Friday, October 18, 2019

Charlie and Libby Visit With Good Friend

Above: Charlie and Libby Norman visit with old friend Gary Mercer at Tomoka C. I., Daytona Beach, Florida, on Saturday, September 28, 2019

Twenty-three years ago, I worked in the Education Department at Sumter C.I., near Bushnell, Florida. I originally came to Sumter to participate in the R.I.T.E. Program (Responsible Inmate-Taught Education), a federal grant program to train college-educated prisoners as teachers, to fill in the budget cutbacks for teachers in the prison system statewide. The program was unique in that it had been created by a very smart prisoner, David Tal-Mason, who I'd known and worked with in vocational HVAC at Polk C.I. years before. We had brainstormed various ideas for new programs, and I had warned David about protecting federal grant proposals from FDOC tampering, which was commonplace then. He took those warnings to heart, and the R.I.T.E. Program progressed intact.

Sumter had a very large, full-scale education department, and the R.I.T.E. Program took up a spacious classroom/office on the second floor. One day the empty classroom next to ours became the substance abuse program, a privately-contracted program sponsored by Rev. Frank Costantino's ''Bridges of America,'' based in Orlando.

I had known Frank for years. I introduced myself to the ''free people'' running the new program, Gary Mercer, an ex-Marine from Massachusetts, and Melissa DeJarlais, ex-Air Force from Minot, North Dakota. Although I wasn't assigned to their program, I was the ''go-to guy,'' if someone needed something, I was the problem solver. Gary and Melissa were obviously good people, sincerely concerned about helping prisoners, and I got along well with them, trying to help them understand the alien prison world they found themselves in.

Sumter had a full-scale recreation program, a big multipurpose building with a basketball court, weightlifting, band/music program, and arts and crafts, where men did woodwork, leatherwork, and art. I spent much of my free time in the art room, open until nine p.m., seven days a week, creating acrylic, watercolor, and pastel paintings.

Florida law still in effect authorizes prisoners to make and sell hobby craft items in their off-duty time. That's a dead horse in today's harsh, no-frills prison system. I kept most of my paintings, my retirement fund, I called it, but I sold one or two a month to prison staff to pay for my art materials. The state gave us the space, but we bought our materials.

I went through a period of wildlife paintings, and focused on birds for awhile, egrets, waterbirds, hawks, and owls. I painted a large swooping eagle in acrylics, and took it over to the school to show the teachers. Gary Mercer took one look at the painting, and asked, ''How much?'' He filled out the paperwork, deposited the money, and the eagle was his.

Twenty-three years passed. Life moved on. Gary left Sumter. I went on a tour of violent prisons, ending up at Tomoka for a second time in 2018. Then Libby got an email sent to the web site from Gary Mercer, who now lived, retired, in Spring Hill, Florida, with his wife, Marion. He said he thought about me every day, seeing my name on the eagle painting on his wall. He wondered if I'd gotten out of prison, looked me up, and sent an email to Libby. He remembered me well from Sumter, and offered to help our freedom efforts in whatever way he could. He also felt strongly that his eagle painting belonged back with the artist, and mailed it to Libby, who was deeply moved by his concern and generosity.

After months of paperwork and rigmarole, Gary won approval to visit, which he did this past Saturday. It was very good to see him. Father Time has been good to Gary, he's virtually unchanged in appearance, and continues helping others, mostly with AA.

With all the negatives we must endure to survive this life in prison, Libby and I count our blessings for the guardian angels, like Gary, who continue to light our path out of the darkness.

Charlie Norman

In these 1996 photos of me taken in the Sumter C.I. art room, 
you can see Gary's eagle, along with other artworks.

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