Saturday, 21 June 2014

Hello Darkness – My Old Friend

  Written for MinutesBeforeSix
It is there in the dimly lit shadows of the darkness that I find my comfort within this concrete crypt I am condemned to not merely live, but ever so very slowly, die within.  I could simply reach up above my steel bunk and pull the long string that dangles down from the fixture above and flood the confines with that artificial light, but I choose not to. The darkness is my sanctuary, where despite all the misery and chaos around me, I can retreat and sit silently and find my solitude in this cell on Florida’s infamous Death Row. The brightness of that light would be unnecessarily intrusive, an unwelcome invasion that would serve to deprive me of those stolen moments in time, in which I am able to momentarily detach from the reality around me and retreat back into my own little corner, in my own little world.

I already know too well what the light world would reveal, as all day of every day now, for not merely months, or a few years, but for decade after seemingly endless decade, and yet another decade still, I have sat in this cold, concrete cage and I know it as only a condemned man can, so intimately well that even when I close my eyes, I can count the number of concrete blocks on each wall, I can still see that plain and deliberately featureless, faded soft pastel beige walls, accented by the dark, heavy wool horse blanket that I am required to cover my bunk with each morning, as God forbid I might be tempted to sleep a  few hours during the day and then there’s the black bars at the front of the cell, each bar spaced precisely four inches apart, which allow me to look outward a few short feet upon yet another wall of heavy steel bars, separating the outer catwalk and not too far beyond that, the fortified narrow windows, long ago covered with dust and debris, and yet in defiance, still barely allowing just enough light through to know when it is day and when it becomes night.

During the warmer months, these narrow windows are opened just enough to allow a bit of air to flow through. From time to time small birds will venture in and awaken me from my early morning sleep with their chirping, which at first I found inviting, as if they brought life itself to this culture of cold death.  But at some point along the path of time, this incessant chirping became unbearable, as if their only intent was to tease and taunt me, to so cruelly mock the man in the gilded cage before they fly away. I began to find myself being driven by an overwhelming anger within me to yell and scream at these demonic winged monsters and even throw small items at the window screen to chase them away.  After a while, birds no longer came to visit as much and I find myself missing my little friends now.

Once upon a time this relentlessly monotonous micro-environment I am entombed within could be brought to life with a few photos, faded reflections of a life that once was, but the powers that be decreed that any sign of life hung from the walls was somehow a security threat and not even one photo would be allowed. To violate this draconian rule would result in the loss of the photo, an immediate transfer to “lock-up” and the loss of the very few “privileges” we might be afforded. Given that few privileges are even allowed, this “punishment” would almost be ironically meaningless, if not for the disruption to this methodical routine we come to almost religiously cling to.

I’m told that long term solitary confinement under such objectively oppressive physical conditions and the deliberate deprivation of any meaningful interaction with others will inevitably drive even the strongest of men insane and I’m sure there are many who believe this to be true. Some might even argue convincingly that this inevitable insanity is the objective, as when the monsters of my fate cannot break the body, they become that much more determined to break the spirit. But nobody yet has told me exactly where that elusive line is that separates sanity from the slippery slide down the proverbial rabbit hole leading into that bottomless abyss of madness, in which seems that each of us is expected to descend is?

Each week the prison psychologist will make his rounds of the death row unit and always without even so much as stopping, do the required welfare check on each of us, as the state has a vested interest in proving we have not become insane.  We all know that our psychological state is irrelevant.  Even those who have long ago slipped beneath the murky surface of insanity will be automatically assigned a normal rating each week; any other conclusion that might dare to call our sanity into question might later serve to obstruct the state’s objective of putting us to death.  Becoming insane and being recognised as insane are two totally different things and prison staff who conduct these psychological drive-bys are part of the machine.

I struggle to understand who these people are who so pretentiously proclaim themselves to be normal and insist that insanity is such a bad thing.  If I have learned nothing else in all the years that I have been entombed in my solitary crypt awaiting the uncertainty of my fate, it is that my self-structured psychosis provides my mental escape from this thing they want to claim to be reality and that it is this reality that sucks, not insanity.

When I sit silently in the comforting darkness of my solitary crypt, I can often listen to the many others around me in this monolithic warehouse of tormented souls, or on the increasingly rare occasion when I might reluctantly venture out for a few hours of “outdoor” recreation on the razor-wired concrete pad they call our recreation yard and am able to see and even look into the windows of the lost souls of condemned men around me, I find that I envy those who now have that empty look in their eyes, those who have already been blessed by the detachment from that burden of reality that still weighs down heavily upon those of us not so fortunate.

For them, they are the lucky ones, no longer imprisoned by this cruel world around them.  For them, the past, the present and even the future and with it the uncertainty of their judicially imposed fate have lost all meaning and although their physical body may remain condemned to that solitary cage, their spirit is free to fly away and soar high above the stormy clouds and into that picture perfect blue sky beyond and as I witness their existence in a world of their own making, I come to appreciate that insanity is something any sane man in my predicament can only envy and I as again retreat back into the recesses of my voluntary darkness do I find myself praying to a long deaf god that I too one day soon might be blessed by this gift of insanity, so that I too might find my own reprieve from the harsh truth of reality.

Then there’s that whimsical wisp of hope that keeps me pushing forward and I am reminded of a particular scene in the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” in which the seasoned convict (played by Morgan Freeman) is sitting at the table in the prison chow hall, looking up at the fresh meat fate cast down upon them, and offers this profound truth, that every convict will inevitably learn in their own way, ”Hope will drive you insane.” Perhaps that is why in Dante’s “Inferno,” as the desperate soul slowly stepped through that passageway leading down to into the very depths of hell itself, he took a moment to absorb those words inscribed above that portal into hell – “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.” Despite that paradox of clinging to hope as a means of sustaining the strength to survive, yet knowing that each time that hope is crushed, insanity steps another step toward you, so many still so desperately cling to their hope.

But can hope drive a man insane if what he truly hopes for is insanity? Only the helplessly naïve would think that life and death were black and white, as only by being condemned to living within the very shadows of death, while hopelessly bearing witness as one by one around you are put to death in such an arbitrary and utterly unpredictable manner, can you come to understand that death itself comes in an infinite array of shades of grey – and even long before they might come to drag the next man away do we know that physical death too often follows long after the man within that fleshy vessel has already died a slow and tortuous death of the spirit within.

To understand the therapeutic value of my voluntary darkness, one must first appreciate that death too often is not a singular event, but a prolonged journey towards that finality that is marked by the degradation of the inner-will with each stumbling step. In my voluntary darkness, I have come to know that a man’s worst fate is not to be condemned to death, but as if peeling away the layers of a onion, each day is another step in which that will to live is maliciously stripped away until only the inner core itself remains, a mere fragment of the man that once was. With each layer, that light of life within the windows of the soul dims just a bit more and the world within takes on a darker shade of grey and only in our arrogance do we attempt to define the precise moment of a physical death. 

Only by attempting to understand why a condemned man might be relentlessly haunted by such thoughts might another understand why the darkness has become my friend and why as I so willingly surrender to that darkness, I place such value in the power to be able to choose whether to pull that string or not.  Each day I alone decide whether in that moment I will live or die as in that voluntary darkness I inflict death upon the reality that imprisons me and in the shadows of my refuge, I find a fleeting sense of peace, knowing only too well that in the coming days, or weeks, or months they will soon enough come to lead me away and as they place me in that solitary cell, just outside that solid steel door that leads into the execution chamber, I will no longer be blessed with the power to retreat into that comforting refuge of my voluntary darkness, but will instead be dragged into a brightly lit room, then strapped upon a gurney, as just a few feet away, on the other side of a glass wall, a small crowd of witnesses will have willingly gathered to silently witness my state sanctioned execution.

As I then lay physically restrained and powerless upon that gurney, as those who have so methodically stalked my death for so many years nod to the masked executioner standing but a few feet away, as he pushes down on the plunger that will send that lethal cocktail of chemicals into my veins, and as I draw that final breath, I will once again find comfort and peace as the light fades away and as that darkness of death descends down upon me, the temptation of pulling that string will be no more.  Just as in my solitary cell I have been condemned to live alone, I too will now die alone and in the end, darkness will be my only remaining friend.

Michael Lambrix 482053
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street
Raiford, FL 32026

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Alcatraz of the South, Part 5: When Reality Becomes Irrelevant

By Michael Lambrix written for the Minutes Before Six website

Part 4 can be read here

Some of the guys had already warned me about Nollie – that he wasn’t quite right in the head so I shouldn’t pay him any mind.  By then, I had already been on the Row the better part of a couple years and had pretty much settled in.  It had been a rough time, but I got by and when it came down to it, you sink or swim so I learned to tread water and kept my head above that murky surface and fought that always present undertow incessantly pulling at each one of us. I was lucky.  All around me I could see those like Nollie who had been broken mentally and retreated into a world of their own where the reality of the hell we were condemned to could no longer touch their inner souls.  They had been broken, and I wondered whether I too would suffer that same fate, arguably a fate even worse than death itself.

But all of those earlier warnings could not have prepared me for the conversation I then had with Nollie out on the yard.  It wasn’t the first time I had spoken with him, and he seemed like a nice enough guy, never once showing any obvious outwardly sign of psychotically induced inclination towards violence like some of the other “bugs” would show, signaling you’d best keep your distance.  Nollie stayed mostly to himself, and didn’t talk too much.  While most of us would play volleyball, or basketball, or work out on the weights, during those two hours of time we were allowed on the yard twice a week, Nollie and a few others would generally stay to themselves in one of the corners and remain seemingly oblivious to the world around them.

In prison, we call them “bugs.” And prisons had become the new mental institutions after the Supreme Court decided that people could not be involuntarily institutionalized in horrific insane asylums without “due process,” an adversarial process that placed the burden on the state to prove the person actually was a substantial threat to themselves or others.  When they could no longer just throw those not quite in touch with reality as most might see it into institutions and pump massive quantities of psychotropic drugs until they become the equivalent of zombies, or as we say, did the “thorazine shuffle,” it didn’t take long before those mentally imbalanced found themselves in prisons instead.  It was a lot easier to throw people in prison, and nobody really cared.

So, there I was, resting against the wall of the Death Row wing between a game of volleyball, and Nollie just casually walked up to me as if we had been the best of friends.  Dispensing with the rhetorical informalities – I mean, really, what’s the point of asking each other on the Row how we’re doing when we all know we’re not doing too good, as they’re keeping us in a concrete box and trying to freaking kill us!  But it’s that social pretense of civility we all go through no matter what side of the bars you’re on.  And, as I was socially obligated to do so, I spontaneously responded with the only acceptable answer: “Fine. How are you doing?” and he said “alright.” We both knew it was total crap. Neither of us was doing alright.

Then without further pretense, Nollie looked up at me and told me that he needed a really sharp knife and wanted me to make him one out of the cheap disposable razors they pass out each shower night three times a week.  I didn’t really know what to say.  Why would he think that I would hook him up with a blade? For all I knew, he might want to use it on me, or go nuts and try to chop up everyone on the yard.  But he peaked my curiosity and I played along, asking him just what the hell he needed a knife for – and that was my mistake.  In that moment of time, I forgot all the earlier warnings others gave me not to pay Nollie any mind.

Like a kid in a candy store, Nollie perked right up, almost shining like a bright light, and with uncompromised sincerity, he gleefully announce that he had to chop his penis off, as it was evil.  That unexpected joyous outburst left me speechless, and I stood in stunned silence.  Before I knew it, Nollie quickly dropped his pants down to his knees and grabbed his dick, and declared that it was Satan, and he had to cut it off before it completely possessed him. I’m not often at a loss of words, but I didn’t have any response.  I shook my head, and walked away.

Only later I found out that Nollie had pulled this same routine on others, not always without consequences.  Apparently some responded with violence and would beat Nollie down when he pulled his routine on them.  But that wasn’t my style and I didn’t see any point in responding violently towards someone I know isn’t quite right in the head.  I guess we all see the world in our own way, and in my world violence should be avoided unless necessary.

I also knew that I had been cast down into a world where violence was a way of life. The distorted values of those around you creats an expectation of violence, and if you don’t respond violently, you would be seen as weak, and preyed upon like an injured lamb surrounded by a pack of starving wolves.  But a more accurate analogy would be a pack of hyenas, as wolves are both more honorable and intelligent that hyenas – and just like hyenas, in this world once you’re cut from the pack, the pack itself will too quickly turn on you.

That’s what prison is and Death Row is no exception.  Sooner or later someone will try you, test you, to see what you’re really made of.  That’s the nature of the beast and it was for that reason that I held sympathy for those like Nollie, who for no reason other than their mental incapacity, would be targeted by others and exploited in the most extreme ways.

Back then, the first cell on every floor of the Death Row wings was occupied by an “inmate runner” who would be responsible for passing out each meal, and coming around with cleaning supplies, such as the broom and mop each day.  While all Death Row prisoners were continuously “locked down” in our solitary cells all day, every day, except for twice weekly two hour recreation time outside on the fully enclosed concrete pad and any social or legal visits you might get (which were generally uncommon) we never left our cells.  But the runners were not sentenced to death, and each morning before breakfast their cell door would be mechanically rolled open and then left open all day and into the evening until “lights out” at 11:00 p.m.

What relatively little work the runners were required to do was accomplished in just a few hours, so most runners would spend the rest of their days sitting on a butt can in front of a Death Row cell, watching T.V., playing cards, or just talking.  For those who don’t know what a “butt can” is, it’s simply an empty one gallon tin can retrieved from the kitchen – most often previously containing the generic vegetables or ketchup commonly used in our meals - and used as a depository for cigarette butts, but just as commonly used when turned upside down as a improvised stool to park one’s butt on, as it wasn’t like they would allow us to have chairs.

Most of these runners were alright, almost always assigned to the Death Row wing as a transitory step towards earning their way back to “general population” (gen pop) after being placed in “closed confinement” which is Florida’s version of the infamous SHU (Special Housing Unit).  Every prison system has its own version of long term punitive confinement imposed upon those who had allegedly committed a major infraction, such as assault, or attempted escape, or just pissed off the wrong person.  Although each system might attach its own title to it, all these forms of punitive confinement are similar – and often the prisoner is thrown into this confinement status for years at a time, and must earn his way out through good behavior.

Often the last step of this transitory process is to be assigned the prison jobs nobody else wants, such as cleaning bathrooms, or washing dishes.  Those assigned to be runners on the Death Row wings knew they were lucky, as Death Row was an easy place to work and the only job where you could sit on your butt most of the time and just watch TV, or play cards, or whatever.

It was not uncommon for former Death Row prisoners to be assigned to be runners on Death Row.  Roughly speaking, about half of those initially sentenced to death have their sentences subsequently reduced to life on appeal.  For many years, it was prison policy to allow former Death Row prisoners to become runners as a way of allowing them to transition from total lock-down, to that sense of relative freedom allowed by having your cell door open each day and able to move around on your own will.

But then some of those assigned as runners who would be problems no matter where they were placed because that was their nature.  And from time to time, one of these would wind up on a Death Row floor, where they didn’t often last long. But they could still disrupt the entire balance we tried to maintain.

Although not as common as it was in general pop, homosexuality – both voluntary and involuntary – was still a part of the Death Row environment.  When I first came, I was as naïve as those outside who would had just assumed that since all condemned prisoners were continuously confined to their single-man cells, physical relationships would be impossible.  But nothing is really impossible and as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

From the time I first came, we had a couple good runners who lasted on that floor the better part of two years.  But runners come and go and it’s all about the luck of the draw as to who that next one might be.  And sooner or later, you will draw a bad hand.  Sometime late into my second year a black runner came on the floor, but his reputation had preceeded him – a history of preying upon weaker inmates, often raping them.  That’s what had him thrown into c/m (close management) for a few years but no length of punitive confinement would have changed who he was, and he was a sexual predator.

When word got around that he arrived, most of us on the floor wouldn’t even talk to him and he knew better than to push his luck as it was not uncommon for runners to be “beaten down” with a food tray or broom/mop if they got out of line.  But predators know how to spot their prey and it was only a matter of days before an early morning commotion woke some of us up. Verbal arguments were not uncommon, no matter what the hour. But this was more of a deliberately suppressed one-sided confrontation as the runner had reached through the bars of the cell housing Terry, a young kid out of Pinellas County who was still relatively new to the Row.

You learn to mind your own business in prison and despite the sense of camaraderie that long ago was common among the condemned. There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t get into someone else’s problem, especially when it’s between two prisoners.  Terry was too young, but he still had to stand his own ground and giving in to threats and showing weakness would only make it worse.  The runner knew this and after grabbing Terry through the bars and threatening him, Terry broke down. The runner knew he had Terry, and the commotions soon died down, and in the silence of that early predawn hours, we all knew that Terry was down there on his knees performing oral sex on the runner, and after that he would again at least a few times a day until the runner made the mistake of trying someone else on the floor who would not so quickly give in and found himself leaving on a gurney after being beaten down by another.

Before that particular incident, had anyone told me someone in a cage could be forced to perform sex acts through the bars, I would had laughed and said, “No way!”  But in time, I learned just how incredible naïve I was. Truth be told, I was lucky, as I had gotten a cell on a floor where that kind of behavior didn’t happen that much.  Or maybe I just wasn’t aware of it, as I soon enough discovered that there were others around me who only too willingly invited such sexual encounters and more than a few engaged regularly; it was just something we didn’t talk about.

But it was the guys like Nollie I really felt for.  The bugs were easy targets and no one seemed to care, especially the guards.  If anything, many of the guards considered this a form of entertainment, and a few would even use the threat of allowing certain runners access to them as a retaliatory tool for those who might have stepped on their toes.

I really didn’t know how to handle Nollie’s fixation with wanting to cut his own dick off to purge that evil within him any more than I knew how to handle others who had their own way of manifesting their psychosis. After I realized just how alone and isolated Nollie was, even though surrounded by others, I made a point of reaching out to him from time to time, often at the risk of other Death Row prisoners ridiculing me for having contact with one of the bugs.  But Nollie had no one, and at least there were a few of us who would cross that invisible line that “convicts” were not to cross, and reach out to those ostracized within our own small world.

Nollie was moved to another floor not long after that but no matter where he went in the unit, from time to time a guard, or laundryman, or one of the inmate maintenance workers would stop by my cell and tell me that Nollie sends his regards, as he never forgot those small gestures of kindness.  A few years later, Nollie would be executed despite his obvious mental incompetency, as would too many others who also suffered from insanity.  No matter how undeniably brain damaged they were, the Courts never wanted to recognize the evidence supporting their claim of insanity.

One of the regular events on the Row back then was the Saturday morning ritual that played itself out every weekend.  Most of the guys on the Row rarely received any mail and would never get a visit from family or friends.  Too many, like Nollie, simply couldn’t communicate with those outside even if there was someone who might still care.

But each Saturday morning everyone got a visit if they wanted it. In the years before politicians started to micromanage the prisons, back in the good ole days when we were allowed to do our time our own way, and the guards generally left us alone, it was common for church groups to send members up to prisons to save our souls.  Almost every Saturday mostly middle-aged to elderly men carrying their Bibles would flood on to the Death Row wing, and break off into smaller groups and spread themselves out on the individual floors, going cell to cell to minister to the condemned.  Most of these men were just average working class without any formal training in Theology, motivated to come by a belief of Christian obligation to minister to those who are imprisoned, and they came with their heart in the right place, meaning well.

I was blessed to come to know a number of the regulars, and had great respect for those such as Abe Brown, the founder of “Prison Crusade.”  Abe was an elderly black man who served as the pastor for a church in Tampa.  Although struggling financially, each Saturday without fail, Brother Abe would load up his old blue and silver bus and drive the three hours up to Florida State Prison, and those who had joined him that particular week would visit with those isolated and abandoned by society in the purest form of true “Christian” charity I have known, giving of themselves without asking or expecting anything in return.

I had learned early on that being condemned to death meant that most of our so-called civilized society held nothing but uncompromised hate towards us, and more often than not it was those out there who called themselves Christians would invoke the name of God to demand our death under the pretense of justice. “An eye for an eye,” they would say as they gathered around in their modern day lynch mobs, abandoning any pretense of the Christian values of compassion and mercy.

For this reason, I was not alone in becoming conflicted when it came to the traditional Christian values I grew up with.  More and more, I found myself leaning towards an intellectual knowledge of what God was supposed to be, but still my spiritual faith within was eroding away as those I had once associated with what Christians were supposed to be would do nothing but throw stones.

But by coming to know some of these volunteers and the sacrifices they willingly made to come to the prison on the weekends, my own spirituality evolved, and as I increasingly became disillusioned with the hypocrisy of organized religion, I also came to the acceptance that true spiritual faith cannot be defined by what I might see in others, or the example (or absence) of their faith, but must be instead found within the individual, especially within myself.

Like Jacob wrestling the devil, my struggle to define my sense of spirituality in this new world I was cast down into was perhaps one of the hardest parts of my own evolution, and there were times when I found myself so completely overwhelmed by my environment that I literally prayed for death – and when I awoke that next morning I would question the very existence of God, because if there were a God, He would have heard my prayers and in His mercy, allowed me to die.  As I descended farther into the depths of my despair, wanting only for my misery to end, it became increasingly difficult to cling to my Christian faith.  And I would find that although I fought this battle by relentlessly studying the Word of God, no matter how much my intellectual knowledge of God would grow, I still felt alone and empty.

But the church volunteers I came to know kept me hanging on by that thread, and in them, I knew what true faith was.  And soon enough a few of the regulars would come directly to my cell each Saturday and simply visit, talking about anything but never trying to force feed religion, and by doing that, I came to know that no matter how alone and abandoned I might feel, I was never really alone.  If not for those volunteers, and their weekly visits on the wings, I don’t know if I would have made it, as they were the only ones that reached out even when our family and friends didn’t.

Not all of the guys welcomed this outreach, and some didn’t want these volunteers anywhere around them.  When all else has failed you, sometimes hate and anger are the only things left to stand on.  Everybody has to do their time in their own way, and while most would look forward to these weekend visits on the wings, others would respond with hostility, as if these volunteers represented something they themselves were at war with.  But even then, they would only tell the volunteer they didn’t want to talk, and the volunteer would move on to the next cell.

Others, so desperate for that human contact, would welcome the volunteers like they were God themselves, and go through the ritual of being “saved’ every Saturday, almost always making a point of latching on to volunteers who were new and wouldn’t recognize them.  And this was often a source of entertainment for the rest of us, who already knew that this particular prisoner already had “found God,” and did so each week.  But even as much as the prisoner might be playing out – or perfectly sincere – it was almost the volunteer who got the greatest joy out of saving the lost soul of that condemned man, and more than a few went home with a sense of accomplishment that only escalated their own faith, and so even if that particular prisoner might be simply going through the routine just to experience that momentary sense of communion with another person, it gave just as much to the volunteer who needed it too. 

After a few hours, the volunteers would be rounded up and escorted off the wing, and then once again that small world we lived and died in would close in around us.  Slowly, the volume of the radios and T.V.s would rise, and the voices of others talking, or playing chess by calling their moves out would go back to what had become the new normal.

Each of us retreated into our own little world in our own way.  Back then we were allowed to receive packages of clothing and hobby-craft materials, if we had family or friends willing to send them.  I was able to get my first radio when my oldest brother sent me one from Germany, where he was stationed in the Army.  It was a small stereo radio, and the only way to pick up any reception was to run a web of thin wires salvaged from an old radio across the ceiling of my cell.  But without headphones, it was hard to hear because there were so many other radios playing all around me.

I needed a pair of headphones but didn’t have the money to buy them.  But when doing time, you learn to hustle, and soon enough I got my first pair of headphones by trading a month’s worth of milk from breakfast that I could do without. So for what added up to the equivalent of less than two gallons of milk, I got a pair of almost new Sony headphones and soon would spend more and more time under them, retreating further away. I needed this escape from the methodical oppression of both body and soul that was Death Row.

As the days passed into months, and the months into years, I came to see my solitary cell as more of a means of voluntary isolation, finding that there in my own little cell, I could maintain my own little world.  I slowly evolved into understanding that although they can imprison my body, only I could imprison my mind, and in many ways, my cell became my sanctuary, where I would put on my headphones and tune in a music station, then retreat into my own space and time, often wondering whether, like Nollie,, I would wake up one day to find myself succumbing to a form of psychosis that made reality irrelevant – and if I did, would it be a blessing, or a curse? To this day, I do not know.

Michael Lambrix 482053
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street (G1202)
Raiford, FL 32026-1000

Friday, 15 November 2013

Alcatraz of the South Part 4: Between Life and Death

By Michael Lambrix written for the Minutes Before Six website

In the classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens begins his fictional story with the words: “It was the best of times and the worst of times,” and those words could apply as equally to that first year I spent on Florida’s Death Row.  I suppose it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest that my first year as a condemned man was the best of times by any measure. But everything is relative and what I soon discovered after coming to The Row is that even in the worst of times it is the importance of holding on to hope not only when you have reason to, but even more importantly, when that reason is taken from you.

Charles Dickens wrote his story around the French Revolution, which I doubt many would have thought of as the best of times.  It was a dark day in history, when death came to many, and yet for those who survived, it brought hope.  And it wasn’t that much different on The Row. That first year the stench of death was always around us, yet in the very midst of the darkness and despair, there was hope and it was that hope that gave each of us the strength to survive another day.

I came to The Row in early 1984, at a time in which Florida only too proudly claimed the record not only for the largest number of people condemned to death, but, the most executed.

This is the dark side of the Sunshine State. Its zeal to kill is only exceeded by its indifference towards sending the innocent to Death Row.  When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in the 1972 landmark decision of Furman vs. Georgia by a marginal vote, the Court allowed the states to rewrite their death penalty statutes with the misplaced presumption that if the states would establish statutory provisions that “genuinely narrowed” the class of individuals eligible for the death penalty through the adoption of aggravating and mitigating circumstances applicable to each case, then the imposition of the death penalty would not be unconstitutionally arbitrary.

Florida was the first state to quickly adopt new laws that complied with the Supreme Court’s criteria before most other death penalty states could adopt new laws of their own.  By 1973, Florida was already sending men to their new Death Row – as I write this today (February 2013) one man a few cells down from me (Gary Alvord) has now been here on Florida’s death row for 40 years as of this year. (Admin note:  Gary Alvord died of natural causes after this essay was submitted).

But adopting new death penalty statutes was not enough.  In the years before I came, Florida quickly became the poster child for state-sanctioned death, with its Death Row growing by dozens every year.  And the politicians running for elected office shamelessly exploited the public’s unquenchable thirst for vengeance, fanatically promising to put those condemned to a quick death.

By the time I came along, Florida was intoxicated by its politically driven blood lust and as I joined the ranks of the condemned, the cold machinery of death had already been cranked up and killing the condemned became a statewide obsession.

John Spenkelink was the first one to be involuntarily executed after the new death penalty was re-instated.  Although some might argue that Gary Gilmore (in Utah), upon which the book and then movie The Executioner’s Song was the first one after Furman v Georgia, Gilmore was a “voluntary” execution – he effectively used the death penalty to commit suicide and made no meaningful attempt to challenge his death sentence.

Florida was determined to be the first state to carry out an execution upon someone who was not willing to voluntarily die, and in May 1979 they succeeded in putting John Spenkelink to death.  Texas wouldn’t carry out its first post-Furman execution for a number of years after that, and by the early 1980’s a diabolically perverse competition arose between the states to see who could kill the most condemned prisoners – and at least in those early years, Florida easily won.

Florida carried out its next execution in November 1983 when they put Robert Sullivan to death.  Within just a few more months, Florida killed Anthony Antone in January 1984, ignoring the fact that Antone did not commit any act of murder himself, and evidence that he did not participate in the act of murder – the co-defendant who was convicted of that killing actually was sentenced to life.

I came to The Row that last week of March 1984 and quickly learned of the ritual of death.  In the first year following my arrival, Florida executed nine men.  Florida was perversely proud of “Ole Sparky,” its handmade electric chair, and each execution brought on a spectacle not unlike that of a circus – a contemporary lynching in the old town square, with the crowds gathered outside the prison, openly cheering, drowning out the smaller segregated group of those who opposed the state taking a life.  And the media would come from around the state to cover the event.

Inside the prison, this ritual brought on another layer of despair, as the prison officials seemed to go to great lengths to make sure that each of us knew they were killing one of us.

For reasons I cannot be sure of, the State of Florida was not allowed to use the public power source to electrocute its condemned.  I have been told that the electric company would not allow it, but I’ve also been told that it was a “security precaution.  The state didn’t want to risk not being able to carry out an intended execution if someone simply cut the power off.  Where the truth actually lies, only they know.  But what I do know is that each time Florida carried out an execution, they would crank up the huge generator just outside the prison office near the wing of the prison where executions took place, and the whole prison would be taken off the public electrical source, and temporarily switched over to generator power.

Within a few weeks of my arrival to Death Row, Florida focused its attention on Arthur Goode, scheduled to be executed on April 5, 1984.  I didn’t know Goode, as he had already been moved to Q-Wing Death Watch a few weeks before I came to The Row, but this was the first execution actually carried out since I arrived, so that first experience remains branded upon me.

Back then the executions were carried out around sunrise of the scheduled day, but the ritual would begin long before they got around to actually killing the condemned man.  Although we typically would be fed breakfast (in our cells) early every day, on execution days it would come at least an hour earlier, often as early as 5:00 a.m. as they had to first feed us then collect the food trays and get them back to the kitchen up front before they locked down the whole prison during the execution itself.

Feeding us before they carried out the execution also made sure we didn’t try to sleep through it.  Because it would still be dark outside, each of us would have our own cell light on at the time, which back then was a crude single incandescent light bulb hanging down by two wired from the ceiling of the cell.

At some point between passing out the breakfast trays and picking them back up, all the lights would momentarily go off, leaving us in darkness.  In the distance we could hear that generator come to life and then the cell lights would flicker just a bit before coming back on.  We knew what this meant as other than the periodical test of the generator during the afternoon a few times a month, when they switched over to generator power in the early morning hours we knew that it meant whoever was on death watch did not get a last minute’s stay of execution and they were now preparing to put him to death.

We would not be allowed to escape our own involuntary participation in this ritual of death, and most of us on The Row would turn on our small black and white TV’s, tuning in the Jacksonville stations to watch the live coverage from outside the prison, each hoping that a last minute stay of execution would come and each of us would continue to watch in collective silence until the TV would show someone emerging from the rear of Q-Wing and waving a white towel, which meant that they had carried out the execution. That was the pre-arranged signal.

Barely a month after Arthur Goode was put to death, Florida killed Aubrey Adams and it was this second execution since my arrival that had an even greater impact, not only on me, but on others around me.  The execution of Adams was a reality check for many of us who held on to the hope that our own wrongful convictions would be corrected, and truth and justice would be allowed to prevail.

It’s one thing to execute someone who has confessed to a heinous murder, but it’s another thing entirely to put someone to death who may very well be innocent.  Out there in the real world this is a never-ending source of intellectual debate, but in here it really hits home as for those of us who have maintained our innocence and have only our hope to cling to.  The execution of someone who has substantial evidence of actual innocence undermines our own ability to keep that hope alive, and it drives home a truth that each of us try desperately to avoid…the politics of death that drive each execution do not care whether you’re innocent or not, and only the hopelessly naïve would think that each man put to death was guilty.  Our judicial process is not that perfect and inherently lacks the moral character or professional integrity to admit to its own mistakes.

The execution of Aubrey Adams illustrated this truth and for the first time it caused me to question “the system.” Until that time, I remained blinded by my own disillusion, telling myself that our legal system would correct its own mistakes, and as a society we would never allow an innocent person to be put to death for a crime they didn’t commit.  Looking back, I can now only smile at just how incredibly green I was, as the execution of Aubrey Adams and others that followed forced me to accept the reality that they will put the innocent to death, and even worse, as a society we really don’t even care.

A month after Aubrey Adams, Florida put Carl Shriner to death, and the month following that they killed David Washington.  It seemed that each month since I came to The Row they killed another one, and that dark cloud of death hung heavy over us condemned.  But then that cycle was broken – no executions were carried out in August of 1984 and it seemed that the Courts were becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of adequate legal representation made available to those facing imminent execution.

But such an inconvenience as the lack of qualified lawyers to represent the condemned would not be enough to deter Florida’s ritualistic lynchings, and although nobody died in August 1984, Florida made up for this lapse by killing both Earnest Dobbert and James Dupree Henry in September of 1984.

That dark blanket of death hung heavy and it seemed that if they were not actually killing one of us on the next wing over, they were counting down to that next execution.  But this pace of executions could not be sustained as Florida continued to refuse to establish any meaningful process for the timely appointment of qualified lawyers, instead relying upon a small group of committed volunteers who labored continuously to find lawyers willing to represent the condemned – and few, very few, were willing.

By the latter half of 1984 the Florida Supreme Court finally began to take a stand against the arbitrary and dysfunctional system of recruiting volunteer lawyers only at the last minute and began to issue stays of execution to send a long overdue message that unless Florida established a means in which to provide competent legal representation to the condemned before their death warrant was signed, the Court would not allow executions to proceed and this unconscionable machinery of death would grind to a halt. 

Almost immediately, the pace of executions dropped by at least half.  In early November of 1984 Florida put Timothy Palmes (who we knew as “Milkman”) to death, then it wasn’t until the end of January of 1985 that the next was killed.

That execution of James Raulerson hit especially close to home for me, as from the time I came to The Row. J.D., as I knew him, was my cell neighbor.  He was the first person I actually knew on The Row that had been killed.  J.D. had been convicted of robbery and the murder of a police officer in Jacksonville, although there was no intent to kill anyone.  Like the majority of cases in which the death penalty is imposed, J.D. was convicted under Florida’s felony murder law, which allowed a person to be convicted of capital murder for the death of anyone if it was the result of the commission of another crime…no intent to kill is necessary.

In J.D. Raulerson’s case, he and his cousin had decided to rob a restaurant and were still inside when the police came and surrounded the place. A gunfight ensued and a police officer was killed.  J.D. consistently insisted that he never shot at the police, and that the officer died by “friendly fire” – another cop’s bullet hit him in the heat of combat.

But it didn’t matter.  Under Florida law someone died during the robbery – and J.D.’s own cousin was shot and killed during that gunfight, and that made J.D. legally culpable for both the death of the police officer and his own cousin’s death – even though there was no question that the police had shot his cousin.  When it came time for the State of Florida to execute J.D. on that cold winter morning of January 30, 1985, hundreds of police officers gathered outside the prison gleefully cheering on his death while wearing custom made t-shirts that said “burn, baby, burn.”
That was the first time that I saw just how low we can go as a society, and why, despite pretense, we really have not evolved beyond that image of the old west lynch mobs.  That’s just what it was that day, only it wasn’t ignorant villagers intoxicated by their blood-lust and joyfully cheering on the death of another human being; it was those representing law enforcement that created this circus atmosphere.

Within that first year that I was on The Row, Florida put nine men to death.  But for each one they executed, at least two more men came to The Row, and the ranks of the condemned continued to grow.  It didn’t take long before I was no longer one of the new guys and became part of the greater whole.

By 1985 the pace of executions dropped dramatically as politicians struggled to find a solution to the problem of the condemned having no reliable means of securing legal representation.  Florida was determined to lead the country in executions, and soon it was the politicians themselves advocating for the first-ever state funded agency established exclusively to provide post-conviction legal representation to the condemned.  The argument in favor of establishing this proposed agency was simple; by providing state-funded lawyers, the Courts would allow executions to continue.

With this cloud of death hanging over all of us, it was only too easy to abandon all hope and accept our fate.  But even there in that shadow of death, there was reason to hold on.  The particular tier I was housed on that first year housed a total of 16 condemned prisoners, as although each tier had 17 cells at that time, an “inmate runner” occupied the first cell on each death row tier.  It was his job to pass out meals, then collect the food trays, and distribute cleaning supplies each day.

Of the nine men put to death that first year, I only personally know one, and during that same period of time on my floor alone there were five men who would walk off death row and back into the real world.

That’s what hope is all about:  finding reason to sustain the strength within.  Although each execution brought home the reality that I was condemned to die and death was a very real possibility, I found my own strength sustained by the hope that came when another man won his freedom.

It’s easy to assume that every person sentenced to death has to be guilty, but our legal system is plagued with the imperfections inherent to all men.  In Florida’s over-zealous push to lead the country in bringing back the death penalty, the legal system itself became corrupted by prosecutors who openly competed with each other to convict and condemn as many as they could, and by any means necessary.  It didn’t take long before Florida lead the country (at times) in both the number of men and women sentenced to death, and in number of executions.  And with this political corruption of the process came another distinction. To this day Florida continues to lead the country in the number of wrongfully convicted (innocent) men and women sentenced to death.

Not long after I came to Death Row, the Courts began to vacate a number of these wrongful convictions.  Although it would still take a few more years before they would walk free, on that tier I was housed on that first year, one out of every three men I housed among would be exonerated and released from prison. My neighbor, Louie Virango won a new trial and pled out to a lesser charge that resulted in him being set free.  Joseph Green Brown was exonerated by new evidence after coming within hours of execution, and Juan Ramos walked out of a courtroom in Miami after it was revealed that the bite mark evidence used to convict and condemn him for a crime he consistently pled innocence of was not what the state had led the jury to believe it was.

A few cells down the other way towards the back of that tier were Larry Troy and Bama Brown, convicted and condemned to death for allegedly killing another prisoner at The Rock (Union Correctional Institution).  Their convictions were based primarily upon the testimony of another inmate, and there was evidence to suggest that inmate actually committed the murder.  Years after sending them to The Row, this inmate tried to extort money from the girlfriend of one of the condemned men – if she would pay him thousands of dollars, he would tell the truth.

Instead of being manipulated, she went to the state police and told them of the attempt to extort her.  They worked with her to secretly take communications between her and the prisoner, then arrested him for perjury in a capital case and attempted extortion.  Soon after, both Larry Troy and Bama Brown were exonerated of the murder they were wrongfully convicted of and condemned to death for.

Many more would be put to death, and many more would walk free, and I struggled constantly to find that balance between the reality that was Death Row and that hope that sustained my strength.  It was more than just a tug-o’-war between opposing sides.  No matter which way I might be pulled at a particular moment, even when I clung desperately to that elusive wisp of hope brought about by relief another man won, I still awoke each morning in my own concrete cage and each night I struggled to sleep through the never-ending nightmare that was my own condemnation.
Michael Lambrix 482053
Union Correctional Institute
7819 NW 228th Street (P3226)
Raiford, FL 32026-4400

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Friday, 9 August 2013

Alcatraz of the South Part III: Shaking the Bush, Boss

By Michael Lambrix (written for Minutes Before Six )

Alcatraz of the South Part I can be read HERE

Alcatraz of the South Part II can be read HERE

There should be a book on how to do time, maybe something entitled “Death Row for Dummies.” But there isn’t. Instead, each of us thrown down this Rabbit and survive by learning the ropes from those who were already there. By the time I came to Florida’s Death Row in March 1984 there were already well over 150 men there, housed on the two designated “Death Row” wings known as “R wing” and “S wing.”

Learning how to do time is something they never teach you in school although considering that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with at least every one out of ten Americans destined to do time at some time in their lives, perhaps our public schools should be required to teach our children how to do time…and perhaps if our children learned that the chances of them growing up to become a convicted felon is substantially higher than many other fates, then many would not cross that line and commit a crime.

Looking back now, I can see that doing time is a lot like learning to swim. I can remember how I first learned to swim…my cousin Jim simply threw me into the pool while yelling “swim!” and although I momentarily struggled to keep my head above water, it took but a moment to began to dog paddle towards the edge of the pool, and no sooner did I climb out of the pool, when Jim threw me right back in. Before the day was over, I had all but mastered the art of swimming and have loved water sports ever since.

Once we are thrown into prison, it’s sink or swim time. Most adapt to this new environment even if it means dog paddling towards the edge at first only to be thrown right back in. And then there are those who slowly sink to the bottom.

I’d like to think I was one of those who quickly learned to adapt to this hell few could even begin to imagine; that from the moment I was thrown in, I kept my head above the water line. But I know that the reality of it is that I had help from those around me, those also already condemned to death.

I can still remember how my first cell neighbor, J.D., explained how things really work on Death Row. He was a naturally gifted story teller who often put things into context by borrowing from popular movies such as the one all prisoners are familiar with – “Cool Hard Luke” starring Paul Newman (1967).

If ever there was a classic prison movie, that was it. Some would argue that the brutality of “Shawshank Redemption” or the inevitable reality of “The Green Mile” might illustrate life on Death Row, but for those actually familiar with life in prison, “Cool Hard Luke” provides the best metaphor… “Shaking the Bush Boss.”

In the movie, the convict (Cool Hard Luke) is a stereotypical loser determined to be free by any means necessary. It is set at a prison work camp in the 1930’s, and Luke has a reputation for trouble, which the hard core warden is only too aware of.

At one point, Luke is sent out on a road crew and assigned to the “chain gang.” He tells the guard that he has to use the bathroom and the guard points to a bush a hundred feet or so off the road, but makes it clear to Luke that when he does his business behind the bush, he’d better keep shaking that bush as if the bush stops shaking the guard will assume Luke is trying to escape again and will start shooting.

Luke walks over to the bush and out of the sight of the trigger-happy guard, Luke quickly ties one end of a long string to the lower branch of that bush, then slowly unravels that string while backing up away, all the while periodically yelling out, “Shaking the bush, boss.” As far as the guard can see, the bush is still shaking and by the time he realizes Luke has tied a string to the bush and is already on the run, Luke is out of range of the guard’s gun and makes his escape.

That’s the quintessential rule in doing time – whether it’s the other convicts or the guards, it’s about making them see what you want them to see, and it’s an art form that quickly separates those who sink or swim, especially in the micro-community of Death Row.

Doing time is mostly about your own ability to mentally adapt to the new environment. It’s all about learning to “shake the bush” by learning the infinite number of little things that allow you to do your time in a relatively uneventful way. As a general rule, in just about any prison, you can get anything you want or need if you learn how to shake the bush.

One thing you learn to appreciate quickly is just how incredibly resourceful prisoners can be. Although prison officials make it their business to limit what we can have and control what we get, for every rule or means they use to prevent its introduction, any self-respecting “convict” can thing of countless ways to get around the guards and no matter how many times they might come in to do cell searches, before they’re even off the wing we will already have back what they thought they took.

Before I came to Death Row I had already done time both in several county jails as well as state prison. I already know the fundamental rules of doing time such as the Golden Rules of always minding your own business, never make a bet (or go into debt) you cannot cover, and never snitch out another convict.

But it’s the little things that make the biggest difference, such as making a simple cup of coffee, or trying to beat the relentless heat of a Florida summer.

Through the years a number of people have asked me why I wear my watch on my right arm when I’m obviously right handed. To those in the real world, there’s that unwritten rule that watches are to be worn on your left wrist, so when they see someone wearing their watch on their right arm, there’s a presumption that maybe I just don’t know. It’s at that moment I just partially smile and then explain that all watches have their stems (used to set the watch time, etc.) on the right side, so if you wear it on your left wrist, that stem is facing towards your hand. That’s pretty convenient in the real world if you’ve got to adjust the time – but in my world, that will quickly destroy a good watch.

Anytime those on Death Row are removed from our cells, even if only to go to the shower cell or the rec yard, we are always handcuffed before the cell door is opened. The handcuffs are obviously always placed on our wrists, just below where we wear our watch. If we wear our watch on our left arm, then the watch stem will be right where the handcuffs are, and the handcuffs will inevitably catch on and rip the stem right out of the watch. For that reason, you quickly learn to only wear your watch on your right arm so that the stem faces upwards away from the handcuffs. That’s something nobody will teach you in school!

I cannot imagine starting my day without a good cup of coffee, although I supposed calling a cup of coffee “good” is a relative term, as the best I can hope for is a cup of cheap instant coffee. But a cup of Joe is a cup of Joe. For as long as I’ve been on the Row, we have always been able to purchase coffee from the “canteen” (prison store). On the Row we are allowed to buy our basics and snacks once a week, and they are then delivered to us, providing we have the money in our account.

Some might say that prisoners don’t deserve to be able to purchase coffee, food and snacks, and if they had it their way we would have nothing. But canteen sales are important to the prison system itself as they provide a cheap incentive to all prisoners to follow the rules – if you get caught breaking the rules you lose your privileges (canteen, visits, T.V., radio, etc.) for a period of time. Additionally, the prison system makes millions of dollars each year in profits from the sales of these items, which reduces the overall cost of incarceration otherwise place upon the taxpayers.

For me, coffee is pretty much my only “vice,” as I don’t drink, or smoke or gamble, or do drugs and they won’t let me run around with wild women, so that pretty much leaves only my coffee. But although I can purchase all the coffee I might care to drink, being able to actually make it is a whole other story.

At least in Florida’s prisons, there are no coffee pots or access to hot water. If we are lucky, the water available in the sinks in our cells might be warm, but not at all hot enough to make a good cup of instant coffee.

Officially, prison officials claim that Death Row cannot have access to hot water as it may be used as a weapon. In the too many years I have been on the row, I have never, not even once, seen a Death Row inmate throw hot water on a guard. But prison rules don’t always make sense. All too often, some administrator in a distant office who has never actually worked inside a prison (much less on Death Row) makes up these rules and then force-feeds them down the line. But although hot water is not available on Death Row, I still manage to have my hot cup of coffee at least five times a day.

Shaking the Bush – from the outside, looking in, it might appear that I’m just drinking my cup of coffee, as I’m doing even as I’m writing this today and for those unfamiliar with how things really work they may even assume I’m enjoying a cup of at best “warm” coffee. But that’s just what we want them to see. If they don’t already know, they don’t need to know.

What I’m saying is not a revelation or in any way betraying some sort of secret. Many of us have been “caught” making hot water many times. Most of the guards couldn’t care less and even if you do slip-up and get caught at best they’d only confiscate our “bugs” and then we get another.

Anyone on the row quickly learns how to make a “bug” which is simply a homemade immersion heater used around the world to boil water. As long as there’s a source of electricity available, there’s a way to heat hot water. All it takes is a piece of electrical cord salvaged from an old radio or whatever, then attach each wire to some form of thin steel plate-separated by a space between the two plates will boil the water.

But as simple as this might be, we all have our horror stories on “bugs gone bad” and some carry the scars to prove it, too. One of the more endearing experiences is still shared with newcomers today. Many years ago one of the guys made a small “bug” to boil water and it wasn’t working. Assuming it was a corroded wire he quickly broke it down, taking the two plates apart, rushing to get it done before the next guard made his round. For reasons no one can explain, this guy then quickly took the wire and bit down on the end to strip the plastic – and his immediate screams were probably heard over the next county…he had forgot to unplug his “bug” before he tried to strip the electrical wire with his teeth! (Talk about a bad hair day!)

Even as much as we all felt for “Dez,” we enjoyed kicking him about that for many years to come. He obviously survived that ordeal with nothing more than a burnt mouth (and maybe even a melted filling or two!), but it was a lesson learned and I never heard of another sticking a bug in his mouth without first making sure it was unplugged.

Hot water is also essential to cooking and many of us on the row learn how to cook our own meals. If there’s one truth that will never change, it’s that the food they serve us is by any definition, not meant for human consumption. But with a little work, some hot water and the imagination and resourcefulness of the prisoners, many of the meals made in our cells would rival that of most free-world restaurants.

Myself, I’m not such a good cook but I’ve known many on the Row who are. I doubt too many can imagine a group of “cold-blooded killers” on death row gathered around on the rec yard sharing recipes and cooking tips, but that’s how it is. And it’s amazing how we can salvage what can be salvaged from what they feed us, such as beans and potatoes, then using the spices that come with the ramen-type soups they sell, make something they can brag about.

Some of the best meals I have ever eaten have been here on the Row, and many of the guys take great pride in their perfected recipes. One of the guys who taught me how to make burritos refused to tell me for many years what his secret ingredient was. Rather, he taught me how to make the burritos, but would then give me a small amount of his “secret” spice mix from time to time, just enough each time to make a batch of burritos.

Many of us familiar with this particular spice mix wanted the recipe and spent too much time trying to figure out what it could be. We knew that some spices could be bought from kitchen workers, but this spice mix was more than just the chili powder, or black pepper, or garlic salt often smuggled out of the kitchen and sold to us. We all tried mixing the various spice packs from the ramen-type soups they sold, but just couldn’t quite make our own like he did.

Through the years this particular spice mix became almost legendary – it’s secret ingredient almost mythical. But then the secret was out and word quickly spread that it was something none of us thought of mixing with the other commonly used spices – it was simply crushed pork rinds mixed with both the “ramen”-type soup spice packs and a generous amount of chili pepper. Soon, everyone was using it to spice his food and within months we all grew tired of it. Like the mythical unicorn, it’s true magic was in the myth itself, the magic of the unknown and once the secret was out somehow that spice mix wasn’t quite as good as we moved on to another way of creating our favorite foods.

Making a good cup of coffee, or a meal that is actually edible are only a few of the many things you must learn when doing time. Many of these well-known-“secrets” cannot be written about for fear of losing them forever. But what it all comes down to is learning how to do the time without the time doing you. Although something as simple as a good cup of coffee or a hot meal you can actually enjoy may seem trivial, it’s these little things that get you through the day.

But whether it’s being able to make a cup of hot coffee or a good meal, or whatever else one might do in that concrete cage to get through the day, what remains the common denominator is the one thing that will always separate the convicts from the inmates – learning how to project the image you want others to see so that you can do your own thing without drawing attention to yourself, or stepping on someone else’s toes.

One of the lessons I had to learn the hard way in those early years was to keep my mouth shut, and it’s something that most prisoners go through. In this weird world that we live in, there’s always going to be somebody around you who will want to push your buttons, whether it’s a guard or another inmate. They thrive off of your response and they count on their ability to force you to respond.

In fairness, most of the guards working on Death Row are just doing their jobs and they don’t make it personal. Many go by a common saying – “eight and the gate!” They do their eight-hour shift then hit the gate.

But there will always be those who have no business having that power over others, as it’s their nature to abuse. All the convicts know which guards are alright and which ones are trouble. When a new guy comes to the Row, he’s quickly told which ones to steer clear of.

Yet no matter how many times we may be told to avoid a particular guard, that guard will always find someone to provoke – and on my early years, too often that was me, as I simply did not have the ability to keep my mouth shut. And I wasn’t alone. But now I can laugh at myself when a new guy comes to the Row and we tell him to avoid certain guards only to then see that some guard plays him out of the pocket (prison slang for provoking someone) as no matter how often any of us might be told that someone will try to provoke him just for their own amusement, perhaps one of the hardest lessons to learn when doing time is to keep your mouth shut when someone is looking for trouble.

It’s all part of shaking the bush. Learning to survive in this manmade hell is largely dependent upon your own ability to do your time your way and not become a puppet for others. No matter what each day may bring, it’s all still only one day at a time and those that master the ability to take it one day at a time without letting yesterday drag you down or worry about what tomorrow may yet bring will find the strength to overcome.

Learning how to “shake the bush” is not simply about how to enjoy a good cup of coffee, or make a meal that is edible. Rather, it’s about learning that no matter what the physical deprivations might be, it’s still your own mental state of mind that will decide whether you sink or swim. Like myself, most of us were thrown into the world we call Death Row without knowing what to expect, or how to cope with the never-ending nightmare of being condemned to death. But the steel and stone are only just that and in the long run, it’s the psychological elements that will break you down inside. Learn how to cope with those elements and each of us will find the strength to survive.

When I look back, I know I was blessed to be around those such as J.D.,who took the time to teach me how to get through each day without letting it all drag me down. I was taught how to do my time without letting that time take its toll on me. Because of that, I developed the ability to deal with what the many years yet to come would hold, and my journey through the Bowels of this Beast known as Death Row would be one I could survive.

Written by Michael Lambrix for MinutesBeforeSix:

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Wednesday, 19 June 2013


By Michael Lambrix (written for Minutes Before Six )

The first thing you’ve got to understand is that Billy’s biggest fault was that he just couldn’t turn a friend down when asked no matter what the consequences might be and for that, Billy had to die. It’s just that simple and such naïve concepts as truth or fairness have nothing to do with it, as if they did, Billy’s life would be spared. But in this cold and cruel world we have so deliberately created, only death could purge this intolerable fault from our midst…Billy had to die.

The real irony in all of this is that in taking Billy’s life, the State of Florida will have done something Billy never did; the State of Florida will have made a conscious decision to kill, which, for those of us who actually knew Billy, knew that perhaps Billy’s most admirable trait was that despite the tragic history of his tortured life, that’s one line Billy chose not to cross, period.

When the State of Florida carried out the state-sanctioned “execution” of William (Billy) Van Poyck, it killed a man who has never killed. But under the rule of law, Billy was convicted and condemned to death for the murder of Florida prison guard Fred Griffis in a botched escape attempt in 1987. Billy participated in the event and that made him criminally culpable under Florida’s “felony murder” rule of law that demands that anyone who knowingly participated in a criminal act that results in the death of another is guilty of capital murder even if they do not commit the act resulting in death themselves.

In Billy’s case, the crime was an attempt to break a friend free from a prison transport van. Billy and another friend, Frank Valdes, had both been released from prison months earlier, but their friend (James O’Brien) remained inside and was scheduled for medical transport when Billy and Frank jumped the van as it parked at the doctor’s office. Things quickly got crazy and within that eternal microsecond of chaos, Frank Valdes shot and killed FDOC officer Fred Griffis. They then quickly fled the scene leaving O’Brien in the van.

Both Billy and Frank Valdes stood trial in the southeast Florida rural community of Martin County, and the guards from the local maximum security prison (Martin Correctional) showed up in force so the jury – many of whom knew or were related to prison employees – would know with absolute certainty what was expected of them. The jury found both Billy and Frank guilty of capital murder of a law enforcement officer and had no problem recommending both be put to death.

When Billy’s case received its required review on “direct appeal,” the Florida Supreme Court recognized that Billy did not kill officer Griffis, nor was there any evidence of a preformed intent to kill, nor prior knowledge that anyone would be killed, and the Florida Supreme Court vacated Billy’s conviction of “premeditated” murder. But in a twist that could only come from the distorted “ends justify the means” logic our politically corrupted courts have now become infamous for, the Florida Supreme Court turned around and said, “kill him anyways” as under Florida’s “felony murder” law, it doesn’t matter whether Billy intended anyone die as all that really mattered is that he participated in attempting to free O’Brien from the prison van with Frank Valdes, and although it was clear that Frank shot and killed Officer Griffis, Billy had to pay too.

Even in subsequent appeals, it’s almost certain that Billy would have had his death sentence reduced to life, if not for another event involving Frank Valdes. In July 1999 a rabid pack of prison guards at Florida State Prison went into Frank Valdes’ cell on the infamous “X-wing” and brutally beat Frank to death. I was a couple cells down from Frank and we all know it was just a matter of time, as the courts later recognized in Valdes v Crosby, 450 f.3d.1276 (11th cir. 2006), in the months proceeding the murder of Frank, these pack of prison guards were given free rein to target and brutally assault any prisoner they pleased with the blessing of Warden James Crosby – who himself would subsequently be sent to Federal prison.

As one of the few death-sentenced prisoners who had spent a considerable amount of time on “X-wing” and as a result became personally acquainted with both Billy and Frank Valdes, I knew that it was only too common for the guards to invent reasons to enter their solitary cells and under the pretense of doing a cell search, they would physically assault Billy and Frank, and openly promise both that they would not live long enough to be put to death by the state and that was a promise we all knew they would keep.

Months after beating Frank Valdes to death a guard jury indicted two of the guards for murder, and they eventually stood trial in Bradford County, which has only one industry…the seven local prisons that provide the backbone of this rural northeast Florida community centered around Starke. Every juror admitted to knowing or being related to prison employees and it didn’t surprise anyone that after hearing all the evidence, including other prison employees on testimony detailing the murder of Frank Valdes, the jury still turned around and found all the guards “not guilty.” When asked later how they could acquit the prison guards given the overwhelming evidence, members of the jury could only stutter an implausible explanation, that they had no doubt the guards killed Frank – but they just didn’t know which one of the guards inflicted the fatal blow actually resulting in death and so they found all of them “not guilty”…who says justice has to make any sense?

All of that left Billy in a really bad way. After the guards murdered his co-defendant Frank, the governor’s office ordered Billy transferred to a Virginia prison for his own safety and from there Billy continued to pursue his appeals. Having come to know Billy pretty well through the years prior to his transfer, I never expected to see him again as it seemed certain that Billy’s death sentence would be reduced to life given both the Florida Supreme Court’s own recognition that Billy did not kill anyone, and the evidence that showed Billy did not intend anyone to be killed, as well as the overwhelming evidence of Billy’s tragic life history that his sentencing jury was never allowed to hear.

But that’s not how justice works here in American – someone has to pay and with Frank Valdes now already dead, that only left Billy. To hell with the evidence as only the hopelessly disillusioned would still believe that the inconvenience of truth had anything to do with the administration of “justice,” especially down here in the deep South, where the genetically predisposition towards a good old fashioned lynching is the only way to respond to a crime that upsets the community and so his fate was sealed – Billy had to die, as “justice” demanded no less, especially when Governor Rick Scott is preparing to run for re-election and desperately needs the political support of the prison guards in the upcoming election and although Governor Scott has spent the last three years screwing prison guards out of all he could, by throwing Billy to the wolves, they would now gladly line up to vote for his re-election next November, and he knew it.

Perhaps the greater tragedy in the sacrificial murder of William Van Poyck is that few actually came to know Billy for the person he is and as too many all but openly celebrate his state-sanctioned lynching, they will only know the grossly distorted “facts” of his crime. As with all those condemned to death, our society does not want to know anything about the person they have decided to kill – the less they know, the better, as God forbid “we, the people” should recognize any measure of humanity within those condemned by our own hand.

But I did know Billy as the person and not the perception of the alleged crime and so I am not at all surprised to see that ultimately Billy must die because he could not and would not turn his back on a friend. And when his close friend James O’Brien remained in prison with little hope of ever seeing the real world again, and the opportunity presented itself to give his friend that chance, Billy went along as only a true friend would.

Those of us who actually knew Billy came to realize that Billy just wasn’t cut from the same cloth as most prisoners. Only a few years older than me, Billy was already doing seriously hard time before I even made it into my first year of high school. Back then, doing time meant surviving in the jungle that most maximum security prisons were before this new generation of politically ambitious prison administrators invented the concept of mass confinement of any and all inmates who dared to show any inclination of violence or anything less than absolute submission.

Billy came of age doing hard time in some of the worst prisons our society created, back when violence and death were served as cold and predictable as the cockroach infested grits each morning in the prison chow hall. It wasn’t enough to be physically strong to survive, as strength meant nothing when another crept up behind you and drove the blade of a homemade knife deep down into your flesh. It didn’t matter how big you were, and physically, Billy wasn’t that big of a guy and some might have described him as even small in stature. But as they say down here in the South, it’s not the size of the dog but the size of the heart in the dog and Billy had a lot of heart and even against the odds, would stand his ground against anyone if he knew he was right, and all too often Billy would put his own life on the line to stand up for those who couldn’t. That’s just the kind of person he was.

I’ve know a lot of convicts through the too many years I’ve spent in prison – and a lot more who only too quickly will call themselves “convicts” even though they are not worthy. Billy was old school, and he earned his stripes the hard way. In this world we live in, prison can break the best of them and anyone who tries to tell you it can’t is full of – well, you know. It takes someone with incredible inner-strength, and courage to rise above this cesspool of humanity and remain their own man despite the forces perpetually pushing at you from all sides.

I doubt there would be any words to describe that intangible essence of the inner self that provides that measure of strength within that allows the very few to maintain their own sense of self when others all around them slowly become part of that environment. But anyone who has done hard time will recognize that unique quality and respect of the man who can master it.

It is that measure of the man within that best describes just who Billy was as a person. Billy was a truly gifted writer who often found his means of detaching and compartmentalizing the trauma of his life experience by writing stories about his experiences. One of Billy’s stories, “Death by Dominoes” was posted here on Minutes Before Six. This particular story is a reflection of not only the horrific experiences Billy endured while doing time, but also how he found the strength to rise above it, and despite the probable consequences of intervening in behalf of another prisoner who Billy felt might not be able to stand up for himself, Billy put his own life on the line to do the right thing while the vast majority of inmates around him crawled up under their bunks and did nothing.

But “Death By Dominoes” is only one of countless stories that collectively create the colorful tapestry that is Billy, and there are many of us in prison today who could share similar stories of Billy’s character.

I first came to know Billy not long after he was sentenced to death. Back then, any prisoner who assaulted or killed a prison guard would automatically be kept in a concrete box of a cell on Florida State Prison’s infamous “Q-wing” (later relabeled as “X-wing”). Nobody has really done hard time until you’ve done time on Q-wing and even a short stay on one of those 24 crypts often broke the prisoner forever.

I had been sent to Q-wing after being charged with the infraction of “other assault” for beating a “runner” down with a food tray after the runner got it in his head that I might be his new romantic interest. I wasn’t proud of what I did, but it had to be done, as I had to live in this cesspool and any sign of weakness would result in a fate even for worse than death.

They moved me up to 3 West, with Billy two crypts away – and I deliberately call these cages “crypts” as that is exactly what they are. Unlike regular confinement cells that are “open” (a wall of steel bars) at the front so you can see outside the cell and communicate with your neighbors, each crypt on Q-wing was fully enclosed by thick concrete walls and a solid steel door that when shut – and often it stayed shut – closed out all light, isolating the prisoner just as if he was cast down into a crypt.

Within each crypt was a concrete slab that was the “bunk” and it was not uncommon at all for them to refuse to provide even one of the rodent-infested, generously urinated prison “mattresses,” leaving the prisoner within to sleep on the cold concrete, with the water deliberately shut off and the only means to urinate was to all but blindly feel for that hole in the center of the floor, then remove whatever you stuffed down into it to keep the rats and roaches from coming into the crypt, and remembering to again stuff that newspaper or whatever back in when done.

Few people could possibly imagine the uncompromised hell that Q-wing was, by deliberate design and intent. Its purpose was to unofficially retaliate against those who had dared to assault or kill a prison guard, and the physical conditions was only a small part of it, as it was unwritten policy that the guards assigned to Q-wing, each handpicked by the warden, were all but strongly encouraged to physically abuse the prisoners housed on Q-wing, and they only too often gleefully obliged the warden’s wishes.

I had already known who Billy was, as there aren’t too many secrets in this small world we live in, and we had mutual friends. Billy was easy to get along with and it wasn’t long before we were “talking” for hours – and I mean that’s only in the most abnormal way as it wasn’t easy to talk to anyone on Q-wing. But once you adjusted, it was possible, and we did.

The first thing that caught my attention was Billy’s completely unexpected sense of humor, which was second only to never-ending drive to fight the fight. Where most who find themselves cast down into the depths of hell that Q-wing truly is, would either lay down on their slab of concrete and roll up into a ball in a futile attempt to shut reality out, or simple go mad until the guards get the psych shirts to tranquilize them into a state of mortal numbness, Billy did neither, instead finding his strength in standing his ground by using his knowledge of law to challenge his confinement. But for Billy, being who he was, it wasn’t enough for him to only fight his own fight, but to take on that fight for those around him regardless of the all but certain consequences of his actions.

That was one of the bonds that created a sense of communion between me and Billy that lasted the better part of 20 years – our mutual unquenchable thirst to use our knowledge of law to fight the fight not only for ourselves, but to help those around us and with all respect, I must bow down to Billy’s obviously superior ability and uncompromised tenacity.

It wasn’t long after my relatively short stay on Q-wing when Billy won the law suit he filed on behalf of all those on Q-wing and it forced the prison to finally release these prisoners from their long term Q-wing confinement, and Billy, Frank Valdes, and Thomas Knight were transferred to the regular death-row confinement wings, where they would be in open-front cells and be allowed the privileges extended to death row, such as use of a T.V., radio, buying “canteen” each week, receiving regular “contact” visits and going to rec yard. It was a big victory, but not without consequence, and as the years passed it would become common for Billy, Frank and Knight to be targeted for fabricated disciplinary actions and returned to Q-wing for shorter stays under the pretense of imposing discipline.

Within a few years of Billy’s victory in that lawsuit, our paths once again crossed as both me and Billy began contributing to and became instrumental in the growth of what eventually evolved into Florida’s top prisoner newsletter, known as “Florida Prison Legal Perspectives,” which provided prisoners throughout Florida the means with which to stay informed on changes in prison rules, changes in law relevant to both challenging convictions and parole, and a general information platform on what was going on around the State’s prisons. For years both me and Billy served on the Board of Advisors for FPLP and it thrived, despite prison officials deliberate targeting of the handful of prisoners whose names were associated with FPLP, and even as a number of prisoners who were willing to contribute to FPLP died under suspicious circumstances, such as Enrique Diaz, Billy never backed down from the greater cause and stood his ground to fight the fight on behalf of all prisoners.

During the same period of time a small handful of us on Florida’s Death Row decided it was time to challenge the “totality of conditions,” and despite receiving no assistance from lawyers, we initiated a comprehensive federal lawsuit with Billy contributing countless hours handwriting legal memorandums, and many sleepless nights spent talking about what had to be done, and thanks to the relentless work, we got that case to the Federal Court.

The thing is, we already knew we couldn’t win. We already knew that none of the typical legal organizations such as the ACLU, NAACP, or others were willing to help Florida’s Death Row prisoners as they often did in the other states because they knew the politically corrupted courts in Florida would be hostile to any such action. We went into this project knowing that we were passing into a gale force wind, and there would be hell to pay. But with Billy at the helm, we pushed forward.

We put every ounce of our strength into that lawsuit and the state threw their best lawyers at us. Each of us willing to put our names to it were targeted by both the guards and other Death Row inmates who would do as the guards asked of them (all the while calling themselves “convicts”), but we didn’t sacrifice a single inch of ground and slowly that iceberg itself gave way.

Because of our excellent legal work, our small group of determined souls forced the Federal Court to deny the State’s motion to dismiss/motion for summary judgment (Lambrix/Teffeteller v Duggar, Case No. 89-840-J-as, US Dist Ct and the Federal Court ordered the case into pretrial discovery and suddenly there we were (me, Billy, Robert Teffeteller and Amos King) celebrating the David over Goliath victory. We had won and it was good.

As a result of the Florida prison system now facing a very real threat of being found in violation of laws governing basic living conditions on Florida’s Death Row, and possibly even having Florida State Prison itself condemned and forced to close due to the deplorable conditions, suddenly they took us seriously and began not only re-constructing the Death Row wings at Florida State Prison, but announcing they would build a brand new “modern” Death Row unit at the cost of almost 20 million dollars!

By December 1992 Florida opened its new “modern” Death Row unit at nearby Union Correctional, which had 336 single man confinement cells exclusively for Death Row and the majority of Florida’s Death Row were then transferred to the new unit where we actually had a clean environment to live in that was not infested by rodents and cockroaches, and although still unbearably hot in the summer, it had a heating system that kept us from freezing.

But Billy would not be transferred – he would never set foot in this new unit, and was kept at Florida State Prison until late 1999 when he was transferred to Virginia after guards killed Frank Valdes. Billy would be returned to Florida in 2008 and again at Florida State Prison. Not long after that I was moved back to Florida State Prison under the pretense of “security” reasons, and was able to get a cell next to Billy up until the summer of 2012, when because of my physical disability (disabled veteran) I was moved back to the main death row unit of Union Correctional.

Billy knew his days were numbered as both the State and Federal Courts summarily denied his last appeals, and yet true to his character, Billy was not broken or gave into despair. Instead, he stood his ground and took the punches, never giving an inch.

Perhaps ultimately that is what really angered those who wanted Billy dead the most – no matter how much hell they put Billy through, they could never break him, not even once. Many of the guards came to hold great respect for Billy and would come to his cell to ask legal advice or just talk and Billy never showed any anger or bitterness towards them, not even when one sergeant who previously worked Q-wing and took part in a particularly violent assault upon Billy was temporarily assigned to the Death Row wing. Billy treated him as if it never happened.

It is the nature of the beast that prison will inevitably break the majority of those who are caught in its grasp. But then there are those few who possess supernatural inner-strength and will never be broken, instead remaining who they are consistently and standing their ground unconditionally. Billy was by no means a perfect man, and by society’s standards, Billy probably was an “outlaw” as it’s the only life he ever knew. But for those of us who actually knew Billy for the person he was, by his strength and sense of character, he inspired us. For the even fewer who could call Billy a friend, we were truly blessed by his generous spirit that touched each of our lives. The world that I continue to live in is a small, small world, but it is a better world because of Billy’s willingness to put himself in the line of fire to make it a better place.

In closing, I dedicate a song to Billy that I know will make him smile, as well as all those who have been blessed by knowing Billy…Billy the Kid by Billy Dean.

Michael Lambrix #482053
Union Correctional Institution
7819 NW 228th Street (P3226)
Raiford, FL 32026-4400

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Innocent and Executed - Please Read