Saturday, September 22, 2012


Dateline: 09/22/2012

How does one defend himself against wrong? In prison, a person has limited choices in how to respond to actions by others, especially when the wrongs are committed by prison employees, both guards and others.

To supposedly offer otherwise disenfranchised prisoners an avenue to redress any wrongs committed against them by prison staff members, in accordance with Federal regulations, Florida implemented a “grievance system” that is designed to provide a means to solve certain problems that affect them.

It sounds good in theory, but in application it often becomes a triggering event that sparks retaliation against the prisoner who dares to complain.

As someone whose spirit and will have never been broken by the yoke of incarceration and who refuses to silently absorb whatever unjust punishments certain bellicose and domineering types decide to inflict upon me, during my 34 years of imprisonment I have made full use of the remedies guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States of Constitution to redress grievances against the government, to my repeated detriment.

“Don’t get mad, get even,” could be the credo adopted by many subjects of complaint, since retaliation is a common result of filing a grievance in prison. Prisoners are retaliated against in many ways, and over time, if I haven’t experienced the retaliation personally, I’ve observed it happen to others, from unwarranted disciplinary reports, removal from decent prison jobs, to lockup in solitary confinement, to punitive transfers to distant, more severe locations far from home. I have personally experienced all of these. Other less fortunate prisoners who dared to file grievances against sadistic guards have weathered gassing with pepper spray, beatings, and even death.

One of the first things my friend, Jack Murphy, told me when I came to prison at “The Rock,” Raiford, Florida, was how to tell when a prison employee was lying:

“If their lips are moving, they’re lying.”

Perhaps that may seem like a broad judgment, but time after time I’ve found it to be true.

“I won’t lie to you, but I will lie on you.”

A guard who bragged that he had written over 400 disciplinary reports (D.R.’s) in one year told me that. He got promoted to sergeant. A year later he got fired for brutality and lying. He’s serving beer in a biker bar now. During his tenure as a “correctional officer,” he often boasted about how many prisoners he’d retaliated against for “writing him up” by planting contraband under their mattresses during contrived cell searched and by outright lies on D.R.’s.

That man is an extreme example, but not a unique one. Since I’ve been steadily fighting a series of retaliation and reprisals against me since about January, 2010, that so far have resulted in multiple false D.R.’s and two punitive transfers, it may prove enlightening to relate some incidents of reprisal and retaliation that have happened to me over the years. These incidents further illustrate the means and methods of how official retaliation is accomplished. Sometimes I wonder if they have a training manual and a course entitled, “How To Retaliate Against Prisoners And Get Away With It,” since the prevalence of these incidents is so widespread.

I’ve never written about how they retaliated against me at Avon Park C. I., but now is a good time. It is a classic.

I was punitively transferred from Polk C. I., near my family, to Martin C.I., almost 200 miles away, and spent eleven months trying to get transferred out of there. Through the intervention of a lawyer I finally made it out and was sent to Avon Park C. I., about ninety miles closer to home. Avon Park was known as a “sweet camp,” with better facilities and programs.

With my experience in printing and graphic arts, I got a good job as a vocational aide in the graphic arts department, which meant I taught graphic arts to about twenty students, and worked on projects for the administration and Central Office in Tallahassee. When I wasn’t working Monday through Friday, I enjoyed the abundance of nature and wildlife that surrounded the prison.

Avon Park is a fairly old prison, relatively small, and is nestled inside a corner of the massive Avon Park Air Force Base and Bombing Range, a piece of state property dwarfed by the federal swamp that dominates the ecology. During hunting season, deer, wild hogs, and turkey are pursued heavily through the woods and thickets. Drainage ditches crisscross the prison grounds in a losing battle to hold back the swamp. Sometimes the weed-filled ditches are four or five feet deep in murky water. Cottonmouth snakes (a.k.a. water moccasins) and other water snakes are frequently seen undulating through the ditch water, along with bull frogs that incessantly call to prospective mates all night. Prisoners buy bags of peanuts to feed the over-population of gray squirrels that boldly take the offerings from outstretched hands, and sometimes bite thumbs down to the bone with their yellowed incisors. Hawks and owls swoop down inside the fences and harvest the less-cautious and less-alert squirrels. Outside the perimeter fences herds of deer and flocks of wild turkeys appear in the early morning and evenings. Everglades kites, turkey vultures, black vultures and ospreys fly overhead, when the fighter jets and bombers aren’t making their training runs nearby, blasting the bejesus out of the bombing range. At night, gangs of twenty or thirty raccoons would sneak into the prison and turn over metal garbage cans and glean anything edible from the trash.

All was not right in paradise, as I found out after I filed a long-forgotten grievance to one of the prison plutocrats. Retaliation, next stop. Teach me a lesson.

Next thing I know, my name appeared on the daily job change sheet, from vocational graphic arts to “inside grounds,” a catch-all job category that served as a dumping ground for a couple hundred unskilled and otherwise unemployable prisoners who had very little to do but hang out, pick up an occasional cigarette butt or piece of litter, or cut grass. There is no unemployment in prison. Everyone has a job, even if it is in name only and little or no work is actually done. What are you going to do with a thousand men crammed in one small space, to justify giving them the “gain time” earned according to law? Nothing.

As soon as someone saw my name posted on the job change sheet and ran to tell me, I “knew what time it was,” as they say in prison. The vengeful plutocrat was expressing his displeasure with my grievance.

It became apparent to me that a simple job change was not the end of the retaliation, just the beginning, as soon as I reported to the Inside Grounds sergeant. I knew that going from a cushy position in the air conditioning to the “outside” was not the extent of the punishment. The sergeant, a large middle-aged guard in charge of the horde of “workers,” made his speech with hesitation and difficulty.

“Norman, I got nothing to do with this,” he said. “I’m just following orders, and for your own good I suggest you do the same.”


“Go sign for a weed whacker, and make sure it’s full of gas,” he said. “Get you a handful of them plastic replacement strings, then go over there and change out of your blues into those old work blues. Get a pair of goggles and rubber boots from my clerk. You’re my new ditch man.”

Great. The ditch man, armed with a weed whacker, would wade into the water-saturated ditches and whack the continuously growing weeds that slowed down the flow of water from the institution grounds to the swamp. The ditch man was the acknowledged worst job on the compound, relegated to whichever poor soul had been unfortunate enough to bring down the wrath of some vengeful official. There were only two prisoners assigned to the ditch crew. When the ditches were done, all the grass growing along the fences, buildings, roads and sidewalks had to be edged. With the year-round growing season and ideal conditions for weeds, weed whacking was a never-ending job, one you could not escape unless you went to lockup or were replaced by someone in even less favor than you.

I knew exactly how their minds were working. All they knew about me was their perception that I was the scholarly, academic type, better suited for a classroom or office, not the type to respond well to menial labor or getting my hands dirty. I could hear the plutocrat’s orders to the sergeant:

“Put Norman in the ditch with the weed whacker and the moccasins. (Ha Ha) He’ll never do it, so when he says no, LOCK HIM UP for refusing to work. That’ll teach him.”


Sorry, no sir, I wasn’t falling for such a crude, transparent ploy.

I changed out of my prison blue uniform, washed and pressed neatly by the laundry man (for a small, weekly fee), and into the ragged work blues reserved for the worst, dirtiest jobs. I took off my clean tennis shoes and put on the shin-high rubber boots. A lot of good they’d do me in chest-high water. I made sure the weed whacker was fully gassed, got the plastic foot-long lengths of string that spun around in a blur to cut the weeds, put on my goggles to keep the mud and weeds out of my eyes, and off I went to find a nice ditch.

It took a little getting used to, but soon I had the hang of it. A couple of former ditch crewmen who’d graduated to cigarette butt pickup gave me valuable pointers. I was determined to be the weed whackingest s.o.b. anyone had ever seen at Avon Park. I was going to raise the bar so high that they’d be talking about me for years to come.

I gingerly climbed into a shallow ditch, about a foot deep, first, to practice, to get the gas right, but soon I was off and running. I would gently nudge the water moccasins that came toward me out of the way. Occasionally, I would catch one behind its head and toss it on the bank, creating pandemonium among the lollygagging unemployed with nothing else to do, who meandered in my wake, watching, like I was live-action TV. I was a country boy! I grew up around all sorts of snakes. There’re few things more pleasing to a country boy than to toss a snake into a crowd of city boys who are scared to death of snakes. Watch them scatter!

When the weed whacker machine ran out of gas a couple of hours later, and I emerged from a particularly deep and muddy ditch, I looked like “The Swamp Monster.” Soaking wet, covered in mud, weeds and grass clippings from head to toe, my goggles were so heavily coated with muck that I could hardly see out of them. When I took them off, the only white place visible was where the goggles had blocked the mud and weed scraps.

Prisoners gave me a wide berth as I trudged back to the inside grounds shed. I was tired, I’d strenuously exerted myself, but I wasn’t done.

The sergeant’s jaw dropped when he saw me coming. He didn’t know who I was at first. Unlike the others who tried to stay out of the water higher than the tops of their boots, I had totally immersed myself in my job. My white teeth must have provided a great contrast to my mud-coated face when I smiled at the sergeant.

“Norman?” The sergeant appeared confused.


“Are you quitting>” He would reluctantly obey orders and lock me up if I refused to work.

“No, sir, I’m out of gas.”

He looked me up and down.

“Well, you done a lot already, I can tell,” he said. “Take the rest of the day off. Take your clean clothes with you, dump them you got on, take you a good shower, and go eat lunch. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“No, sir,” I said. “I’m not halfway done. I’ve got that big ditch on the east side to do. I love my job. This is the most fun I’ve had in years.”

“It is?”


“Well, uh, get you some more gas and get back to work. You’re doing a good job.”


I was the first one to work, and the last one to leave. He had to come get me to tell me it was time to go. Please don’t throw me into the briar patch!

My goals were two-fold: stay out of lockup, and spite the hell out of them. After that, I planned to get out of the ditch.

I called my friend and attorney, Gary, and filled him in on what was going down, what they were doing to me. He said to hang on for another week ─ he was going to pay a visit to the prison, come see me.

I could do another week. I didn’t like it, but I’d never let them know it.

I was chest-deep in a ditch the following week when the sergeant rushed to me, out of breath.

“Norman, get out of that ditch right now. I’ll take the equipment back. Get your ass to the dorm, take you a shower and put on some clean clothes. You got a lawyer up front to see you. The colonel called down here for you. Hurry up!”

I can play dumb when I really need to. I just act like everyone else.

“A lawyer?” I said, handing him the weed whacker. I pulled the goggles down around my neck, sat on the ground, poured the water out of my rubber boots, put them back on, and squished my way past the sergeant.

“Where you going, Norman?”

I didn’t even look back. “I’m going to see my lawyer.”

“You can’t go like that. You gotta get cleaned up.”

“No way, sarge. At two hundred dollars an hour, it’ll cost me a hundred bucks t change clothes. I’m going just like this.”

And I did.

The woman in the control room buzzed me through two gates into the gatehouse. I was caked in mud and weed fragments from head to toe, except for the reverse raccoon eyes where the goggles had kept my eye area clear. I looked at myself in the reflective glass, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon stared back. The Lord loves the working man, they say. I walked through the door into the hallway leading to the visiting room. The large colonel, the head guard, stood with his back to me, talking to my lawyer, Gary, well-dressed and very clean in a tailored suit. Gary saw me approaching and somehow knew it was me. He smiled at me while the colonel was talking.

“Sir, I swear to you that no one is retaliating against your client. We don’t do that. You ought to know that inmates lie. Inmates get job changes all the time, based on the needs of the institution and the correctional goals─”

“Excuse me,” Gary said, cutting him off in mid-lie, stepping around him and extending his hand to me.

I hesitated. “I don’t think you want to get that close to me, Gary. You can see for yourself what I’ve been doing all morning.”

“That’s all right,” he said, shaking my hand. “The colonel was just telling me what a good job you had.”

Perhaps the best word to describe the colonel’s expression was flabbergasted. Speechless. Tongue-tied. Some words finally stumbled out of his mouth.

“”I apologize, sir. I had no idea. I don’t know what to say. This won’t happen again.”

He hurried off to chew out someone, and Gary and I spent an hour talking.

When I got to inside grounds the sergeant met me at the door.

“Norman, you’re off the ditch crew. Take the day off. Go to the library, the chapel, take a walk, take a nap, I don’t care. I got orders to check you off every day. Don’t bother coming down here. Do what you want to do.”


The retaliation was over. A few weeks later my transfer to Sumter C. I. in Bushnell came through. I spent a fairly productive three and a half years there before I was subjected to another round of retaliation, but that is another story.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jesus. I wish it was "that easy" on the outside. LMAO they wanna scare a country boy with snakes. Boy, you ain't from 'round here, are ya? (famous last words) Loe ya charlie. Stay strong.