead man named Tex McClain told me once that we (prisoners) were defective, like automobiles that came out flawed from the factory, and each of us had been recalled to prison to be repaired. Imagine a long line of broken people on a conveyor belt entering a huge building, and another line of people being cast out on the other side.

The problem, said Tex, a chain gang philosopher who had served what seemed like an unimaginable twenty years at the time, was that when we got inside the factory—the prison—we weren’t being repaired, but damaged worse. If we’d been thousands of cars with faulty transmissions or fuel lines returning to the factory, when we emerged we were missing wheels, with sputtering engines and clouds of smoke coming out of the exhausts. If prisoners were cars, when they were released from the factory, many would run off the road and end up in the ditch, while others sped up and crashed into trees or veered across the double yellow line and hit some innocent drivers head on. Perhaps half could keep it in the lane, make it through all the stop signs, red lights, and obstacles in their paths, and make their way home. That’s not a good statistic.

I once went on a tour of a General Motors factory in Detroit. The number of autoworkers on the assembly line amazed me, bolting on bumpers, attaching doors, doing their jobs quickly before the vehicles moved to the next stations. Now I see the modern auto factory assembly line on TV, but I see no humans. All I see are machines, robots, welding, bolting, assembling, like a futuristic scene from “Terminator.”

Prison has changed in much the same way as our factories. When I came to Raiford, “The Rock,” a notorious penitentiary in North Florida immortalized in “Cool Hand Luke,” and other stories, the Florida prison population was only one-fifth what it is today. As bad as it was, Raiford was better then than prison is today.

If life in prison can be called good, amidst the ever-present threats of being stabbed, raped, murdered, or shot, life in prison then was good for those who knew how to serve their time, to be strong, to mind their own business, to not get involved with drugs, alcohol, gambling, or loansharking, or other deathtraps guaranteed to bring men down. One could go to school, earn a high school equivalency diploma, study college correspondence classes, take vocational classes and learn a trade, take self-improvement programs to learn to be a better person, go to religious services, attend AA, learn how to create works of art to earn spending money through classes in arts and crafts, share relaxed visits on weekends with loved ones, behave themselves, and earn their release on parole. They could go home. The reality today is far different.

The war on drugs began our destruction. The cartels flooded our shores with cocaine, and found a willing market among our nation’s youth. How do you convince a sixteen-year old inner city youth he should stay in school and get his high school diploma, hope to get a full-time job that pays above minimum wage and has healthcare benefits, when he can stand on a corner in the ‘hood for a few hours and make a thousand dollars selling crack rocks? When he winds up in an adult prison in a year or two with a mandatory sentence, selling the same drugs he sold on the street that were provided by a corrupt guard, what message is he receiving? Crime pays. Over two million prisoners nationwide are receiving the same message.

Prisons began administering psychotropic drugs strong enough to stun a mule, chemical Tasers, resulting in prisoners looking like walking cadavers.

As the politicians cranked out harsher penalties for every type of crime, they had to fund a prison building boom to hold the backlog of convicts in jails. Build them, and they will fill them. Find people to work there.

The prison population doubled, tripled, quadrupled, quintupled. Society was no better for it. The poverty, economic conditions, joblessness and drugs that fueled the crime wave only got worse. No one thought to intervene with the children, the collateral damage, to divert them early on from the path to crime, addiction, and prison. It did not occur to the politicians that the money eventually spent to incarcerate the children after they became adult criminals could have paid for college educations. Instead, after getting shuffled through a failing foster care and juvenile justice system that inflicts even more damage, the courts ship the disadvantaged, drug-addicted youths off to prison for a decade or two.

Then came September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda entered our vocabulary. The Twin Towers fell. We went to war. The world will never be the same, and neither will the prison system.

We learned new words: Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Rendition. I.E.D., TBI. It was only natural that the same labor pool that drew prison guards would be tapped to fill the increasing ranks of soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Guards joined the services, and the Reserves were called up. When they came back to the States, they were different, changed. The experience damaged them.

Is it any surprise that those involved in the Abu Ghraib prison brutality scandal were members of a West Virginia National Guard unit composed mostly of state prison guards? Apparently, they applied the lessons learned in their prisons to the Iraqi detainees. Then we get the benefit of their experiences over there when they return to civilian life.

The prisons are filled to bursting. Like the auto factories in our economic heyday, production is up. And like the auto factories, it’s hard to find any humans working there. The robots have taken over. At least, they act like robots. They have been trained to show little human emotion. As the conveyor belt whisks us along the line, the robots don’t see humans. They see inventory, serial numbers, not names. My serial number is 881834. My human name is superfluous. Ask any ex-con you meet who has been free for twenty years what his prison number is, and he will rattle it off without hesitation.

How do we change the dysfunctional prison system? First we must change the “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality that dominates society’s fears of crime and violence. We must close prisons, not fill them. We must stop using prisons as warehouses to store the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted. We must stop dehumanizing the disadvantaged.

In today’s prisons, the dehumanization process is complete. Strip someone of their humanity and you no longer have to treat them humanely. Dehumanize a group or race of people and you can commit genocide with a clear conscience. It’s okay, they’re not human.

Once someone has been dehumanized, how do you get them back, restore them to their human condition? That is a more difficult problem. All I can do is speak for myself, from my own experience, and perhaps provide some insight.

A good friend asked me recently, considering all that I’ve endured and suffered through over the past 33 years, how have I resisted the damage, maintained my character, integrity, and sanity in the face of this barbaric treatment? A lot of people, she says, marvel that I haven’t thrown in the towel at this point. How have I been able to survive, seemingly unscathed, continuing to be creative and productive, writing, reading, educating myself, helping others? Able to share my thoughts with groups of people who have little conception of harsh prison realities beyond “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” without embarrassing myself or them? I did not do it alone.

It will take a book to fully explain how I became the man I am, but I can give you the short answer in one word—love. The act of loving and being loved—feeling and experiencing love in a world of hate has kept me alive, has helped me prosper, has kept me human, given me the strength and resolve to resist the corrosive effects of dehumanization that have eaten away at so many of my fellow prisoners, as well as the guards.

To love and be loved—that is to be human. I have been blessed to have felt the love of fellow humans. Love has protected me, guided me, inspired me to write, to reach out, to communicate with the outside world despite attempts by officials, who put me in solitary confinement for my writings, to silence me, to share my thoughts and feelings, to become a better man.

Over the past twenty-five years a succession of people from PEN have helped me, encouraged me, taught me things that have changed my life for the better, as they have done for countless other prison writers aspiring to have their voices heard above the din.

Beginning with the late Fielding Dawson, who became a true friend, Jackson Taylor, Susan Yankowitz, Bell Chevigny, Hettie Jones, William “Chip” Brantley, and the amazing Stephanie Riggio, have reached through the razorwire, extending their gifts of knowledge and love to me. They are people I have never met, yet I feel closer to some of them than I do to members of my own family. They have read my thoughts, my words on paper, and still they accepted me. That is love.

On a closer front, for the past eleven years, I have been loved by a remarkable woman who taught by her selfless example, committing herself to seeing me free. Without her love I would have been silenced, my voice unheard, and I would not be sharing my thoughts with you today. Libby Dobbin. Please applaud her for me.

For all that and much more, for the opportunity to remain human in the face of great opposition and adversity, to be one of you, I thank you and salute you. I ask only that you continue the fight, to help and love others—many who may seem unlovable—to save their lives, to reach out to those less fortunate than yourselves.

I include myself in that category. Although I remain strong, resolute in mind and spirit, if not body, it has been a long battle against the odds. I have incurred damages, and I am tired. Prison is a young man’s game, and this old man is ready to go home.

* * *

Charles Patrick Norman                                    PEN World Voices Festival

#881834                                                           Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wakulla Correctional Institution Annex

110 Melaleuca Drive

Crawfordville, FL 32327

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Dateline: 04/11/2011


No, the Department of Corrections isn’t likely to let me attend in person, even though I promised to return.

The PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature will be held in New York City April 25 – May 1, 2011, featuring more than 100 writers from 40 countries meeting to celebrate the power of the writer’s voice as a bold and vital element of public discourse. If you’d like to read more about the festival events, visit www.pen.org/festival.

I accepted an invitation to deliver a keynote speech on Thursday, April 28, 2011, at 9:30 AM at the Desmond Tutu Center Refectory. I am the third speaker, right after the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison.

Acknowledging my prisoner status, the PEN Festival organizers are seeking approval from the Department of Corrections to set up an internet webcast so that I can deliver my speech live. Considering how paranoid the DOC is, I’m not holding my breath on that issue. My speech is written, and “Plan B” involves one of the international writers reading it on my behalf.

Whatever happens, it is a great honor, and I am humbled to be included in such an accomplished group. What is it about, you ask?

“In 1986, Norman Mailer PEN American Center’s then-president organized a legendary conference titled,
The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State. In it he asserted that not only did writers use their imaginations naturally and gracefully to speak to one another across national boundaries, but that governments, too, were capable of using their visions to improve the world’s troubles. To mark the 25th anniversary of this event, the PEN World Voices Festival will hold a Working Day to revisit similar questions while addressing urgent issues facing writer-intellectuals in 2011. This workshop will begin with panel discussion, including keynote addresses. It will be followed by five breakout sessions, each addressing topics related to how writers can respond to current predicaments and help find peaceful solutions. At the day’s end, the participants will release a joint manifesto, drafted by one and signed by all – the first of its kind in the festival history.” (From the PEN.org web site)

My area of expertise is prison, of course. Tuesday, April 5, 2011, marked my 33rd year of continuous imprisonment – 12,055 days. I am speaking on how prison has changed in the past 25 – 30 years. If you’d like to read my speech, I will post it after the festival.

Meanwhile, Libby and I are working hard on my updated parole release plan and “LIFE IN PRISON – A Photo Exhibit.” A parole examiner is scheduled to interview me here in June, and a full parole commission hearing will follow in Tallahassee 60 – 90 days later. Hopefully, my PEN literary festival participation will be looked at favorably.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Dateline: 03/10/2011

Someone once said that prison is a microcosm of society. In thirty-three years of life in prison, I’ve found that axiom to prove true.

Generations overlap in prison. When my incarceration began in the late 1970’s, I met men who’d been locked up since the 1940’s and ‘50’s. As “newcocks,” we younger prisoners listened raptly to the old timers’ stories of what prison life had once been and how it had changed since they came in decades before. Little did I know that over thirty years later I would be where they’d once been, telling newcocks how “real prison” had been “B.C.,” before crack cocaine.

One of the greatest differences between then and now is the educational and intelligence level of prisoners. I tell men who ask, “the quality of the prison inmate has gone downhill.” Don’t get me wrong! There were plenty of candidates for ‘America’s Dumbest Prisoners” in those days, but there was also a layer of intelligent, educated prisoners then that is absent now.

When I arrived at the Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center in North Florida after spending almost two years in Tampa’s Hillsborough County Jail dungeon, one of my first stops was the prison law library. I needed legal advice and didn’t trust the lawyer I believed betrayed me in court.

Everyone told me to go see Judge Joe Peel. I did. Judge Joe Peel ran the law library. His was a famous case from the 1950’s, the Chillingsworth Murders, in which Judge Peel supposedly paid Floyd Holzapel to murder Judge Chillingsworth and his wife. Floyd took them out into the Atlantic Ocean, wrapped them in chains, and threw them overboard. The case was famous not only because a judge contracted a murder on another judge, but also because it was the first time someone was convicted of murder without a corpus delicti, a dead body.

Besides the judge, a former prosecutor worked in the law library writing appeals for prisoners, along with another disbarred attorney and a couple of self-taught “jailhouse lawyers,” long-term prisoners who were just as legally talented as the law school graduates.

Judge Peel didn’t get me out, obviously, but in thirty minutes, he gave me more valuable advice than I’d received from my lawyer. Those men helped many prisoners with appeals, had convictions overturned, resulting in numerous people freed from prison.

That doesn’t happen any more. Lawyers and judges are still going to prison—one of my judges went to prison for bribery and corruption—but I haven’t seen any in years. One of the “status” jobs in prison is law clerk, and the Department of Corrections has a training program in which prisoners who meet the minimum educational requirements watch hours of video tapes, take a test, and become certified law clerks. Sadly, most of those prisoner law clerks are incompetent, and have trouble helping write a request form or a grievance. If you find one who actually has some legal ability, he is so bedeviled with pleas for help from mostly lost causes that he becomes burned out and gets a job change. Others who are too successful in pursuing court appeals and lawsuits often find themselves in lockup, transferred, facing trumped-up charges to dissuade them from being too helpful.

When I came to prison, Tom Brokaw’s remnants of “The Greatest Generation” and beyond still dominated the prisoner mentality. I met men who had fought the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II, the Chinese Communists and North Koreans in the Korean War, and the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War.

Those men were a different breed. They were serious. They were “stand-up,” and lived by the convict code. Mind your own business. Be a man. Don’t snitch. Don’t cross them! They might kill you. Many of these men were victims of the wars they fought in, plagued by alcoholism and PTSD, and had not adjusted well to life in a peaceful society, but they ran the prisons, maintained a semblance of order that the guards couldn’t.

Something I miss from those days are the intelligent conversations. There were some very smart, educated prisoners serving time then, and they tended to congregate together. Besides former college professors, I knew an actual NASA rocket scientist, an astronomer, a nuclear physicist, and a U.S. Marine Corps general. If you had a difficult question, someone could answer it. We had jet pilots, doctors and dentists. We had three chiropractors at Raiford who were constantly being called upon to crack backs and adjust necks. There were men with life experiences, successful businessmen, old-time bank robbers and safecrackers, jewel thieves, professional athletes, football and baseball players, a man who’d won two Super Bowl rings, who fell to the siren song of cocaine.

You don’t see those men in prison anymore. Perhaps they are in federal prison. Today 70% of Florida prisoners are functionally illiterate, a number I can attest. The Department of Corrections bragged recently that 2,500 prisoners were awarded G.E.D.’s in 2010, which sounds good, but when you realize there are over 103,000 people in Florida prisons, that comes out to less than 2.5%.

Prisoners have gotten younger and dumber. They are getting hooked on drugs at a younger age, become more desperate and violent, the juvenile system can’t hold them, and they graduate to “the Big House.” Mail call is very sparse nowadays. Only some of us get correspondence. Another prison axiom is you have to write letters to get letters, and if you can’t read and write, you won’t send or receive much mail. And those who do write can’t spell. Just yesterday a young man laboring over a letter home asked me, “How do you spell ‘o”?” “O?” I asked, confused, “What do you mean, ‘O’?” He explained that he was trying to tell his mother he was in debt, and needed her to send him money. “Oh!” I said, “You mean ‘owe!’ ” “That’s what I said.” “O – W- E.” “Thanks. How do you spell, ‘coffee?’ ”

Prison as a reflection and microcosm of society is also seen through our economy. In the Clinton nineties when the deficit was reined in and taxes filled state coffers, prisons went through a boom time of full funding. Real school teachers and vocational instructors taught full classes. College courses were available. Chapels had full staffs and outside religious groups coming in for services days and nights. Recreation departments offered organized sports leagues, hobbycraft and art programs that kept many prisoners occupied and out of mischief. Libraries were well-stocked and always open. The prison food was good, and they served adult portions. No one went hungry. I haven’t seen a pork chop, a fish with bones in it, or beef stew in fifteen years. Programs are virtually nonexistent now.

Then came September 11, 2001. Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda entered our vocabulary. The Twin Towers fell. We went to war. We are still at war. America will never be the same, and neither will the prison system.

We learned new words: Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Waterboarding. Rendition. I.E.D. It was only natural that the same labor pool that drew prison guards would be tapped to fill the increasing ranks of soldiers, sailors, and Marines. Guards joined the services and the Reserves were called up. Thousands took tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and developed an “us and them” mentality. If you weren’t one of us, you were one of them, the enemy. When they came back to the States, they brought back new, harsher, angrier attitudes. They were no longer eating sand and worried about getting blown up walking through a village, but now they were entering cell blocks and looking at us as though we were their enemies, terrorists, and not fellow Americans, who, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Now when the guards come in their squads for “routine shakedowns,” one would think they are looking for AK-47’s or roadside bombs. Ransack. Trash. Pull out the pepper spray, and use it. Lock up eighteen men because one made a wisecrack. Pepper spray them, ship them. Disrupt their lives and that of their families. That didn’t happen twenty years ago. Now it happens all the time. One old man who has served time off and on since 1964 addressed the issue of the new, harder, meaner prison guard. “The only difference between these guards today and the Nazi SS is these haven’t been ordered to gas us yet.” “Do you think they would do that?” I asked. “In a minute,” he said. I shudder to think that could be true.

The housing mortgage collapse—AIG—bank failures—mass bankruptcies—the recession (don’t say Depression) —Bernie Madoff. Don’t tell anyone, but if Bin Laden’s goal was to bring down America, he’s come close to succeeding. The burgeoning prison population is proof of that.

The economic stimulus has not trickled down to the prisoners. Most prisoners’ families—those that have families still supporting them—are in the hardest-hit economic class, and struggle to maintain a roof over their heads and food on the table. The prisoners are left to fend for themselves, their families unable to spare but a pittance, if that, for bare necessities only available for sale in the canteens. This results in more robberies and thefts as the “have-nots” prey on the “haves,” which leads to more violence, an escalating breakdown of prison society, reflecting our greater society. Where will it end?


Sunday, February 6, 2011


DATELINE: January 31, 2011

Above photo: Libby stands behind Sister Ann Raymond Wood, Sisters of St. Joseph, and others at the St. Augustine Mother House on October 16, 2010, at the Jubilee Celebration recognizing Sister Ann’s fifty years of service. Sister Ann has been Charlie’s loyal supporter and friend for over fifteen years, since she taught the “R.I.T.E. Program” at Sumter C.I. in 1995

In 1989, while we were assigned as vocational air conditioning aides to instructor Art Rabon at Polk C.I., David Tal-Mason and I spoke frequently about the state of prison educational and vocational programs. At the time the FDOC emphasized such programs, which were fully-funded and staffed by professional, certified teachers and instructors who taught a variety of courses; however, we both saw the writing on the wall, and knew that times were changing.

The Polk C.I. school provided a full range of classes during the day, including G.E.D. College business and computer classes at night were funded by individual Pell grants. Vocational Plumbing, Air Conditioning/Heating, Welding, and Upholstery classes certified prisoner graduates, who were able to get decent jobs upon their releases.

Besides working for the vocational air conditioning instructor, a retired U.S.A.F. aircraft crew chief, I tutored other prisoners in reading literacy in the school and in the college computer classes at night. Those days are long gone.

Fast forward to 1994: now at Avon Park C.I., I worked as an aide to instructor Larry Hagan in the vocational graphic arts program, tutoring computer typesetting and desktop publishing classes to the students. Ten years before, at Zephyrhills C.I., I’d worked as an aide in the Graphics Arts Program associated with the PRIDE print shop, doing the same tasks.

One day Mr. Hagan came out of his office, beckoned to me, and told me I had a phone call. A phone call? Prisoners don’t get phone calls on state telephones. He assured me it was all right. Olive Atkins, a teacher at Sumter C.I., introduced herself to me.

She explained that I had been recommended to join the “Responsible Inmate-Taught Education (R.I.T.E.) Program” at Sumter C.I., starting soon. The DOC was recruiting college-educated prisoners statewide to enroll in the upcoming R.I.T.E. Program, anticipating budget cutbacks that would reduce the paid teacher staff. Trained inmate tutors would take the place of professional teachers, keeping the educational programs going.

I asked Ms. Adkins who had recommended me for the program out of the many thousands of prisoners statewide. My old friend, David Tal-Mason, she said, had written and applied for the federal grant that paid for the one-year pilot program. She put David on the line. He encouraged me to agree to the transfer, promising that it was a worthy program I’d approve of.

I was surprised that David had been able to put together a grant proposal that actually resulted in a fully-funded program that wasn’t looted by the FDOC bureaucrats in Tallahassee. In 1980, at Raiford, my friend and fellow prisoner, Steve Opella, worked in the substance abuse program, down the street from my job in the GOLAB Program, the acclaimed prisoner self-help program that was the model for many later programs. Steve put together a $40,000 federal grant to fund the expansion of the substance abuse program, and was thrilled when he was informed that the grant had been approved. His elation turned to anger when he received a letter from Tallahassee with an accounting of how the $40,000 had been spent before it got to him.

The FDOC grant office sent a list of expenditures. $10,000 for office expenses, $8,000 for convention expenses (must have been some party). $2,500 for telephone expenses. Thousands for printing costs. When the shooting stopped, the bottom line was that the entire $40,000 of the federal grant had been consumed by the central office, and not a dime trickled down to the actual drug program at the prison level.

Steve had an influential friend who called Tallahassee and threatened to go to the feds and the news media if the officials kept all the grant money. After much dickering, the bureaucrats agreed to return ten percent, $4,000, which Steve used to buy a Sony color TV, VCR, and video camera setup for the program. Years later, I’d told my friend, David, about that, and when he submitted his grant for the R.I.T.E. Program, he inserted safeguards that prevented the DOC from hijacking the funds. Apparently, that strategy had worked.

When I arrived at Sumter C.I. on the Bluebird, the rattletrap prison transport bus, with twenty or so fellow prisoners, we were greeted by a diminutive woman with a big smile who introduced herself as Sister Ann Raymond Wood, a Catholic nun in the order Sisters of St. Joseph. She would be the R.I.T.E. Program instructor. Catholic nun? In prison? What had I gotten myself into?

The next day I was called into Roger Smith’s office. Mr. Smith was the education program manager, in effect, the prison school principal. I’d known Roger Smith for several years, having met him at other institutions when he was in charge of installing education computer systems, and he knew my background. He’d approved my entry into the program.

Roger Smith advised me that he was assigning me multiple tasks. I would participate in the R.I.T.E. training program for certification, but I was also to be Sister Ann’s aide. What she was not to be told, to be kept between us, that I was to be responsible for her personal safety. There would be no incidents. Tallahassee had informed the warden nothing would happen, that if anything happened to the Catholic nun inside the prison, everyone’s heads would roll. Mr. Smith told me that when Sister Ann arrived at 7:30 AM each morning, I was to be at the front gate waiting to escort her to the school, and unless she was in the restroom, she was always to be in my sight. At 4:30 PM, I would escort her back to the front gate and wave goodbye. They did not have the manpower to give her a security escort all day, so the job was mine. Failure would not be tolerated. Thankfully, for the year she spent teaching the all-day classes, her safety was never threatened.

Sister Ann was an English teacher by training and years of experience in Catholic schools had well-equipped her to handle a classroom of prisoners. These weren’t your ordinary prisoners—they’d been screened, had far more education than the average illiterate prisoner, and ranged from a retired Marine gunnery sergeant, to an astronomer, a contractor, real estate man, a couple of former teachers, and, among others, a college student who’d gotten hooked on drugs and committed murder. That was just in the first class. Subsequent classes were equally diverse, marked by a common desire to help their fellow prisoners. Sister Ann ably dealt with them all.

Most of the men recruited for the R.I.T.E. Program had already been working in education programs in prisons across the state, and had been recommended by their supervisors to participate. Besides Sister Ann, other teachers and occasional outside experts taught all the subjects required in prison education, including classes on how to be prepared to teach every class, which meant they had to brush up on multiplying and dividing fractions, as well as science, social studies, English grammar, reading, and writing skills.

Not every session involved hard work. Sister Ann had initially come to Sumter C.I. in past years to conduct “Shakespeare Seminars,” an experiment to discover whether prisoners would respond to and appreciate Shakespeare’s plays. Her seminars were enthusiastically received and the sign-up was always quickly filled. Prisoners appreciated the lessons and story lines of “Hamlet,” “MacBeth,” and even “Romeo and Juliet,” just as millions of others had for hundreds of years.

In the R.I.T.E. Program class, a reading of Hamlet and a commentary by Sister Ann, explaining what those archaic words meant in Modern English developed into a class play that combined Shakespeare and “Star Trek,” that entertained and educated the participants and audience.

The program was a success. The graduates went back to their respective institutions and helped their fellow prisoners learn to read, write, and hopefully earn G.E.D. certificates, a basis for further accomplishments.

After the program ran its course, Sinter Ann went on with her service to the Church and society. For many years she served as a counselor to the young men at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida, and became a breast cancer survivor. She continued our friendship that had commenced in such unlikely circumstances and maintained a correspondence that continues to this day, always encouraging me, praying for me, and serving as not only a positive influence, but also as an inspiration in my life by her example of selflessness and service to God and others.

In October, 2010, Sister Ann sent me an invitation to a Jubilee Celebration recognizing her fiftieth anniversary as a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, along with several other long-serving nuns. Of course, the officials at the prison would never have let me attend, even if I had promised to return afterward. I asked my dear friend, Libby, if she would attend in my place, which she happily agreed to do. The accompanying photo, among others, helped to document the event.

As for myself, the R.I.T.E. Program lives on and continues to pay dividends fifteen years later on the original investment. I continued to work in education at Sumter C.I. for three more years as an aide to Dr. Smith, tutoring the youthful prisoners in the Bootcamp Program in the G.E.D. essay test. In the years that I worked with those young men, their G.E.D. graduation rates were consistently the highest in Florida, both in prison and out.

Teaching “English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)” classes at Columbia C.I. followed, along with literacy tutoring for prisoners who could not read. Today I teach two classes of ESOL at Wakulla Annex C.I., consisting of mostly Hispanic students learning to speak, read, and write English.

With the economic crisis affecting every aspect of our society but the very rich, it seems, with the “prison crisis” being discussed endlessly as ways to cut the budget become more drastic, as education becomes a convenient target to hack away at, it is clear that the lessons learned in the “R.I.T.E. Program” fifteen years ago are applicable today.

No one disputes the fact that educational and vocational programs are important keys to prisoners getting out and staying out of prison, becoming law-abiding citizens, working at meaningful jobs, supporting themselves and their families, rather than continuing to be burdens on society.

It is also clear that out of the over 100,000 people in Florida prisons, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of educated, intelligent men and women willing to help educate their fellow prisoners if they had the proper training. This is a valuable resource that has been ignored for too long. A new “Responsible Inmate-Taught Education Program” is a cost effective way to reverse the downward spiral in prison education. Why don’t we give it a chance?