Saturday, March 20, 2021

Cruel and Unusual


March 2, 2021

Four days later, I am still recovering from my ordeal this past Friday. On Thursday, February 25, 2021, I took another one of several scheduled medical trips to the Lake Butler RMC prison hospital for tests. This one was a CT Scan for the neurologist, Dr. Gama, who is treating my myasthenia gravis condition. A separate MRI will be scheduled later.

I rode to Lake Butler in a fifteen-seat Ford transport van with another prisoner receiving cancer treatments. We left Lake C.I. around five-thirty a.m., got to the prison hospital early, and returned to Lake C. I. during lunch. Not counting the handcuffs, waist chains and leg irons, it had been a fairly pleasant, uneventful day. Little did I know that in less than twenty-four hours I would experience the road trip from Hell.

Friday, three-nineteen a.m., the guard woke me from a sound sleep to tell me to get dressed for a medical trip. Two days in a row? They must be serious about getting me tested and treated. Three RMC specialists had ordered these tests and procedures in July, 2019, but unbeknownst to me or anyone else at the time, the quack resident doctor at Tomoka C.I., Dr. C. Calderon, now retired to Puerto Rico, had come behind the specialists' orders and cancelled them. Oncologist Dr. Roy Montoya had discovered the discrepancy when I missed follow-up oncology consultations for over a year.

It appeared that the specialists, private practice physicians on contract with Centurion, the corporation that provides healthcare to state prisons, were trying to make up for the lost year. I wondered how badly my medical conditions had deteriorated in the past year-plus. A lot.

Two other prisoners from my dorm were going on the Friday medical trip. When we got to the gatehouse, where we would don our shackles and chains, we found two more prisoners waiting for us, a total of five--a crowd. One was a very large man on aluminum crutches, going for surgery on his broken right ankle that had become infected. He'd snapped bones in his ankle during a fight with his cell mate, his foot getting wedged behind his footlocker when he fell the other way. He would take up two seats, easily.

The fifth fellow traveler was a psych patient from the mental health unit who had sliced open his belly, to see what his intestines looked like, he explained. He was going back for a checkup. When asked, he confirmed the rumor that another psych patient had castrated himself the previous week, but had survived, contrary to the ''inmate dot com'' rumors of his death. Where are these people getting these sharp objects? I wondered.

They escorted the five of us to the front sallyport gate, where our transport van awaited us. I noticed an oddity immediately. This van was totally enclosed, no windows or grilles, except for the front windshield and two doors. This was one of those ''dog box'' vans we'd heard rumors about for years.

Surely you have seen one of those K-9 pickup trucks with two kennel cages in the back, each cage holding a howling dog, a bloodhound, a drug-sniffing dog, or perhaps a couple of bird dogs. I doubt that you've seen humans stuffed into such cages, and especially not seen four large grown men wedged into such a '''dog box,'' as they call them. If someone crammed four large dogs in one dog box, the Humane Society would have them arrested for animal cruelty. Not so for humans. Why were four of us packed into one small dog box while the psych patient would be confined alone?

It seems that psych patients from the mental health unit are prone to hurting themselves (no kidding!), so they can't be transported in the standard vans with seats. Instead, some sadist designed a van with two dog boxes, two steel containers seven feet wide by two-and-a-half feet deep, stuck in the back. Stretch your arms out in front of you, from a seated position, for the average person, that will be about two-and-a-half feet. Now picture four large men perched on a narrow steel bench, shoulder to shoulder, squeezed in like the proverbial sardines, for hours, in pitch black darkness. Unlike the K-9 dog kennels constructed of steel wire or grilles you see in the backs of pickups, the dogs clearly visible through the screens, fresh air wafting, the prison dog boxes were just that, solid steel boxes.

Cruel and unusual punishment, forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

I've never suffered from claustrophobia, but when that last prisoner with the crutches and bandaged leg was physically pushed inside the dog box so the guards could close the door, I knew what those Japanese commuters in packed subways felt like at rush hour. When they slammed shut the outer door, plunging the dog box interior into darkness, I felt my blood pressure rising, my breathing quickening, and realized I was on the verge of a panic attack. I couldn't take a deep breath. Neither could the men on either side of me, at least not at the same time. Too tight.

This Ford van's shocks were shot. Every bump, every pothole, slammed up through the narrow steel bench into my unsuspecting buttocks. I've lost about twenty-five pounds of weight in the past two years, and there wasn't much padding back there to begin with. It felt like every jolt went directly into my pelvic bones. Could they be driving through a field of tree stumps? It felt like it.

My fellow passengers fared no better. Every hard jolt brought groans of pain. Every hard left turn sent us sliding down the narrow slick bench, piling into each other like bowling pins.

That was during the first fifteen minutes. I couldn't imagine enduring two hours trapped inside that torture device. Heaven forbid if any of my fellow travelers started screaming. It would be contagious.

I have been reading a Tami Hoag novel about a young woman kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer. The author conveyed convincingly the victim's terror at being tightly-bound and held in a car trunk: the darkness, the bumpy ride over bad roads, the pain, the not-knowing your fate. I could empathize with her. All I was missing was the strip of duct tape across my mouth. The dog box was comparable with a standard car trunk in size and disposition. Imagine the four of us tossed in a car trunk. I thought, don't give these people any ideas.

The pitch black darkness, the sliding around corners, the jarring bounces, the disorientation, the pervasive ''not knowing,'' all contributed to my growing claustrophobia. It seemed like the trip north would last forever. I felt like giving up, but didn't know how. There was no stopping this runaway train. There was no respite.

There are several things wrong with my back: deteriorating vertebra/spine issues; arthritis; sciatic nerve. In August, 2016, while disembarking from a prison bus in the rain at Cross City C. I., I slipped on the slick steel top step and fell backwards several feet, landing on my back on the wet concrete. Remarkably, I was able to shake it off and get to my feet after a few minutes. The damage was done. None of the eight sergeants saw anything, nor would they give me their names for witness statements. They scattered.

Since that time, I have suffered from chronic and persistent lower back pain. Every bounce and jolt of the van pierced like knives into my already-injured back. There was no way to lean one way or the other to relieve the agony. I gritted my teeth and hung on. I shifted from one butt cheek to the other — in minutes I felt my pelvic bones numbing and bruising. I would shift my weight again. I leaned forward as far as I could, then shifted again. My thought was that whoever designed these dog boxes and those who authorized their use on prisoners should be forced to share a three-hour rough ride in a dog box. They would shut down the practice immediately.

I wondered if the others were enduring the same suffering in the overcrowded box. Of course they were. The air thickened from the lack of ventilation. I felt groggy, and worried about carbon monoxide, the invisible killer. My luck — survive over forty-two years in prison only to suffocate in a dog box. I silently prayed, over and over, Lord, please deliver us from this Hell. At least an hour passed. No relief.

The man to my left began yelling for air. He couldn't breathe. I thought of George Floyd. The man to my right yelled louder. Did sound penetrate the dog box? I joined in. Suddenly cool air began flowing from an overhead vent. We could breathe. The guards could hear our shouts.

Eventually we arrived at Lake Butler and had to endure more waiting to get processed onto the grounds. It's almost as difficult entering a prison as leaving one. The side door opened. Light! Air! The guards unshackled all the steel restraints.

I was scheduled to see the gastroenterologist, Dr. Li, in preparation for a colonoscopy, my first. Dr. Li asked why the procedure hadn't been done in 2019. I repeated my story of the quack prison doctor nixing the original procedure. After a ten-minute exam Dr. Li rescheduled the colonoscopy. Another trip to Lake Butler loomed in my future.

By ten a.m. I was done. Two other men were also done. I had hopes that we would get out early and get back to Lake C.I., although I didn't relish the return trip in the dog box. It was not to be.

Hours went by. The prisoner waiting for ankle surgery was last on the schedule. The surgeon took his lunch hour. The wooden benches were almost as numbing to sit on as the narrow steel bench in the dog box. At least I could get up and walk around.

Four p.m. The prison hospital resembled a ghost town. The halls were empty. The dozens of prisoners from institutions all over central Florida were gone with their escorts. Nurses packed their see-thru lunch bags and went home. The only other prisoners besides us were three men from Hamilton C. I., also waiting for their surgery patient.

Around six p.m. the guards reported that our guy was in surgery. He came out at seven. We were ready to go, but we couldn't leave. Why? The hours-long count had not ''cleared'' yet. Lake Butler's long counts were worse than Lake's.

We sat. The mental patient showed us the bandages covering his belly and told us about the mental health unit. I learned that the psych patients are served better food than general population prisoners. They also watch first-run DVD movies all day. Cut your wrist, watch a movie.

Count finally cleared. The guards hurriedly chained us up. They were exhausted, too. Now we were facing another count deadline. If we didn't get back to Lake before ten p.m., we'd get caught by the ''master roster count,'' and be forced to wait outside the gate another hour until that count cleared.

The return trip mirrored the first one: interminable pain and suffering. But we beat the call for master roster count. Ten p.m. We stiffly climbed out of the dog box. The two transport guards had to help me out, but I made it. The chains and shackles came off. Then we had to wait for the ten o' clock count to clear. We went to medical to be cleared back to the compound. As I entered C Dorm, they called the eleven o' clock count. My God, people! No one is missing.

My next stop was a hot shower. I let the water run on my back. Relief.

By eleven-thirty I was horizontal on my bunk. Several neighbors came by to ask where I'd been. I gave them the short version. I'd been roused in the predawn darkness. I'd been gone all day and half the night, about twenty hours. Maybe a total of six or seven hours crammed in the dog box. All for a ten-minute consultation. And more trips on the schedule.

I just hope those psych patients quit mutilating themselves, and allow me to make my trip in peace.


Wednesday, March 10, 2021




 A week or so after arriving at Lake C. I., my name appeared on the list to go to Mental Health the next day. Uh oh. I'd had very little contact with prison psychology departments over the years, based on many negative experiences my fellow prisoners had endured. That's the reason we had hired Dr. Harry Krop, an eminent Gainesville psychologist, to conduct three mental health evaluations since 2001. I didn't trust prison psychologists to conduct fair and impartial evaluations that would be reviewed by the parole commission considering my release. Too many of my friends had been ''jammed'' by them, rarely receiving positive recommendations. I was skeptical of talking to some counselor.

Before I continue with my present experience, I want to tell you about the last dealings I had with a prison psychology department.

Polk C.I., 1991. I had two important jobs. Besides my full-time chapel clerk job, I had taken on running the horticulture department, which consisted of a large greenhouse, shade house, and fenced-in outside area. I had seven or eight assistants helping me raise trays of flowers to beautify the compound, and also raise a variety of house plants. My plant propagation efforts resulted in a large inventory of ferns, potted plants and hanging baskets. If any staff members wanted plants for their offices, I would tell them to come to the greenhouse and choose what they wanted. Load up the wheelbarrow.

One of my consistent visitors was the Greek psychiatrist, who was like everyone's grandmother. She would often spend her lunch hour sitting in the greenhouse enjoying the ambiance, admiring the flowers, and giving the resident cat pieces of her lunch. I'd cut bouquets of blooms for her to take back to her office. Nice lady. Her office looked like a jungle.

Polk County Schools had funded the prison horticulture program for many years. They had built the greenhouse and paid for a vocational horticulture teacher who preferred sitting in his office reading magazines, drinking coffee, and smoking cigarettes than dealing with students. He had no objection to my taking over part of the greenhouse for my own use. Soon several interested students drifted over, wanting to learn.

I started off growing pots of jalapeƱo peppers and tomatoes. Prison food is basically bland, unseasoned and tasteless. Peppers are hot commodities in prison, and soon I had developed a nice vegetable garden to go along with the plants and flowers. Lettuce, carrots, radishes, greens and herbs improved our diets. A patch of Silver Queen corn quickly matured.

Budget cutbacks doomed the horticulture program. One day the instructor packed up his coffeemaker, handed me his keys, and skedaddled, never to be seen again. Inside grounds Sgt. Ronnie Edwards told me I was in charge as long as I continued to provide plants for his flower gardens. Deal.

One day I had my crew installing a large bed of begonias at the chapel when a goddess entered the front gate and walked past us on her way to the psychology department. Work stopped. Everyone stared.

Prison is an ugly place, and beauty is rare. Friendly beauty is even rarer. It doesn't take long for beauty in prison to be burned out, hostile and withdrawn from all the crude misogynistic approaches by guards and prisoners. This woman smiled at us, a friendly smile, and my first thought was, she won't last long. She'll leave this place and find a better job in free society.

A week or so later one of my workers came in from an appointment, lit up and beaming. He told us he'd had a counseling session with the new psychologist, who wasn't actually a psychologist, but a sociologist, and who was super nice. She'd offered him a cookie and a cup of coffee, and sat across from him, her tight skirt revealing long tanned legs. How did you get in to see her? I asked. He'd written a request, said he was depressed and needed to talk to someone.

A week later two more of my workers came back from counseling sessions with Ms. Spencer, who had treated them very kindly, listened to their stories, and didn't mind them staring at her legs.

You should put in a request, Charlie, one of them suggested.

Perhaps I will.

So I did.

A week later I got back my request. ''Mr. Norman: I've reviewed your mental health file and determined that you are a well-balanced, intelligent individual with no obvious depression or mental health issues. Therefore, you do not qualify for counseling sessions.''


A few days later the Greek psychiatrist came in to the greenhouse during lunch, the sociologist/goddess in tow. Work stopped.

''Charlie, this is Ms. Spencer, our new sociologist, who just graduated from the University of Florida. She admired my office plants, I told her about you and the greenhouse, and she wanted to see it.''

''The Doctor's office is so beautiful, with all the plants. My office is barren and depressing. I'd love to have some of your house plants.''

I was still a little stung by the counselling rejection, so I wasn't my normal positive self. I wasn't in the mood to be cooperative and nice.

''What sport?'' I asked. Someone who looked like her had to be an athlete.

'' I was on the tennis team four years,'' she said.

Figures. Time to be mean.

''I saw my friends coming back from counseling sessions with the pretty sociologist, smiling, walking on air, how she treated them so nicely, so I put in a request. Bad news. I'm so well-balanced I don't qualify for counseling. I guess I'm not crazy enough. So you can imagine how I feel about giving plants to such a person.''

The Greek shrink's jaw dropped. She looked shocked. I wasn't sure if it was because of me or Ms. Spencer. Ms. Spencer smiled. The greenhouse lit up.

''I’m very sorry, Charlie, about the misunderstanding. My calendar filled up, and I didn't have any open spaces. But if I had some plants in my office, you could come by and water them, say, three times a week during lunch, we could talk then, as long as you want.''

It took me at least three seconds to think about it.

''Let me get my wheelbarrow.''

I was right. She didn't last long, but before she got a better job ''on the street'' she and the Greek psychiatrist enjoyed offices with nice plants.

Back to the present. Lake C. I. has a very large mental health presence. A ''T.C.U.'' crisis facility holds suicidal inmates from all over the state. It's full. Court-ordered prisoner evaluations, including Death Row prisoners, are done there. The line for psych meds is long. The main building is crawling with counselors in glassed-in offices. I went to my callout and sat outside until a very nice young woman summoned me inside. She introduced herself, told me all new arrivals must go through mental health screening and orientation. No big deal.

I had to answer the same old questions: Did I feel like harming myself or others, drug or alcohol issues, any criminals in my family? Nope. Just me.

I found out what I already knew — I'm fine, psychologically speaking, believe it or not, after all these years of imprisonment. But then I heard something new — they offered a dozen monthly counseling sessions for ''normal'' prisoners, upon request.

Oh yeah? I'll think about it.

Weeks went by. I thought about how bad the past year had been. Testing positive for Covid-19. Isolation and quarantine. No visits with my wife for months. My Uncle David dying in Texas. My 91-year old mother dying in September. Getting stabbed twice in December. Locked up in solitary 41 days, ''on the house,'' transferred to Lake, living in crowded dorms filled with drug-addicted junkies, still waiting for my first virus jab, prisoners last.

Maybe I could use some counseling.

So I filled out a request for counseling and sent it in.

I'll let you know how it turns out.


Polk C.I., 1989, Charlie in front of Chapel with many of the flowers he raised there; this display was highly praised for many years. For 35 years, Charlie had used his horticultural skills to grow flowers and plants in many prisons across Florida. He was known for beautifying drab prison grounds with thousands of colorful blooms.


Polk C.I. 1989: A photograph taken by Charlie of his thumb 

and a miniature rose that he grew.