Thursday, January 23, 2014



The “Transition Class” for those prisoners getting out soon ended today. My “neighbor,” assigned to an adjacent bunk, a young man who had a very limited outlook for success in society, came back in the dorm, showed me his certificate, and said, “I talked about you at graduation.”

“What did you say?”

“I told them that before I met Charlie Norman my only plan for release was to get out and start another meth lab, make as much money as I could, so I’d have enough money to last me for the next few years when I came back to prison.

“He told me that was b.s., an he showed me these books he read about crops, farming, and the Mother Earth News magazine. He had these seed catalogs, and I began reading everything, including a big book on organic farming. I felt that I could do that. I’m from the country, people I know have land I could use, and I began to believe, because of Charlie Norman’s encouragement, that I could make a successful living doing organic gardening. I began writing things down, making plans, looking forward to the future, for the first time. He said when I get out, I should go to church, meet some decent people, and not associate with the losers and dopeheads that I hung around with before. I’m gonna do that.”

When this young man moved into the re-entry dorm, he told me that he would be getting out in a few months, but had six years probation to do. He knew he would never complete six years “on paper,” that he knew he would violate and return to prison, and his plan was to get out and make $10,000 by any means necessary, so when he came back to prison, he would have enough money put away to be able to live on during his imprisonment. Starting a meth lab was his only release plan.

After the class graduation, the instructor, an outside employee, told my neighbor that if he needed help obtaining information on what he planned to do, she would use the computer to find it. He discovered what I learned years ago, that if you showed good intentions, good people would try to help you.

I’ve been serving this life sentence since before this young prisoner was born. I have known thousands of men over the years who were virtually interchangeable with him, and I have despaired at the waste and cost — to society, to those young men, and the loved ones who suffer along with the men at their failures. Working in dozens of programs over the years, I’ve found that many prisoners suffered from a lack of vision, unable to picture a future law-abiding, successful life in free society. They are untrained, uneducated, unprepared to be good citizens. They cannot visualize themselves getting a decent job, earning a paycheck, having a family, living the American Dream. Instead, they live the American nightmare.

What I’ve tried to do over all these years is to paint pictures different from the prison failure vision, the only future they could otherwise see, and help them realize that there were other choices they could make. Poor choices, impulsive choices, wrong choices — prisoners are plagued with bad judgment. When faced with a life-altering choice, so many prisoners seem doomed to choose the worst alternative, time and time again. In this instance, if my influence caused one future meth lab to be eliminated, then something positive for society and the life of one young man was achieved.

I am pleased that I’ve been able to positively influence many hundreds more men who got out of prison, led law-abiding lives, and never committed another crime. You don’t hear about the success stories. The failures are the ones the news media pay attention to.

This latest example only strengthens my resolve to continue speaking out to these impressionable young men, doing what I’m obligated to do for my fellow man, in the worst possible circumstances, despite being unable to help myself.

To paraphrase Tennessee Williams, I depend on the kindness of strangers, friends, and family to speak up for me.


NOTE 01/23/2014: This young man got out of prison last week, picked up by his family members. At the time of his release, he was still intent on his new plan and determined to follow through with it. Time will tell, but we’re praying for him and hope for the best. (Libby)

Sunday, January 12, 2014


 DATELINE: Christmas Day, 2013

Two years ago I wrote an article, “A PRISON CHRISTMAS PARTY WITH THE LOST BOYS ,” about how we put together an special event at my previous prison. Prison, like society, can be characterized  by the haves and have nots, prisoners who have families and friends who provide for them, and those who do not, who have little or nothing. Since close to ninety-five percent of prisoners do not receive family visits, Christmas is an especially  difficult time for prisoners separated and estranged from their families. Men get even more depressed and short-tempered under such conditions, and the people in charge do little to deal with the situation.

About a week before Thanksgiving, I approached a number of fellow prisoners in my housing area, and asked them to read the lost boys article. The follow up conversation with each one went something like this:
            “What did you think?”
            “It was very good. I wish I could write like that.”
“I meant the Christmas party idea, those with money chipping in to feed everyone in the dorm, everyone together.”
            “That was great.”
            “If we put together a Christmas program for re-entry, will you help and participate?”
            “Some men in here have nothing.”
            “Can you pledge money to help pay for the party?”
            “Will five bucks help?”
            “It’s a start. Would you volunteer to join the Christmas carol singers?”

So it began small, talking to each one, one-on-one, seeking agreement and commitments, In prison, it is better to speak to individuals face-to-face, rather than making broad announcements. I made a list, and onl had two men out of seventy-two say they weren’t interested.
            “I don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“That’s okay. You eat, don’t you? You are welcome to join in. We’ll have enough food for everyone.”
            “I doubt that.”
            “Wait and see.”

Three men volunteered to cook three separate offerings, to provide a choice, and put together teams of workers led by a Mexican, a black man, and a young white man. Another man volunteered to make a prison cake out of honeybuns, cookies and hot cocoa mix. The haves began purchasing cases of Ramen noodles, crackers, cheese squeezers, tuna, sausage and bags of chili from the sparsely stocked prison canteen. The Christmas carol singers practiced.

I went to the security sergeants who supervise the dorm, told them our plans, that it would be a positive occasion, building Christmas spirit and good feelings. They approved it.

Things began coming together. Libby generously obtained a stack of Christmas carols, made copies, and sent them in. One night after a practice, the Christmas carol singers returned to the dorm, pumped up, laughing. I asked one why he was so excited.
            “We sang the 12 Days Of Christmas.”
            “How did it go?”
            “We nailed it!”

A few doubters and naysayers scoffed.
            “It’s not gonna work.”
“It’ll be the same as usual. The guys with money will have a big party, and we’ll watch them eat.”
“That’s not going to happen,” I said. “You’ll see.”

This re-entry program I am in consists mostly of prisoners who have four years or less before release, and volunteered to take part in the State of Florida’s attempts to provide transition from prison to free society. Most prisoners are ill-prepared for return to freedom, uneducated, unskilled, poor or absent work history, unresolved drug problems, no family support, no place to stay, no job prospects. The odds of their return to criminal life and prison are high.

In theory, providing programs, counseling, and options that will better prepare these men to become law-abiding, self-supporting citizens will not only salvage otherwise wasted lives, the human costs, but will also save the taxpayers millions of dollars a year in incarceration costs.

In fact, the prisoners who volunteer for the programs re-entry offers have a significantly better statistical chance of getting out of prison and staying out, as opposed to those who refuse to participate in self-improvement and self-awareness programs. To some extent, that is due to the “self-selection process,” prisoners who want to change their lives, who want to break the cycle of incarceration, who realize that what they’ve been doing didn’t work, have a much better prognosis for success than those who intend to get out when their sentences expire and return to drugs and crime. They are “self-selecting,” too — choosing failure.

Not all the prisoners in re-entry are “short-timers.” A small core group of “lifers,” men with long sentences, mostly older, more mature, some having served decades in prison and getting out one day, while others may never get out. These men act as mentors to the mostly younger men with short sentences, providing a calming influence, father figures to some extent.

What is lacking in most prisons is a sense of community and responsibility — not just being responsible for oneself and his family, but also the prison community the man has been cast into. In some small way, something as innocuous as a Christmas program can jumpstart that process and change men’s lives.

I made up a flyer advertising the Christmas party on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013. There are too many distractions on Christmas Day. The flyer served as a daily reminder that something would be happening, and everyone was invited to attend.

There is a large whiteboard on the dorm wall, perhaps five feet high and six feet wide. At the top, in colored letters, are the words, “RE-ENTRY CHANGES LIVES,” with a couple of cartoonish convicts in striped uniforms holding out unlocked handcuffs. This whiteboard is underutilized, often having anonymous, ungrammatical and misspelled adages and quotations from unknown sources posted on it, intended to uplift and encourage. I decided to wipe off the board and start something new.

Libby donated dry erase markers for use in the creative writing class I am teaching, so I started out with a large, calligraphic-style red “Merry Christmas,” at the top, with a border of green holly leaves and red berries. A Christmas tree filled up the left bottom corner. The prison doesn’t put up Christmas trees anymore, perhaps to placate atheists, but the majority of men in re-entry go to chapel services of one denomination or other. Christmas trees are part of our American tradition and culture, and even the small minority of Muslims, Jews and Hebrew Israelites expressed their approval of the colorful tree. It helps that I can draw.

A Christmas card that Libby sent me had a nice silhouette of palm trees and three wise men on camels leading off into the distance, so I reproduced that, with a star overhead. A dove, a symbolic Bethlehem in the distance, “Peace On Earth, Goodwill Toward Men,” the first stanza pf “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” a “Feliz Navidad” for the Hispanics, and the blank whiteboard had morphed into a Christmas spirit generator. Prisoners admired it, and guards came to see it. No dissents.

Another prisoner said he had made a Christmas tree last year out of cardboard and construction paper. The “Merry Christmas” board inspired him to do something to contribute. He asked me what I thought.
            “Do it.”

He did, with the help of several other men, and then took a cardboard box, turned it sideways, and made a redbrick “fireplace,” with red, yellow, and orange flames. Then they made a garland of colored paper connected in rings, and hung them up. In just a few hours the drab “dorm” had been converted into colorful Christmas displays.

About forty men, the haves, contributed over three hundred dollars of food so everyone, about seventy men, would be able to share a Christmas meal.

The time came for the program to begin. We asked everyone to make a circle. This was the tricky part. Would everyone circle up, or would some “hard-heads” refuse to participate, jeopardizing the intent of the program? This is also the amazing part. Two female officers in the glass control booth watched in amazement as the men circled up and spontaneously gripped each others’ hands. One man asked for prayer requests on this special day. Most prisoners’ requests followed a similar theme:
            “Please pray for my family, that they be safe.”
            “Pray for my mother. She has been sick.”
            “Pray for my daughter.”
            “My wife and children.”
            “Pray for the staff.”
            “The homeless, and those who have less than us.”
            “Our service men and women, protecting us.”
            “Please pray for our leaders and our country.”
            “Please pray for me.”

And he did. Five minutes later, after a fervent prayer followed by the Lord’s Prayer, the Christmas carol singers picked up the pace with “Silent Night, Holy Night,” Joy To The World,” “12 Days of Christmas,” and by popular demand, “Jingle Bells,” which everyone joined in.

A few men asked to speak to the group.

One man was visibly moved with emotion and spoke in a loud voice. “I’ve been in prison a long time, and I have never, I have NEVER seen or experienced anything like this in prison. Look around you. Every man in this building is standing in a circle together, quiet, listening to prayers, singing Christmas carols. Some of you may not realize it, but this doesn’t happen in prison. This is something I will always remember, and I hope you do, too. This tells me that we can be united, as a community, like we are supposed to be. That’s all I have to say.”

Then the food was passed out and shared by everyone, the haves happily serving the have nots. Someone plugged in an MP3 player and several men began an impromptu dance contest, to cheers and clapping. The officers alternated coming out and watching. Smiles, laughter and joy. It was amazing.

A little later, a Puerto Rican man approached me. “I’ve only been in prison five years, but this has been the best Christmas I’ve ever had. I know you put it all together, or none of this would have happened. I want to thank you for doing it. I’ll be out next year, and I’m going to send you some pictures of me on the street. I’m not coming back to prison.”

“Good for you,” I said.

That made it all worthwhile. Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014


To start the new year off, 
here is a new poem by Charlie.
Lots to think about here...
We invite you to share your thoughts with us.

Happy New Year to you, and 
may this be a good year.

A poem by Charles Patrick Norman

In the prison of my rejection live rejected men, rejected
by society, so isn’t it odd that they, in turn, would reject
men they judged more worthy of rejection than they?

So it was in the prison of my rejection, two rejected men
walked together, round and round, shunned by rejected men
for their sins and proclivities known to be indulged in that world.

So after the storm the rejected men found a baby mockingbird
on the ground beneath a palm, blown out of the nest, so of course
they tossed it over and over, up to the nest, to no avail.

The baby bird fell and fell, one stick leg snapped, broken,
rejected by family that couldn’t cope with its infirmity, it would have died,
so of course it was only natural to put it in a shoebox,

Which the rejected ones filled with rags for a nest, and a
plastic bottle filled with hot water, so the rejected baby
would survive the cold night beneath bunk beds in the prison.

Of course it had to eat, or die, so the rejected ones went
on the hunt for grasshoppers, crickets, dug for worms, even
bread balls from the chow hall, they tended their charge,

Even splinted the broken stick leg — too late — the leg fell off,
left the baby mockingbird balancing on one foot, which it was
prone to do, on the shoulders of one rejected man or other.

So the three of them walked the track together, Bobby —
they named him Bobby — hopping back and forth, chirping,
demanding they find more grasshoppers, crickets, and worms,

Which they did, relentlessly, since others would not approach
them, even the curious, for they were so rejected, even by
the rejected, others would not help the three of them.

So Bobby survived, flapped his wings, learned to fly,
went off to catch his own food, balancing precariously on
fences and eaves, visited other birds, but always came back.

One day he didn’t come back, flew away to be with his
own kind, mockingbirds, ones that looked past his infirmity,
accepted him, found a mate, like the rejected ones.

Another day, rejected men in their crowds walked round
and round when out of the sky a sleek gray mockingbird
with one leg landed on one rejected man’s shoulder.

Sang a long, sad song, serenaded the men, balanced
precariously, flapped his wings, hopped onto the other
man’s shoulder, then rejoined its mate on the fence.

So new men would come and go, and gape at the sight
of the sleek gray mockingbird flying, landing on a
rejected shoulder, singing, serenading, bringing them happiness.

In an otherwise loveless world of prison rejection,
where their own kind shunned them, stayed apart, all except
for Bobby, who loved them, and saw past their infirmities.

POET’S NOTE: This poem has been roiling in my mind for  over twenty-five years, the images crisp, clear, and unforgettable, the oddity of two strange little prisoners walking endlessly around the track with the chirping mockingbird flitting from one man’s shoulder to the other, one or the other pouncing on a green grasshopper, holding it up, the bird gulping it, and later, the adult bird returning unerringly to sing a song, and leave again.   CHarlie