Sunday, August 31, 2014


After making an up close and personal study of prison for over 36 years, living and surviving among thousands of so-called “non-violent” and violent criminals convicted of every crime imaginable, I have arrived at conclusions at odds with the “experts’ ” opinions that society would be better served by releasing those convicted of drug charges, removing non-violent offenders from the violent prisons.

I read a newspaper commentary by David Grosso, an at-large member of the D.C. Council, after he spent a recent weekend in prison. He stated that some two-thirds of the more than two million Americans behind bars are nonviolent offenders, “most convicted of drug charges.” He also stated that in an overcrowded prison system, where many serve mandatory minimum sentences, “nonviolent prisoners are turning into violent ones.”

I must disagree with this statement. Rather than being harmless “nonviolent” drug offenders who can be placed in programs that will turn them into good citizens who will return to society and serve the homeless in soup kitchens, many of these drug dealers are unrepentant societal cancers that fuel violence in prison and on the streets of our cities.

Being confined in a Florida Panhandle prison, every afternoon the Pensacola natives gather around the prison TV at five o’clock to see which of their friends, relatives, and neighbors shot someone, got shot, got arrested, or were photographed robbing a store, stealing a car, or assaulting someone. Virtually all the drive-by shootings and murders are simply described as “drug-related.”

Drug-related. Not only are drugs the direct cause of escalating violence in “free society,” but also drug trafficking, sales and consumption fuel violence and corruption in prisons nationwide. With competition for smuggled drugs and customers increasing tensions and violence among prison gangs, even the nonviolent prisoners unaffiliated with drugs and gang violence suffer the consequences, being subjected to midnight ransackings, strip searches, drug dog sniffings, and drug tests. I can’t count how many times I’ve been awakened from a deep sleep, ordered to strip to my boxers and go out and sit on the dayroom floor while my meager  belongings, correspondence and legal documents were dumped out and scattered in a mass shakedown with nothing confiscated.

Virtually every prisoner has returned from the yard to find his locker burglarized, every possession that could be sold, traded, or fenced for drugs missing. The first reaction of many of those drug victims is to find a shank, a handmade knife, and stab someone. Others who bought drugs on credit from nonviolent drug dealers, who can’t or won’t pay their drug debts, get assaulted or stabbed in recompense. Friction between prison gangs over drugs often results in opposing prisoner getting sliced up and flown to outside hospitals in expensive Life Flight heliocopters. Some live, some die. So much for nonviolence.

Where do all those drugs come from? Despite strip searches of prisoners entering and leaving weekend visits some drugs are smuggled in by prisoners’ family members and friends, but that cannot account for the quantities floating around every prison. A never-ending problem and dirty little secret is that of prison employees enriching themselves by selling drugs to prisoners. An underground black market in cell phones used to make unmonitored smuggling arrangements  fuels more crimes. Escape plots are financed by drug sales. Now that tobacco products have been criminalized and banned in state prisons, prison staff who might have had qualms bringing in drugs have no moral quandaries in selling a pack of cigarettes for a hundred dollars. Where did the prisoner get the money to buy the tobacco? Selling drugs.

You say to-mah-to, and I say tomato. You say you’ll enroll these drug dealers and addicts in some group therapy program, let them talk about their problems, what societal failures turned them to selling drugs to pay for their habits, let them return to society and get a job at McDonald’s — “you want fries with that?” — and I will tell you an old joke that reveals a universal truth:

Question: What is the difference between a drunk and a junkie?

Answer: A drunk will steal your wallet. A junkie will steal your wallet, and help you look for it.

In the 1990’s, when I worked with teen boot camp prisoners, a sixteen-year old who was getting out a week later asked me, “Why would I work at McDonald’s for minimum wage when I can go back to the ‘hood, reclaim my corner, and make a thousand dollars a day selling crack?”

Good question.

I say you shouldn’t fall for the mistaken belief that we, as a society, can solve many of our problems by not incarcerating drug offenders. Programs? Fine — I advocate programs for prisoners. I’ve worked with thousands of prisoners in programs for close to thirty-four years. Some work, and help people get out of prison and stay out. But others are “paper programs,” ineffective, with hefty state contracts funding “professionals” who are going through the motions, “faking a move,” as they say in prison.

You say you want to know what works and what doesn’t? Talk to the prisoners, the ones who live there. We know.


Monday, August 18, 2014


Tuesday morning, early, August 12, twelve of us leaving Okaloosa C.I. were herded on the Bluebird, the prison bus. In a cloud of diesel exhaust, I turned my head away for the last time from the Panhandle hellhole where I’d spent the past twenty-eight months. My main thought was, “Thank God!”

At my last 5:30 AM breakfast at Okaloosa, the sergeant in charge of the re-entry dorm and program was upset that I was leaving. In one fell swoop seven classes that I’d been teaching became leaderless. I felt regret for the almost one hundred students I left behind, who looked to me for guidance, but one of the oldest adages of prison life came to mind: you come to prison alone and you leave alone. (Not counting your family and loved ones, who serve your sentence with you. Inside these prison fences, you are on your own. No promises, no guarantees.)

More needy prisoners, more classes, more service awaits me. Once the officer told me to pack my property, I looked ahead, not behind. That didn’t make things any easier for the re-entry sergeant, who has to scramble to salvage much-needed programs. She tried to help.

After a couple hours rumbling east on I-10, we got dumped out at the Northwest Florida Reception Center, at Chipley, which continued the strip searches, ransacking of personal belongings, profanity-laced verbal abuses and humiliation by guards specially selected for their sadism. Although they took two personal towels I’d had since the 1990’s, some pens, and broke my radio headphones, I felt I got off lightly, considering the abuses heaped upon some of my fellow travelers. Sometimes, having served thirty-six years in prison for murder bestows a small advantage. “Leave him alone. He might snap and kill you.” that is an advantage the run-of-the-mill drug offender, burglar and sex offender can’t claim, as undeserved as it is in my case.

We spent the night at that hellhole, were awakened at 2:30 AM Wednesday morning, endured several hours of boredom, abuses, and ransacking before forty-plus prisoners were packed into another prison bus for the next leg of the journey, a four-hour trip that became a six-hour survival test in a metal oven on wheels. Temperatures in the nineties, heat index (outside) over one hundred degrees. I have no idea how hot it was in that overheated tin can, but it was insufferable.

Tiny window grills barely admitted even a hot breeze. When a semi-truck would fly past us, it would push fresh air through the window slits, but otherwise we sweated and suffered. Holocaust cattle cars came to  mind.

A prison bus is a locked cage on wheels, and inside that big cage was a smaller cage holding three prisoners from disciplinary confinement. Whether from the unbearable heat, a lack of water, or epilepsy, about an hour east of Tallahassee, a prisoner in the smaller cage began having a grand mal seizure. The two prisoners in the cage with him didn’t know what to do, except try to prevent him from hurting himself worse, and yell to the guards to stop the bus.

They are not stopping the bus. Forget it. Forty-plus prisoners in leg irons versus two guards with pistols. Anyone could fake a heart attack or a seizure. This one was for real. Didn’t matter.

There is a procedure for everything in prison. We were crossing Madison County, so the bus driver diverted to Madison C. I., drove inside the fences, and called for a nurse. The noon-day sun beat down on the thin metal covering of the Bluebird. I know how the turkey must have felt in the oven, except he was cleaned and plucked, but I was just roasted.

We sat there in the broiling sun. I felt light-headed, soaked in sweat. Several prisoners implored the guard outside for water. He relented and sent in a jug of tepid water, scarcely enough for a cup apiece.

One of the main complaints of modern prisoners is the lack of unity and purpose among the prison population. Gone are the days of protests, sitdown strikes and petitions. Economy-size pepper spray canisters are liberally applied to brook any dissent. In a dog-eat-dog prison world, it is every man for himself. But yesterday, packed together and suffering in a sweltering prison bus, for a short time every man rose above his circumstances and shared in a rare commodity, water.

I was seated in the back of the bus, near the exit door, where the water jug was placed. No way would those few gallons stretch to the parched men at the front of the bus, but in a spontaneous example of altruism, the men in possession of the water jug signaled for the men at the front to pass their cups back. The cips were half-filled and passed to the front, hand-to-hand, until everyone had drunk some, then the water was parceled out until it was gone a few minutes later.

The man who had suffered the seizure remained unresponsive. They maneuvered him out of the cage, to medical, and eventually we continued on our way to the North Florida Reception and Medical Center at Lake Butler, Florida. More institutionalized, profanity-laced abuse was endured. Do they train their people in inhumanity and humiliation tactics, or does it come naturally?

We finally wound up inside the building, seated in folding chairs, for medical screening. Take your weight and vital signs, blood pressure, pulse, etc. The scale must have been off. I know every one of us lost a lot of weight to dehydration in the six-plus hour trip in the sweatbox, but I weighed 224 pounds Tuesday, and 210 pounds on Wednesday. After drinking about a gallon of cool water from the inside fountain, I replaced some of that lost weight.

Two nurses asked each of us standard questions they read from a form:

“Do you know who you are, and why you are here? (YES).
“Do you fear being beat up or sexually assaulted while you are here?” (NO).
“Do you intend to beat up or sexually assault anyone while you are here?” (NO).
“You aren’t thinking about suicide, are you?” (NO).
“Have you ever attempted suicide or harmed yourself?” (NO).
“Are you under psychiatric treatment or care?” (NO).
“Do you have any skin diseases, sores, or skin lesions?” (NO).
“Do you know how to seek medical care and access sickcall?” (YES).

As I answered their questions, I smiled to myself and wondered what they would do had I given the opposite answers instead. After all those hours in the bus, then hours waiting outside before going inside, we had to endure more threats concerning using the bathroom, urinals only, one-by-one, row-by-row, or it would be closed. One elderly man told the officer that he was sick, could not hold it, and had defecated in his pants while sitting there.

That revelation sparked more abuse and humiliating remarks from the guard. “That’s a shitty thing to do,” “What do you want me to do about it?” and “Just sit there for awhile.” Another officer sent an inmate orderly to the laundry for a pair of boxers and pants. Eventually the sick person was allowed to clean himself up.

A couple hours later, back outside, waiting for our bunk assignments, the second officer made a rare apology for the first officer’s actions, saying it was wrong to heap humiliation on the prisoner in front of everyone, that every week at least two people get off the arriving buses vomiting and sick from eating the bologna sandwiches in the bag lunches provided by the previous institution, that it wasn’t the prisoner’s fault he’d become sick.

At five PM, settled in, we went to supper in the distant chowhall under threat of dark gray storm clouds. I’m not going to tell you what we ate. You wouldn’t believe me. While we ate, the storm clouds unleashed lightning and pounding rain, stranding us in the chowhall until it had passed over. They weren’t concerned about us getting wet, but the lightning play hell with their fence alarms, and if one of us got struck by lightning, the state would be held liable to our survivors for damages. So we sat awhile. Supper was temporarily suspended.

A couple hours later, surprisingly, it had cleared up, and they called us to go to the rec yard canteen. Another prisoner told me I was wasting my time lining up, that my canteen debit card wouldn’t be activated yet, but I didn’t care. I needed the walk, the chance to be out in the open air, to see the sky, the trees outside the fences, the birds flying.

Miraculously. as if to reward my optimism, a bright rainbow  formed in the east, a colorful semicircle ringing the sky, reaching down to the tree line, followed by a second rainbow above the first, framing the distant landscape. The long canteen line of prisoners and the supervising guards stopped to stare in wonder at the sight, until it faded and disappeared fifteen minutes later.

When I returned to the dorm empty-handed, another prisoner said, “Wasted trip, huh?” I replied, “Not at all,” smiled to myself, and got in another line for the phone, to call my long-suffering wife, Libby, to let her know I was okay. Better than okay, I felt redeemed.

I told her that during that long trip across North Florida on Interstate 10, I was humbled at the thought of her repeated sacrifices, driving those long distances through monotonous thickets of undergrowth lining the highway to visit me. One trip wiped me out — true, she drives a much more comfortable vehicle, her Kia Soul, “Miss Daisy,” but her repeated six-hour treks each way from Jacksonville on the Atlantic coast, to Okaloosa, on the Gulf of Mexico, proved a rare love and dedication for me.

Today is Thursday, August 14, 2014. I had expected to spend only one night here, at Lake Butler, and proceed to Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando early this morning, but the guard, like the Passover Angel, passed me by. Perhaps I will spend the weekend here and ride south on Monday, which is my preference, since I am temporarily near Jacksonville. Libby can make a much shorter drive to visit me here, an unexpected bonus.

This morning we had “mandatory rec,” and were herded out of the dorm to the swampy rec yard. I found a bench beneath a small wood pavilion and began writing this update. Fifty yards away, on the other side of the razorwire fences, birds perched in pines and a dozen other varieties of trees called and sang for me. At least I felt their songs were for me. It didn’t seem as though anyone else noticed, but I tried to squeeze every bit of perception from the scene. Rain frogs called from nearby hiding places. Two dozen sparrows hurriedly pecked at a discarded biscuit. A tiger swallowtail butterfly flew inside the fence, flitted past me, thought better of it, and flew back toward the woods it came from.

Still not certain of my destination, I will patiently bear any burdens they place on me, and thank God for the fervent prayers of those who are observing this journey. Some positive things are happening on multiple fronts, especially with some new, favorable rules affecting the parole commission, which recently changed its name to the “Florida Commission on Offender Review” (FCOR). Hopefully, the rules change and name change will auger a positive change in my release date.

ADDENDUM:  I wrote “The Bluebird of Sadness” some time ago, based on other prison trips, but the sentiments remain the same. I asked Libby to reprint it here:


By Charles Patrick Norman

The prison bus, the Bluebird of Sadness, greets us
inside the fenced sallyport gate with rear door open,
beckoning like the black maw of the Beast, trudge now
up the three flimsy metal steps to your fate.
Fifty men pack into the Bluebird struggling with our
mesh bags of meager belongings: hopeless trial transcripts,
Dear John letters, flip-flops, empty deodorants, Gideon Bibles
given out by do-gooders like magic protective talismans,
stacking ourselves in broken seats, rusted shelves without
upholstery, steel grates bolted over windows, no escape,
shipped like UPS boxes with leg irons, signed for,
except UPS deliverymen don’t pack pistols and shotguns.

The old diesel wheezes, the guard/driver grinds gears,
stomps the brakes, laughs at laws of inertia staggering
those left standing, catching their balance on seat backs
and shoulders, bracing themselves for the eight-hour
transport to another anonymous fenced-in pasture, a prison
not unlike the last one, or the ones before, or after.
The heaving, rocking Bluebird of Sadness groans, complains
up the incline interstate entrance ramp, melds into
a racing river of rubber and steel cans filled with
citizens traveling in parallel lives, staring straight ahead,
talking on cell phones or nodding their heads to silent
music beamed from satellites, oblivious to their destinies,

Or the Bluebird of Sadness packed with lost souls on
their way to Purgatory, different destinations, yet the same.
We dread/desire the crash, the out-of-control Bluebird
of Sadness tumbling along the highway, scattering speeding
citizens to the Four Winds like ninepins or dandelions,
the blue-clad, chained sacrificial rams rotating like plaid
shirts, socks, blouses, trousers inside the clothes dryer,
padlocked, unable to escape the inevitable flames.
We plant our heads against window grates to get a better look
at cars and citizens zipping past us to the left, an occasional
glimpse of legs and thighs that generates hoots and catcalls from men
whose only solace comes from their imaginings or other men.

Bladders fill and men form lines in the aisle to a metal funnel
mounted waist-high at the back of the bus, connected to a tube that
drains through a hole in the floor, dribbling noxious urine
onto the pavement at sixty miles per hour, Lexus, BMW, Benz,
Nissan, Kia and Chevrolet plowing through yellow mist unaware.
Swerves and surges tumble one lost soul from his attempted
perch over the funnel, spraying others, curses, shoves,
and fists swinging, grumbles, buttons up his wet trousers
(no zippers allowed in prison), staggers past other full bladders
in the aisle, takes his rusty, broken seat, awaits the coming fences,
open gates drawing in the Bluebird of Sadness and her
load of flesh, to feed the monster, Moloch, once again.

Copyright 04/16/2013  all rights reserved

Libby and Charlie at Lake Butler West
Saturday, August 16, 2014


Sunday, August 3, 2014


Editor's note: As parents know, sometimes incidents from our children's growing up years that seem dire when they occur look much different from the perspective of years later. I hope you like this poem. Libby


A poem by Charles Patrick Norman

A rusted barbed wire fence separated our
backyard from Mister Bonham’s forty-acre
cow pasture ruled by Big Red, a White-faced
Hereford bull, called that because
of the curly-blond locks that grew upward
to where massive horns sprouted, jutting
out from the sides of his towering head.

I longed to climb the apple tree a hundred
feet away, deep within the forbidden zone
where we were not allowed to play
or go, upon penalty of facing our mother’s
wrath, or threats of the minotaur’s goring.
I had run the gauntlet short weeks before,
but unripened green fruit, so sour, puckered my lips.

Now-ripe red orbs beckoned to a seven-year old boy,
Siren song calling across the empty field of grass,
Big Red and his harem far on the other side.
Surely Eve faced no greater temptation when
offered to partake of the tree bearing knowledge
of good and evil in that lost garden, and
neither was I any stronger than she had been.

A fair fall day, sun shining, my brother, Dan, not
yet three, slightly-built, stood beside me,
both of us barefoot and shirtless, hands on
the fencing, we stared at the apple tree. Do you
want to help me pick some apples? Of course
he nodded, smiling, safe, our mother tending baby Tom.
I held up the bottom wire and we scuttled through.

How many enchanted children had climbed those
gnarled branches before me I could not comprehend,
in harvest seasons come and gone. The bounty
belonged to us now, the only question how to get
the luscious fruit from high above to down below
without bruising. Hold out your hands, Dan,
I said, Catch it! He tried, apples bouncing

off his tiny hands, hitting his head
and tumbling to the ground, oh well.
Here’s another, Dan, try to catch it. Bounce,
hit, roll, didn’t matter, he was all right
at least he had broken the apple’s fall.
When we had four I climbed even higher
to pluck two more. We should have gone.

Just a little higher, just out of reach, I stretched
for the best one yet, a dark red apple
so perfect  in color, shape and form I had
to have it. The tree lured me past reason.
I heard Dan, far below, call, Charles,
then Charles again, before I looked down to
see him pointing, repeating one word, Bull, bull!

I looked out through branches and leaves swaying.
Dan called out, Bull! again. My heart
double-thumped at the sight of Big Red
rumbling toward us, dual horns held high,
faster and faster he came to deal with interlopers
invading his territory. Throat constricted in dread,
I couldn’t call out, then finally screamed, Run, Dan, Run!

Scattered apples forgotten, I jumped the last few feet,
fell, scrambled up and ran after my little brother, who
cried out, making uh, uh, uh sounds. I saw
his little legs, pumping so fast they seemed to blur
as I passed him, running with all my might
toward the barbed wire fence an eternity away.
Too afraid to look back, I felt the earth tremble in dread.

No time to slow, I dove head first beneath
the wire, slid on my stomach, felt steel
talons slice long thin lines down my bare back.
At last I looked back at Dan, so small, so fast,
face contorted, eyes wide, Big Red behind him, closing
distance. Run, Dan, Run! I screamed again. Holding
up the bottom wire fencing for him, he barely ducked

his head and was through — except a barb snagged
the waist band at the back of his little drawers —
he was caught! — or so he thought, and screamed,
thinking Big Red had him, running in place, another tug,
then he was free. Big Red pulled up, snorted, turned away,
done with us this day. Then we saw our mother on
the back porch, jaws clenched, not done with us at all.