Wednesday, April 4, 2018

My 40th Easter in prison April 1, 2018


I remember it well, my last Easter in freedom, Sunday, March 26, 1978.
My nephew and niece, Timmy and Tammy Norman, were seven and five years old – Tammy would be six in 2 and one-half months, and I was looking forward to their Easter egg hunt at my parents’ house in Thonotosassa, FL. I had spray painted and decorated two jumbo prize eggs, and attached money to them, which delighted the children. Little did I know that in 10 days time my life in free society would come to an abrupt end. 40 years later, my dear wife Libby and I celebrated Easter 2018, at the visiting park in Tomoka CI, in Daytona Beach Florida, my 40th Easter in prison, her 18th.

I reflected on that last Easter in freedom, and thought about another Easter in prison years ago, when things were far different than they are now. I had been transferred to Zephyrhills C.I. to start a golab chapter in 1983, and by 1985, we had a core of Christian prisoners and outside volunteers who accomplished things that have never been done in prison, nor would they happen again.
Months before Easter 1985, we brainstormed what we wanted to accomplish for a special Easter sunrise service, where our family visitors would actually come inside the prison for the service. Many men had wives and young children, and one of the proposals was for an Easter egg hunt for the children. Why not? Let’s try it. I typed the memoranda, volunteer Larry Stanley took the papers to the warden, who, to my surprise, approved everything. A wealthy volunteer agreed to cover all the expenses. We were in business!

Good Friday afternoon a dozen of us were dyeing 600 boiled eggs furnished by the kitchen when I was paged to the gatehouse.. Not good.

Warden Henderson, Maj. Hill, and Lieut. Commerford were waiting for me in the visiting park. Henderson was a volatile personality, his moods changing quickly, and I was on my guard. He flipped through the memoranda pages. What Henderson giveth he could take away.
“Charlie, you’ve done a hell of a job putting all this together, but we have one big problem.”
“The Easter egg hunt,” I said.
“Right. The major and the Lieut. are concerned over all these children inside the prison hunting Easter eggs. You know we have a lot of child molesters here, and we don’t have enough security to watch all those kids. One incident could cost us our jobs,” the warden said.

“Sir, you don’t need to worry about security,” I said. “We have our own security crew, a dozen convicted murderers and armed robbers who have sworn to protect those children with the child molesters’ lives. We have already identified all the child molesters, and they have to stay outside the Easter egg hunt boundary. If any one of them strays, our guys will take care of it.”

Henderson thought about it, his eyes moving.

“Let me get this straight. Murderers and armed robbers are going to protect the children from the child molesters.”

“Yes sir.”

“Brilliant,” Henderson said, then burst out laughing. The major and Lieut. followed later. The Easter egg hunt was still on.

80 men were up at 2 AM to collect 300 folding chairs from the dorms and set them up on the asphalt roadway near the chapel. Carpenters had built a stage and a large wooden cross. At 5 AM, over 100 visitors began streaming into the visiting park. The kitchen provided orange juice, coffee, and hot cinnamon rolls for the visitors. By 5:40 AM, 200 prisoners had joined the 100 visitors seated inside the prison. The prison band and choir joined an outside church choir singing Easter hymns. State Sen. John Grant of Tampa delivered the message, the trial and crucifixion of Jesus from a legal standpoint. Jesus was shafted by a corrupt system, too. The sun rose to the east.
My mother Lucille Norman, my sister-in-law Sandy Norman and niece Tammy sat with me, surrounded by a dozen men without visitors. My family lived only 12 miles from Zephyrhills, and they usually joined me each Sunday for church service. The prisoners had gotten to know my family over the past two years, and had been befriended by my mother. It was a wonderful time.
After the singing and preaching, more refreshments were served in the garden area beside the chapel. Then the Easter egg hunt began. 29 children were given nice Easter baskets by the smiling volunteers, and the children ran back and forth finding the hundreds of eggs that had been hidden a few hours before. Some were hidden too well. Weeks later lost eggs still turned up.

By 9:30 it was time to return to the visiting park. Everyone had been touched by the sight of the delighted children finding eggs. We had separate hunting areas for the smallest children, and mothers and fathers happily pointed out hidden eggs for their toddlers. One man approached me, holding his two sons, tears in his eyes. He thanked me for the first opportunity he had had to share such a time with his boys. They were babies when he came to prison. It was all worthwhile.
That was then. This is now. Libby and I spent our Easter, 2018, in a crowded, noisy visiting park reading the Easter story from a dog-eared Gideon Bible. No Easter egg hunts Easter egg No Easter egg. No church services. No garden or trees.
Prison is a far un-friendlier place for visiting families now. It is obvious that a concerted effort is in play to discourage and eventually to end family visits, which would be a lose - lose proposition not only for the families and society, but also for the rehabilitation of prisoners. 98% of the prison population will eventually be released. Those who had family support get out of prison and stay out. The 95 – 97% of the prisoners who don’t get visits are far more likely to return. A shame.

On this Easter Sunday, 2018, a 68-year-old man thinks about the 28-year-old man who hid Easter eggs for two children long ago. The seven-year-old boy, Timmy, is 47, with four children. Tammy is 45, with a 20-year-old daughter of her own. I wonder where Libby and I will celebrate Easter, 2019, together. Pray that it will be “out there,” in a church in free society, no longer inside these razor wire fences.
 God bless you, and Happy Easter!
Charlie and Libby Norman