About fifty prisoners, out of 1500 or so in this prison, crowded into the visiting area this morning. Barely three percent of the total population had family and friends willing to share their Christmas inside a prison. That sad statistic bodes ill for the latest Florida Department of Corrections motto, “Changing Lives to Ensure a Safer Florida.” Without a support group of family and friends willing to help them adjust to life in a free society, the 40,000 or more prisoners released back into their neighborhoods don’t stand a good chance of having changed lives, making that motto a hollow promise. If ninety-seven percent of prisoners do not have loved ones who care enough to visit them in prison, what will become of them when they get out?
My wife, Libby, was one of the first people in the visiting room this clear Christmas Day. We were allowed our “brief kiss and embrace,” as specified by prison rules. Any other contact is expressly forbidden, except holding hands, the only exception being that fathers are allowed to hold their small children.
Watching young families enter the visiting park, then excitedly greeting fathers in prison is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. A three-year old girl breaks from her mother and races across the room, crying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” The father lifts her up and holds her, tears running down both their cheeks. Three pre-teen boys, little different from the boys’ choir members we’d seen the previous day, raced across the room to embrace their father, who waded past them to kiss his wife, virtually ignoring his young sons. That lack of affection bothered Libby and me. “Look, Daddy, look, look,” one little boy cried, begging his father to pay attention to the blocks he’d stacked, to no avail.
Another young mother with three daughters greeted her husband, and all of them embraced. Later in the day, outside on the lawn, all five sat together and played games. That scene made our hearts glad. The contrasting behavior of imprisoned fathers made me wonder what disappointments those three boys felt when their father paid scant attention to them, leaving them to play games with each other.
A young woman holding her nine month old daughter sat on the grass in the sun with her husband, who had been imprisoned before his daughter was born. At least he held her and showed affection to mother and daughter.
Read Charles Norman’s terrifying report on prison gangs in Florida.
About twenty pre-teen children raced around the outside visiting park during the course of the day, mostly entertaining themselves. Only a couple of fathers spent time playing with their children, holding them, throwing them into the air, laughing with them. Can there be anything more heartwarming than the joyful laughter of young children? What bothered Libby and me, something we discussed many times, is how those inattentive, unemotional and unaffectionate prison fathers condemn many of those children to lives of drug abuse, crime, failure and despair, very likely fates they suffered from fathers they emulated.
At a criminal justice seminar at Union C.I., Raiford, sponsored by University of Florida professors over thirty years ago, one of the “experts” claimed that close to one-third of the children who visit fathers in prison, will one day become prisoners themselves. I have no reason to doubt that figure. That would mean that seven children visiting their fathers this day will one day serve time, too.
I can’t tell you how many young men I’ve met in prison over the past thirty-six-plus years followed their fathers to prison. Just last week a forty-year old prisoner housed with me asked me if I’d ever known his father, who was at Raiford, “The Rock,” during the same years I’d been there.
“What’s your father’s name?” I asked.
He told me. I told him I’d known his father well, years ago. He told me his father was still in prison, for over forty years. Father and son. He’d visited his father as a child. Now he had a son in the juvenile system, most likely matriculating to an adult prison in a few more years.
What a waste — three generations in prison. What can be done to interrupt that cycle of generational incarceration? We know that prisoners’ children are a high-risk group, and tax money used to intervene in their lives at six years old, to address the causes, would be much better spent than the $25,000 a year spent to incarcerate them at eighteen, for the next twenty or forty years. Instead of looking at the short terms politicians focus on, four-year increments between elections, we must look to solving these problems in the long-term. The problems are not going away. Ignore them if you dare.
I’ve done a lot of thinking on this subject over my decades of imprisonment, and hope that at some point we will have far-thinking people in charge of the public’s trust, who will come to the prisons and talk with those who know this system best, not entrenched bureaucrats interested in protecting and preserving their pensions. Otherwise, the societal problems embodied in the thousands upon thousands of wasted lives will only grow.
Charles Norman has been serving LIFE for 1st degree murder in Florida since 1979.
Charles Norman #881834
Tomoka Correctional Institution
3950 Tiger Bay Road
Daytona Beach, FL 32124