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
Union Correctional Institution
7819 NW 228th Street
Raiford, FL 32026