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Friday, March 15, 2013

Alcatraz of the South Part 1

By Michael Lambrix

The funny thing about not having a future is that you tend to spend way too much time thinking about the past and all those distorted memories of the life you might have once had.  It doesn’t take too much to think back to those better days and when you’ve spent as much time in a solitary cell as I have over the past three decades, your attempt to hold on to those past memories too often begin to blend into the world you’re now trapped in and the present becomes one with that past in the strongest of ways.

Most recently, it was a simple question posed by a friend, asking me what it was like when I first came to Florida’s death row so long ago.  She wanted me to tell her how I felt that first day and what my initial impressions were.  I suppose that was a simple enough question but how does one look back through the many years and describe that first moment when the world he once knew ceased to exist and as if awakening to a nightmare, he steps into a virtual man-made hell that few could even begin to imagine?

As I struggle with a way to answer that simple question, my thoughts drift back to a time in my early teens when living in the San Francisco Bay area where I was born and raised.  A friend’s father had just bought a new boat and we all begged to go along as he took that cabin cruiser out that very first time.

We began our trip early that morning at a marina in San Rafael, not too far from where San Quentin State Prison looked out over the bay, just a short distance from the Richmond Bridge that joined Marin and Alameda countries.  Side by side with my friend, I stood proudly at the bow of the boat, our knuckles clenched tightly to that stainless steel rail as the water broke beneath us. We skirted southward around the bay towards that narrow passage between the sparsely populated hills of Tiburon and Larkspur, and the infamous and ironically named Angel Island where Japanese Americans were involuntarily interned during the World War II, and then towards the mouth of Richardson Bay where the funky houseboats around Sausalito then lay anchor and our captain, oh captain, proudly leaned down on his horns.

We then swung southward again, crossing the bay in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge with those twin engines gunned as we fought the current that had swept many a lesser boat out to the sea and back up into the bay along the bunks of what was once Crissy Field at the Presidio, past the stuffy St. Francis Yacht Club, on towards Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Terminal.

By then it was approaching mid-morning and, as is so common on those early days, thick banks of drifting fog rolled in across the bay just as we turned in towards Alcatraz Island.  At that time I had heard many stories about that island, but had never seen it up close before.  The boat had slowed to barely a crawl, inching its way towards that bellowing foghorn and we remained on point, straining to see through those drifting bunks of seemingly impenetrable fog and then suddenly, there it was directly in front of us, the towering castle-like monstrosity that is Alcatraz, rising from the depths of the sea.

As we slowly flanked the island, everyone on the boat was silent, each of us looking up towards that abandoned monument of human misery and with the sun still rising over the distant hills behind the island, that late morning light cast strange shadows from the broken windows of that fortress-like cellblock that topped the island so as that one could almost see the faceless figures of those long forgotten convicts who once made that infamous Rock what it was.  Now, I imagines, their tortured souls stood a silent vigil perhaps also looking out towards a life they once had.

We had all heard the stories of the depravation and the desperation of the men condemned to that island hell and how the federal government had closed and all but abandoned the island after a daring and fateful midnight escape that proved the seemingly inescapable prison had its weaknesses after all.

The stories told around our scout campfires hinted that those desperate convicts may had made it off the island, but they didn’t leave the water alive, and there in the dead of the night out on the bay, the tortured souls of these ghosts still cry out as they were forever condemned to drift in endless circles around Alcatraz, never to set foot on dry land again.

But for all the stories that I might had heard, and even when I think back to that morning when I first saw for myself that soulless steel and stone miscreation floating in the bay between those thick banks of ghostly fog, never once, not even in my worst childhood nightmare could I have imagined how my own destiny would one day closely parallel that of those lost souls, and I too would go on to become one of those faceless figures standing in the shadows of the shattered windows of an only too similar cold concrete and steel monstrosity maliciously designed to methodically break the will of even the strongest of men.

It had been about ten years, almost to the day, since that prophetic boat trip when that plain windowless white van pulled up to the heavy steel gates at the backside of Florida State Prison to deliver its human cargo.  I sat alone, shackled and chained in a cage in the back, as I was the cargo.  Only the day before I had been sentenced to death.  That was March 22, 1984, and although seemingly so long ago, I can still remember it as if that was yesterday.

My journey into this man-made hell had begun many hours before we finally approached the gates leading into this beast known as Florida State Prison and I already knew only too well that FSP wasn’t just any prison – it was the end of the line and it was here that I had been delivered to die.  Only those condemned to death come straight to FSP as all others commonly graduate to this prison after screwing up at other institutions and proving they cannot be housed anywhere else.  For that reason, FSP had come to be known as the Alcatraz of the South, where convicts only came when they couldn’t be sent anywhere else.  There wasn’t a prisoner in the south who didn’t fear the place or know its reputation for violence and death was by no means an exaggeration.

There I sat in that van, in the heart of what was known as the “Iron Triangle,” that area of northwest Florida around the town of Starke, where at least six state prisons formed the backbone of an industry imprisoning society’s outcasts.  Just across the way and yet in another county altogether stood “The Rock of Raiford,” made famous in a few Humphrey Bogart movies.

As I now know, the local industry dates back to 1913 when Florida built a few temporary stockades on 18,000 acres of land they had purchased at $5.00 an acre.  At that time, it was called the State Prison Farm and was intended to accommodate only those prisoners the state could not sell to private businesses, which was the practice even after slavery was abolished.

By 1919 hundreds of both male and female convicts worked together to farm about 4,000 acres of crops and run a shoe factory that put out about 10 pairs of shoes a day.  The state hired a superintendent and about 40 guards who were paid $35.00 a month plus room and board.

But in 1923 then-Governor Hardee put a stop to the time honored practice of selling state prisoners for labor.  For the first time, all convicted felons in Florida had to be sent to a state prison. By 1928, the infamous “Rock” known as Raiford State Prison was built near the original stockades, and a license tag factory put them to work.  Once the construction of state prisons began, it never stopped.  Soon more buildings were constructed to house even more prisoners and on and on it grew.  By the 1950’s Florida decided it was time to have their own maximum-security prison, where convicts who couldn’t be housed anywhere else could be warehoused and a death house could be built.

Florida State Prison was born the same year I was – 1960.  Originally considered an extension of “The Rock,” it was commonly called “The East Unit.” But the unlucky convicts who called it home knew it for what it was – “The Alcatraz of the South.” By the time I arrived, FSP had already earned its reputation as a hell beyond comprehension.

As I now look back to that early Spring day of March 1984, I can’t help but think of the classic Dante’s “Inferno” and how the imaginary friend journeyed down with the condemned man through those nine rings of hell.  As much as I might wish I had my own imaginary guide to accompany me down and down, I already knew that it would be my fate to make this journey alone, even though I too was about to descend into an “inferno” beyond the comprehension.  To be able to now merge the man I am today with that much younger man that first entered the man-made hell is all that I might hope for as I now tell my tale.

I can imagine myself sitting in that van so long ago, waiting for those gates to swing open and suck me inside. As I strained to see over the guards’ shoulders and out that front window into that great beyond, all I can see was a barren and seemingly lifeless landscape enclosed by first one and then another tall steel fence topped off with rows of ribboned razor wire and between this gauntlet of impenetrable fences were stacked rows of this same razor wire.

The heavy gate slowly slid open allowing the van to finally enter.  Above us was a concrete gun tower and below us, a pit where a guard would walk beneath the vehicle to be sure nothing or no one was attached to the undercarriage.  They called this the Sally port.  The driver got out, and only then could I finally see that to my far right there were blue clad prisoners walking around a grass field and playing softball or working out on weights.  That didn’t look too bad.  Only later was I informed that those guys were “general population” prisoners and that inviting rec yard was only for them, not for the Death Row.

FSP was a virtual warehouse of solitary cells where most were intended to first psychologically, and then physically, slowly rot away. Only a small group of FSP were “population” inmates, and only because they were needed to cook, and clean and whatever else actual work had to be done.

I stretched forward as far as I could to get a better look, towards a small concrete area enclosed by yet another tall fence topped off with razor wire; Death Row. An even shorter wing sticking out the end of the building next to the Death Row wing was Q-wing. The bottom floor, right through the second window, was home to Old Sparky.

A few minutes later the van cleared the security check and we drove into the compound, straight down a narrow ribbon of asphalt toward the far end.  As we did so, I made a mental note that the prison lay as straight as a ruler, with six almost virtually identical “wings,” each three stories high, extending outward from that backbone somewhat like a centipede lying on its back with its legs stretched straight outward.  Only as the van approached the far end did the building structure change as a loading dock area, that I later knew to be the kitchen, break the uniformity.

Just beyond that was a circular drive at the base of a long concrete ramp that ascends up into the building itself, which was the only means into or out of this building that I could see.  But every prisoner who has ever had the misfortune of doing time at FSP knows this ramp.  Although the prison is stacked three stories high, it is actually the second floor that is the main floor of the entire prison.  For that reason, unlike Dante’s “Inferno,” one does not descend into the depths of this hell, but must actually climb up this mini-mountain of a ramp, slowly shuffling along in chains and shackles that make the climb all that much more difficult, and then, and only then, do you enter the prison through a polished tile hallway that leads towards what has always been known as “Times Square,” where the four corners of this world cross within.

Slowly I shuffled, and following the directions of my keeper, we moved up this hall towards a wall of steel bars with electric gates to each side.

Upon reaching that first set of gates, I arrived at Times Square and stood patiently as we awaited the control room on the far side to open the gate so we could enter.  As I would learn, all new inmates arriving at FSP are first placed in a steel “holding cage” in front of the control room there at Times Square, and so too was I.

There I was to wait to be processed in and brought down to the Medical Infirmary for a cursory check-up before being brought to the wing where I would be housed.  Whether it was callous indifference, or the product of malicious intent, inmates first arriving, including myself, would wait in that small cage often for hours, all the while remaining handcuffed behind the back with both waist chains and leg irons (shackled).  Even as those hours slowly passed, I knew better than to complain.  FSP had a long history of instantaneous “hands-on” discipline and not even someone as new and naïve as I was then would be stupid enough to provoke the guards.

Finally towards the late afternoon my time came, and I was pulled from the Times Square cage and thrown a bedroll that I was expected to pick up and carry even though I remained handcuffed and chained behind the back.  I obediently crouched down and grabbed the bedroll and then with a guard at each side.  I was led to yet another wall of steel bars, awaiting the gate leading into the main hall that runs from one end of the building to the other to open.  And then it did, and I again entered, metaphorically descending into another ring of this hell. 

Conveniently, I would get the full tour, as Death Row was housed only on the wings at the farthest end of the hall, through a series of more gates, for all practical purposes, an isolated area that was itself a prison within a prison.

Stepping through those Time Square gates and into that long hall to my immediate right was a double set of steel doors with a small square window into the prison chapel. I quickly looked through that little window and was surprised to find a cavernous space that actually did look very much like a free-world church, complete with polished pews of stained wood divided neatly by a path of red carpet leading up to an altar accented by a wood cross and illuminated by the soft light of what appeared to be candles. Unfortunately, in the three decades I have spent on Florida’s Death Row, not even once has a death-sentenced prisoner ever been allowed to attend a church service.

Walking farther, just a short way up the hall we come to yet another wall of bars with an electronic gate to each side.  To my right is the prison gym, enclosed and securely separated by two steel doors and another small glass window, deliberately too small for anyone to get through if a riot broke out.  As I looked through that window, I could see the vast space within, open all the way from the first floor below us to the ceiling far above, with a full wood floored basketball court, and what appeared to be a stage where the notorious “boxing ring” once was, now replaced by sets of steel weights and benches.  But again that gym is off limits to Death Row. 

Directly opposite the gym was first what to be an open dining room, one of two identical dining rooms, but this one had been converted into the “Administrative Confinement Visiting Park” (ACVP), which is prison label for the Death Row visiting area, where if family and friends are willing, they could come each weekend for up to a 6 hour “contact” visit in a relatively relaxed environment. But few death-sentenced prisoners actually get regular visits and for the most part, it remained empty.

Immediately adjacent to the ACVP was the “population” dining hall that at that time remained in use. As I would quickly come to know, Death Row were never allowed to eat in the prison dining hall – Death Row was a continuous confinement status, and all meals are served and eaten in the cell.  I would learn I was lucky, in a way, not to have access to these areas.  This prison has more killings that the rest of Florida’s prisons combined and most of these killings happen in either the dining hall or the gym.  As the years passed, I would come to know many condemned prisoners who caught their cases by killing other inmates either in the dining hall or gym, although a few took place on the wings.

Again, we waited momentarily for the gate to open and then walked through. Each of the 13 housing wings along this main hall are sealed off by the solid steel doors and locked from both sides.  That way, even if something happened on one wing, it is isolated from the other wings.

Walking up that hall, the first solid steel door to my left had a large “W” painted above the door. Back then, “W-wing” was a “max psyche” wing where prisoners who could not be broken anywhere else were sent there, and once you went in, you either came out broken or dead.  It would be years later, after too many died under the pretense of being administered “psychiatric care,” that the State would close that wing down and today W-wing is not even acknowledged by the FDOC.  But for those who did time at FSP up until the eighties, each has many stories of the horrors that took place on W-wing.

In relatively quick succession we silently passed the three housing wings on the right side known as “J”, “K” and “L” wings, which at that time I first came to Florida State Prison were where the population prisoners were housed three tiers high with 17 single man cells to each side of each floor, all the way up to the roof of the third floor, giving the impression of a large open space surrounded by the cells housing over a hundred population prisoners on each of the three wings.  Unlike the wings housing Death Row, each of the cells on these wings was built on the outside wall so that within each cell the inmate had his very own window.  (Too often over the many, too many, years that followed, I wished that I had access to a window so that I could feel the air coming in from outside.)

To my left where three wings used to house those in “closed custody” – a common confinement status similar to other states’ “segregated confinement,” where those who committed serious disciplinary infractions would be kept for what could be long periods of time, isolated in single man cells with very few privileges and under conditions that arguably made even Death Row seem like a good place to be. See, “The Harsh Prison Treatment at Starke”, Miami Herald, May 26, 1991, by Human Rights Watch prison project director Joanna Weschler (Admin note - Michael refers to this article and we have been unable to locate it online however we have found the report it appears this article is based on - Prison Conditions in the United States by Human Rights Watch. The director of this report was Joanna Weschler.)

Finally, we came to the last of these steel bar walls and its set of electric gates and the end of that long main hall could now be seen.  This time we didn’t wait too long and I was quickly guided into this area known as “Corridor E,” which segregated the last five wings.

To my right was “N” and “P” wing, which were used to house even more “closed management” inmates when I first arrived to FSP in 1984, but by 1992 the growing number of Florida’s Death Row would be expanded to both of these wings.  To my left was “S” and “R” wing, which in 1984 were both exclusively Death Row.

The segregated confinement wings behind the gate in “Corridor E” are all designed so that the cells are inside the middle of the wing, facing out so that these prisoners cannot have any direct access to a window.  Each of the three floors has 2 sides, each side with 17 cells of about 6’ x 9’ and subtracting the area for the bunk and sink/toilet combo, each cell had an open area of, at best, 24 square feet – and in that small space the condemned would be warehoused for not only years, but decades.

The guard motioned me to the nearest wing, labeled with the letter “S” above the solid steel door.  As we waited for the guards within to open the lock on their side, I realized there was another wing beyond these last four: Q-wing. That single steel door at the very end of this hall leads to where prisoners are executed. I couldn’t help but look.  It appeared to be just another door not at all unlike the 12 other doors leading into housing areas along the main hall.  There appeared to be nothing that indicated what might lie beyond that plain door.

But as the years would pass, I would find out that appearances could be quite deceiving.  Through that otherwise normal looking door was where the Florida death house was.  When walking through that door, one could be forgiven for thinking it was just another wing.  And unless you really knew, it would appear to be just another wing. But through that door, if you take a quick right turn you’ll see a set of stairs that lead down to the first level, just as the stairs do on each of the wings.  Only when you actually reach that lower level do you realize that it’s not at all like all the other wings. 

Thank you for allowing me to share my introductory tour with you and I hope that you will join me in future segments of this series.  In the following segment I will walk through that “S” wing door and on to Death Row.




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

2 comments:

Bonnie said...

nMichael,

I cannot wait to read your next installment to the story. Your use of detailed description really helps someone like me, who has never been inside of a prison, to get a clear picture of what you are seeing and feeling. Of course the visions I get in my head are also based by things I've seen in pictures and on television because that is the only references I have to guide me, other then your words. I appreciate you taking the time to share your journey on Thomas's blog.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Mike Lambrix:


Bonnie, thank you very much for your generous compliments - it’s always great to hear from those who find my writings worth reading. I can only hope that as we continue this series of “Alcatraz of the South,” it will continue to enlighten and inspire you and others who read it. The truth is that Hollywood’s fictionalization of prison life might seem superficially “real” but they can never truly capture the psychological impact of this journey of actually doing the time. It is for this reason that as we continue this journey together I can find the words necessary to move beyond the tangible elements of doing time and take the readers into the psychological experience and the trauma that comes with that. Your comments inspire me to do even better as I know that what I’m writing means something . Again, thank you very much, Mike L.