Charles Patrick Norman, who has served more than 30 years in Florida’s prisons, is an eloquent and accomplished writer whose poetry, short stories, essays, memoirs, and plays have won several awards, including first place in the memoir category in the 2008 PEN Prison Writing Contest.
After reading some of his work, I wrote to him to tell him about Solitary Watch and invite him to send us any relevant writing for our Voices from Solitary archive. Charlie generously wrote a long piece for Solitary Watch about his own experiences and thoughts on the subject.
Charles P. Norman’s piece, called “Caged Beasts: The Insanity of Solitary Confinement,” appears in full in the memoirs section of Voices from Solitary. We are including some excerpts here. In this excerpt, after describing the anguish and madness he saw, as a child, in the eyes of a caged gorilla in the Houston Zoo, Charlie writes about his “first glimpse” of the effects of long-term lockdown on a human being.
I sat on a bench in the Reidsville, Georgia, jail, waiting for an airplane ride to Florida. An elderly deputy brought in a man in a convict-striped uniform, who sat down next to me. I’ve never seen a whiter person, before or since. The man wasn’t “white” so much as he was translucent. It was like I could almost see through the man—ghostly-white skin, blue eyes, squinting in the light, pink, inflamed eyelids, scabby shaved head. I could see the blue veins in his hands, resting on his knees, and could almost imagine the corpuscles coursing toward his fingertips. Was this an albino, a mutant?
“What happened to you?” I asked.
He slowly turned his head and looked at me, as if realizing for the first time that someone else was sitting next to him…He opened his mouth to speak, and I saw the brown, rotting, gapped teeth like so many pieces of bark stuck behind his lips. The rancid breath repelled me, and I leaned away from him. He didn’t appear to be much older than I was, early thirties, perhaps, but it was hard to tell. He had a cowed, browbeaten look, and it took a moment for him to form a response.
In stops and starts he told me that he was being released from prison that day, Georgia State Prison at Reidsville. I didn’t even know they had a prison there. Years later I learned that Burt Reynolds had filmed the original “The Longest Yard” movie at Reidsville, and heard many horror stories from fellow Florida prisoners who’d previously vacationed there. A human zoo.
I never learned his name. I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer. He’d spent the past fifteen years in “the box,” solitary, and had not seen the sun until that day, when it blinded him. I wondered what he’d done to deserve such treatment. That’s often the first thought people have when meeting someone like him or me—what did you do? It must be his fault, right? He must have brought this onto himself. In my prison education I eventually learned that you don’t have to do anything, sometimes, to unleash the weight of God, the Devil, and the prison system onto yourself, like the falling buildings of the Haitian earthquake, burying people alive. Sometimes it takes years to be dug out of the rubble of imprisonment. Many never make it out alive at all. I still await my rescue.
In the half hour we shared the same bench I discovered that he’d left others behind at the state prison who’d been in lockup years longer than he had been. Where was he going? Back to his hometown. Did he have any people, family? No. They were either dead or gone. He’d not received a single letter the entire time. Visits were not allowed to those in solitary. What was he going to do? Where was he going to stay? He didn’t know. He expected someone would tell him when he got to where he was going. He would be on parole—screw up and come back.
The deputy brought a tee shirt, trousers, and a pair of cheap shoes for him to change into. They threw the convict stripes into the trash can. He still looked like a deathly-ill person when he’d changed into the “street clothes.” The deputy told him to come on, he had a bus to catch. As he shuffled out I wished him luck. He said nothing and didn’t look back…..
Charlie Norman also writes about what he learned from his own experiences in solitary confinement.
Little did I know, that day, that the wheels of justice were already turning toward me, and I would be ground exceedingly fine during thirty-two years of continuous incarceration, for the record, for a murder I did not commit. Didn’t matter. And off and on during that time, I would experience varying lengths of solitary confinement, though never to the destructive ends of the Houston Zoo gorilla or the Reidsville ghost. I had the benefit of their experiences to draw on, and the determination to never allow “them” to break me, to become less than human.
To this day solitary confinement is a “corrections tool” that is known by euphemisms like administrative or disciplinary segregation or “close management,” a.k.a. “C.M.,” in Florida. An ordinary person can get a good idea of what solitary confinement is like by walking the rows of cages at a local animal shelter and observing the dogs held there, not only the living conditions, but also the behavior of the caged animal and how it has adapted to confined living.
There are more safeguards than there once were, but it’s only a matter of degree. Depending on the length of confinement and the conditions, some prisoners I’ve known have claimed to like C.M., a year or two in a one-man cell, their own TV, reading material, no hassles from predatory prisoners in open population. Within the past year, I knew a prisoner who planted a knife on himself, under his mattress, then told on himself, guaranteeing a few years in solitary, since he’d been there before. He was caught up in homosexual intrigue and just wanted to get away from it all for awhile. He got his wish. He’ll be numbed out on psychotropic medications, will sleep for most of each twenty-four hour day, will have his trays of food brought to him, will become progressively more mentally disturbed until he dies. With a mandatory life sentence, he has no hope for release. Such despair would seem to be unbearable. Sadly, it is a common story.
Clearly, Charles P. Norman’s writing is a big part of what enables him to hold on to his humanity in spite of such experiences. Charlie, who had already graduated from college when his incarceration began, has been a teacher and mentor to other prison writers–increasingly, in the absence of any other educational opportunities for inmates. The following comes from a 2008 interview with Hettie Jones, conducted by written correspondence:
Sadly the Florida Prison System has changed for the worse since I came in. Forget about rehabilitation. Where we once had a vibrant education system in prison, from very basic first grade level to advanced college, the cutbacks and changes in “correctional philosophy” have relegated learning to the back of the bus, and reduced the remnants to Potemkin villages, paper programs that accomplish little for few prisoners, but let the public believe otherwise. I have done all I could for the entire time of my imprisonment until today, but I am Hans, my finger hurts, and the dike is cracking.
I have worked with literally thousands of prisoners in formal classes, workshops provided by outside volunteers, several guys sitting on the ground at the rec field reading their poems, from remedial to advanced. Some of my most meaningful successes came in teaching men how to write a letter to their mother, wife or children, men who did not even know how to put down, “Dear Mom,” or say, “Love, Joe,” at the end…
You can read Charlie’s blog posts at Free Charlie Norman Now.