After two years of putting up with the rednecks as a permanent worker at the North Florida Reception Center in Lake Butler, I was guaranteed the opportunity to transfer to the Florida prison of my choice. I opted to go to Dade CI, south of Miami, and gladly boarded the southbound Bluebird bus.
But guarantees coming from Florida DOC are about as solid as Everglades swampland, and when I disembarked I found myself cast back into the 1950s at Copeland Road Prison, set aside the Big Cypress National Preserve on State Road 29, just a few miles north of the Everglades National Park. Copeland looked like a movie set for Cool Hand Luke, complete with a sweatbox and a no-nonsense backwoods character running the place, Major E.H. Stamper.
When I tried to send a letter to the FDOC transfer coordinator complaining of my destination, I got a reply back not from Tallahassee, but from Stamper, written on the back of the envelope I had used: “You think Doyle Kemp can get you out of here, you are wrong. You are mine, and you will not be on the road crew until you expire your sentence.”
Well, wasn’t that just dandy? I decided to just make the best of it, since sling blading and bush axing in the warm outdoors wasn’t really that bad of a way to pass the time. I had about six and a half years to go on my bit, but with the 20-days-a-month gain time everyone gets for working, I could cut that down to four years.
The roadside along Alligator Alley, the east-west U.S. Highway 41 through South Florida, was where we usually did our work, predominantly displayed to show the public the benefit of their prison-earmarked tax dollars. Ol’ Neb demanded “forty skip lines” a day, meaning the distance of 40 dashed stripes down the centerline of the two-lane highway.
It was February 1991, the dry season. Slashing at rioting vegetation between the road and the borrow-pit canal running parallel to the road, we were wary of traffic and vigilant for wildlife. Snakes. Alligators. Spiders. n, when the 10-hour workday promised non-stop sunshine and only a short mid-day break for three peanut butter sandwiches and an orange. Slashing at rioting vegetation between the road and the borrow-pit canal running parallel to the road, we were wary of traffic and vigilant for wildlife. Snakes. Alligators. Spiders. And who knows what else. We could see eight-foot gators cooling off at the bottom of the blackwater canal, rising once in a while to see what our ruckus was all about.
While we were working that stretch an 80-year-old Black woman came out of her cinder block house to dip a pan of water from her footbridge. An alligator rose up and snatched her arm. She pleaded with it (so the newspaper story went), and the beast abided her request and let her go–after it cleanly took off her arm at the elbow. We didn’t step too close to the water’s edge after that.
“You know what’s the worst thing that could happen out here?” Neb queried us during one lunch break.
“Lemme guess,” I said. “They buy you a tractor and you cut ten times more roadside a day than we do, for half the state’s money, and we all get sent home?”
“Naw,” said Neb, perplexed at such an idea. “The worst thing that could happen is one of you talks to the public. Don’t never talk to the public! You do, I got sumthin’ fo’ yo’ ass. You’ll go in the sweatbox, all damn night.”
I could think of worse things than some tourist pulling over and asking me directions to the park entrance, but for Neb, like for his boss, Stamper, the height of righteousness was for a lowly slave laborer to dare to return civil speech to a free-world person, as if we were actually still humans. But, being the riotous type, that’s exactly what I did a few days later, warning be damned. Another prisoner, Scott Turcey, made sure to point out what I was doing to Neb. In return, Turcey got extra oranges in our lunch bag.
When we returned to Copeland that day, Neb went straight in to Stamper and told him what I had done. I was allowed to eat dinner, then off to the box I went. It was a long night, not because of the boredom, but because some staff member was ordered to check on me every 30 minutes. He would open the door, flip on the light, let in a gang of starving swamp mosquitos, then leave me to kill any droning insects. It took me about 25 minutes to get them all swatted, then the door would be open again. Working was rough the next day, sleep-deprived.
I developed a routine of doing whatever Neb told me not to do, so it wasn’t long before I got transferred to Snake Man’s crew, and that’s where the Everglades fun was. Snake Man was a younger guy who came to work with a pick-up truck loaded with snake boxes, containing mostly rattlesnakes. He sold the reptiles to the local serpentarium, and to the Miccosukee Indians who made belts from their skins. He saw our work crew as a cover for his snake-hunting activities, driving us out on the gravel Loop Road to stand in the truck bed and spy out the roadside vipers. Spotting one, he’d screech the truck to a halt and run to snatch the slithering predator before it could escape into the water. It was common to share the bed of the dump truck with several lumpy bags that would all elicit warning rattles in unison every time we hit a pothole.
Snake Man also had a rattlesnake-catching method that was rather clever. He’d load up old plywood and get the leftover cat-head biscuits from our breakfast, toss the plywood in a weedy area, and place a biscuit underneath. By evening the biscuit had attracted a mouse, and the mouse had attracted a snake. We’d flip the plywood over, and lying there would be a fat rattlesnake, too happy to even give us a proper rattle. One day I happened upon one that was still engaged in constricting a poor field rat, the hindquarters still hanging out of its jaws. He was in such a predicament, unable to bite, that I could pick him up and carry him to Snake Man myself.
All went well the first month or so, right up until the gain time notices were posted. Now, laborers got 20 days off their sentence a month, state-wide, as long as they did their work and didn’t get any write-ups. Despite my annoying Neb and disobeying him at every turn, I hadn’t gotten any disciplinary write-ups. I worked as hard as anybody every day, the blisters covering my hands attesting to the fact. Yet my gain time award was only 3 days. The best anybody else did was get 5 days. A few had write-ups, so they effectively got zero, or even went backward on their release date. I learned this system was the norm here, had been for years, and wasn’t about to change.
I asked Steve, who had been at Copeland for three years, and was a top-notch worker, how much his out date had moved in that time.
“I had a February 1994 out date when I got here. Now it’s January 1994.”
Well, to hell with that!
“There’s no f***ing way I’m gonna stay here six years, Steve,” I said, “slinging blades and chasing snakes for basically no time off at all.”
“Yeah, but what can you do? The old man won’t let anybody transfer out. You run off, they’ll tack another 15 years on you. You’re stuck like Chuck, bro. He’s got you like that snake got that rat.”
So I came up with a plan.
Don’t miss: “Officer Down” by Ty Evans
That weekend, acting oblivious to the fact that Scott Turcey was a weasel and a snitch, I sidled up to him and struck up a conversation. I’d been spending my weekends sustaining my long-distance running, circling the yard for hours at a time, the same way I had done at Lake Butler for two years. I could knock out nine-minute miles basically indefinitely, ready for a marathon.
Confiding in Turcey, I said, “I could run from here up north to the Interstate in 90 minutes. Just have to veer off to the side whenever I see headlights.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about saying screw this six years I got left, and going up there and hitching a ride to Miami.”
“You’re all talk! Nobody escapes from here. It’s too risky. They’ll catch you before you make it to the main road, then send you to Raiford with another 15 years.”
“Naw, I got it figured out right down to the minute. I know you can keep a secret for a few days–I’m going to the full moon, which is Tuesday night. As proof, you know those books of mine you like? You can have them right now. Chess set, too”
“You value those books.”
“But, hey, I can’t take ‘em with me.”
With Turcey thoroughly convinced by those (and other) details, I went with Snake Man on Monday to Seminole State Park. We had the privilege that day of escorting orchid hunters into the park, cutting lines with machetes as they went from island to island looking for flowers. Late in the afternoon we were near the entrance, the orchid hunters gone, and I was swinging a bush axe across the guardrail, when a white FDOC van came flying up, did a sharp U-turn, and screeched to a halt. Out popped two uniformed officers, hands on their sidearms.
“Put the weapon down!!!”
Yeah, they were focused on me. I played stupid, of course.
“Who? Me?” I hefted the bush axe onto my shoulder.
“Put the weapon against the guard rail and put your hands on your head!!”
“Weapon? It was a plain ol’ tool just a minute ago!” I complied, though. No sense getting shot for not setting down a bush axe.
I was spread-eagle on the asphalt shoulder and allowed myself to get cuffed up, with ankle chains, too.
They shoved me into the van, but didn’t say a word the entire way back to Copeland. Stopping at Copeland, I saw Major Stamper outside his office, looking satisfied, with my property box lying on the ground. When a van’s side door opened, Stamper had a question for me.
“Thought you could run from me, huh? Now yo’ ass will be in the big house. I’d like to see you run from there!”
My next stop was Hendry CI, 40 miles north, a maximum-security facility. No more slinging blade, no more bush axing. No more catching rattlesnakes or being startled at the sight of a stationary alligator. No more peanut butter sandwiches and oranges for lunch. No more Major Stamper stealing my mail and giving me a measly 3 days a month again.
Instead, within a couple weeks I had landed a job at Hendry teaching GED classes. I was back to getting 20 days a month again, and even got some other gain time credits when overcrowding forced extra time cut awards. My sentence expired in mid-1993, years before I would have been released had I not been suspected of attempted escape at Copeland.
Sometimes it pays to befriend a rat.
Ty Evans #158293
P.O. Box 41
Michigan City, IN 46361-0041