The guards conduct their master count at 10 p.m. each night, going from cell to cell with their list, calling out each person’s name in turn, and each of us responds by calling out our prison number. They verify that no one is missing, then cut off the glaring lights, and we go to sleep. This night was different. The lights didn’t go out.
At 10:55 p.m. about twenty-one prison guards and two drug sniffing dogs bum-rushed the day room area of our wing, which contains twenty-eight two-man cells. “Everybody strip down to your boxers, lay face-down on your bunks, don’t look around or you’re going to confinement.”
Great. Another one of these drug interdiction ransacking shakedowns. The stormtroopers have arrived.
While we lay face-down on our bunks for the next fifteen minutes, the dope dogs ran in and out of every cell, upstairs and downstairs. They’d been sniffing other housing areas for several hours — we’d seen them pass by our building a couple of times — and must have been tired. When they came in and out of my cell two or three times, futilely sniffing for contraband, both dogs panted heavily. I dared not look. I didn’t want to risk going to lock-up on the house for disobeying an order.
A scramble. The dogs detected a suspicious scent upstairs. They took the two young black men out of the cell, searched their belongings, and found drugs hidden. Lock-up for one.
Once that was done, they herded us all into the day room to sit on benches while the stormtroopers ransacked each cell, one-by-one. I grabbed a spot on a bench where I could see into my cell if I surreptitiously turned my head and watched with my peripheral vision. A tall, young prison guard entered my cell and began to methodically ransack all my belongings.
Don’t miss other stories by Charles Norman, including Terrifying Report on Prison Gangs From A “Lifer” Who’s Seen It All.
A few months ago, when I had been subjected to retaliation and reprisals by guards at another institution for having filed an official complaint against another guard for reprisal, I used the term “ransacked” to describe what that guard did to my belongings. When my wife filed a complaint to the Florida governor’s office about my mistreatment and resulting solitary confinement, a state prison inspector investigating the complaint asked me to define what I meant by “ransacking.” Let me be precise in describing how this “correctional officer” conducted his cell search.
First, he removed the pillow case, tossed it and my pillow on the floor, and stepped on it as he stripped the sheets and blanket from my thin mattress. Nothing under the mattress. Sheets and blanket on the cell floor.
Next, he opened the lid of the floor locker containing several dozen legal envelopes with court papers, transcripts, and other documents. One-by-one he dumped out each envelope on the floor, tossing the envelope aside, not even looking at the contents. An envelope of family photos got dumped out and scattered, along with a couple of magazines and books. Then he lifted out my Bible, flipped through it, and dropped it, open, on the growing pile of papers.
My laundry bag containing personal clothing, sweatshirts, pajamas, socks, boxers, and t-shirts, got dumped in the corner. The young guard intentionally placed his boot on my Bible as he stepped out of the cell for a moment, apparently winded.
Two more guards joined him outside my cell, fist-bumping and laughing, having fun. If this had happened “on the street,” in the free world, it would be called home invasion. In prison, it is called business as usual.
A fourth young guard carrying a black back pack joined the first three, then all four crowded into my cell. These cells were originally designed for one man, but with stacked bunk beds, they are overcrowded with two men inside, let alone four. They cavalierly stepped on the dumped-out papers, and the first one appeared to intentionally step on my Bible again. I wondered what had happened to him to cause him to show such contempt and disrespect to a holy book.
The fourth guard set the black nylon back pack on the jumbled pile of my belongings, leaned over and unzipped it. Uh oh! This is the part where he takes out the contraband and plants it in my mattress. I craned my neck around, staring directly at the men, unconcerned that they might see me looking at them. I didn’t care at this point. I’d been hustled out of view when crooked guards planted a knife in my mattress at Cross City C.I. several months before. This time, I wanted to be an eyewitness. I did a “Psst” sound toward my cellmate, who sat with his head facing the floor. He looked at me. I nodded toward our cell.
The guard took out a bottled water, twisted the cap, and took a drink. False alarm.
One of the new guards reached into the bunk locker and pulled out my blue mesh canteen bag filled with various food items I’d bought at the inmate canteen that day. He dumped it out on the floor, and the other guards strewed the floor packets around, looking through them. The first guard picked up a “L’il Chub” sausage ($1.38), ripped open the plastic wrapper, and ate it in about three bites. You can get hungry shaking down and ransacking prisoners’ belongings. Another guard opened a packet of banana cookies (79¢), took out a couple, then handed the open pack to another guard. They rummaged around for several more minutes, my view blocked by the two standing in the narrow doorway, then moved to the next cell.
I didn’t recognize any of the guards, and learned later that the twenty-one-plus stormtrooper team had come from Suwanee C.I., a notorious prison west of here, well-known from the prison grapevine for setting up, assaulting, and brutalizing prisoners. With their I.D. cards covered up or missing, it was impossible to get any names of the anonymous guards. Their identities protected, they acted boldly, with impunity. In a warped exchange program, an anonymous stormtrooper team from this prison will reciprocate and visit that prison for a corresponding ransacking at another time.
That is how I describe “ransacking.” What good would it do to file an official complaint? The top officials at this prison, the warden, assistant warden, colonel, and shift captain, came in while the ransacking was proceeding, “skinnin’ and grinnin’,” as they say in prison, greeting and shaking hands with their blood brothers, but left well before the shakedown was completed, at almost half-past midnight.
We were locked in our cells, the floor covered in trashed belongings. I was tired. I made a feeble attempt to sort out some of my things, dug out my sheets and pillow, made my bunk, and lay down, putting off the clean-up until the next day. Such hostile actions affect everyone negatively. I had a difficult time getting to sleep.
The next morning I got up, put on my headphones, and turned on my radio for the news. That was strange. My radio was dead. I’d just replaced the little batteries the week before ($2.75 plus tax). No way they were dead already. I turned the radio over and checked the compartment. No batteries. They’d stolen my batteries, too! How petty, I thought.
A couple hours later a guard told me to pack up, my custody had dropped, I was moving to an “open dorm,” a convenience store-sized room crammed with ninety-two or so bunks and prisoners. Close quarters.
The Florida D.O.C. dropped my custody from “close” to “medium” in 2009, where it had remained, except when a hostile classification officer at Okaloosa had manipulated the state computer to put me back at “close” for awhile, until the computer corrected the error.
Having “medium custody” brings few actual benefits, except to show that the prison system considers me, with a 2017 parole date, “low risk.”
I’d hardly gotten settled in my new accommodations when I noticed the catchy phrase, “A Clean Prison is a Happy Prison,” painted on one of the walls (who thinks up these things?). Then, on the large blank wall at the north side of the building I saw words meticulously painted in twelve-inch letters, the new D.O.C. motto, I supposed, since it seems to be posted everywhere: “Changing Lives to Ensure a Safer Florida” and below that in smaller letters, the words: “Trust — Respect — Accountability — Integrity — Leadership.”
A couple of prisoners nearby looked at me oddly when I burst out laughing. (There are a lot of crazy people in here, so such occurrences are common). They went back to their card game and ignored me.
Looking at those words, I thought about the stormtroopers’ visit the night before, and wondered how that aligned with the hollow words on the wall. How could their repressive, destructive actions change lives, and ensure a safer Florida? It seemed that their very acts worked to counter the motto’s intent by creating anger and hatred in many people offended by the Gestapo tactics. True, thanks to the drug dog’s work, they did catch one prisoner with contraband, one out of fifty-four, less than 2%.
Other men complained of losing canteen food items, too. It appeared that the Suwanee stormtroopers considered their shakedowns to be an authorized buffet, to snack on whatever they chose. Any complaints would be denied, as they always are, and probably unleash additional reprisals and repercussions. The courts call that threat a “chilling effect” on one’s First Amendment rights to challenge government actions.
After moving to the open dorm, over the next several days, we were subjected to additional senseless ransackings, apparently a regular and frequent activity. Absolutely no contraband was found on any of these, just prisoners’ meager property tossed around and scattered.
They got away with it. But what did they lose? “Trust, respect, accountability, integrity, and leadership?” That, and much more.
Among several hundred thousand state employees, the prison guards are at the very bottom of the barrel in peer respect and esteem. The ones who try to do a good job are tarred with the same brush that blackens the reputations of those who misuse their authority to abuse prisoners or conduct illegal activities, in small ways like stealing canteen items and more serious ways such as smuggling of drugs, tobacco and cell phones. Morale levels are at an all-time low. And there is no end in sight. What kinds of personalities are drawn to work in such an environment? To a considerable extent, it’s those who derive personal satisfaction from abusing their authority.
The feds use psychological testing and screening to filter out many disturbed guard candidates. The state does not.
Twenty years ago, when I was at Sumter C.I., near Bushnell, the feds built “Coleman,” a new federal prison, and solicited Sumter C.I. staff to apply for jobs at higher pay and better benefits. Most of the best employees took advantage of the opportunity and left state employ to go to the feds.
One notable exception was a short, potbellied guard nicknamed, “Spanky,” who worked in the recreation department. I asked Spanky why he hadn’t joined so many of his comrades and gone over to the feds. “I applied for a job over there with them feds,” Spanky said, spitting a long stream of brown tobacco juice on the ground. “They gave me a mental health evaluation with some woman doctor. She said I was psychologically unfit to be a correctional officer.”
I smiled. “You know, Spanky,” I said, “I have a lot of respect for those feds.”
Back to the present. In the week following the midnight ransacking and my move to the open dorm, we were subjected to two more ransackings, this time during daylight hours, by local guard crews. On one occasion, a prisoner inside the dorm shouted out the window to a friend passing by on his way back from chow, which caused an angry sergeant to summon 6 or 7 officers to come into the dorm to ransack our belongings yet again. The sergeant specifically said that since one man had yelled out the window, we would all have our belongings trashed to teach us a lesson. “Everybody on your bunks and open your lockers.” We did so. 93 men were subjected to group punishment because of the actions of one person. In the guards’ eyes that seems fair and makes perfect sense.
In my eyes, not so much; in fact, not at all.
Charles Norman has been serving LIFE for 1st degree murder in Florida since 1979, a murder he says he did not commit.
Charles Norman #881834