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Friday, May 10, 2013

Alcatraz of the South Part II: Descending Down into the Bowels of the Beast

ADMIN NOTE One of our regular writers Bill Van Poyck has had a death warrant signed with a scheduled execution date of 12 June 2013. Many avenues are being worked on and his attorneys are filing briefs for a stay of execution.  We are not giving up hope that Bill's sentence can be commuted to a life sentence where he could be released for time served (26 years), getting him off death row. Please sign the petition on Bill's website HERE and spread the word. Thank You

By Michael Lambrix

Part 1 can be read HERE

The solid steel door was now all that separated me from that one single step that would lead me down into another world few could even imagine in their own worst nightmare.  I couldn’t help but think of Alice in Wonderland, and how with just one unfortunate step, she fell down that rabbit hole into a surreal world where nothing was as it might seem to be.  But my rabbit hole would cast me down into the very bowels of the greater beast that is our prison system, a hell that even the most hardened convicts feared.

This door heading on to the wing that houses Florida’s Death Row was all but identical to the others I passed as I was escorted down that seemingly never-ending main corridor of Florida State Prison.  By the looks of that plain door, nothing gave so much as a hint of the misery and deprivation of the lost souls housed therein.  And yet there was that intangible feeling, that presence that hung into the air that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise and as I stood silently awaiting the guard within to open the door, a sense of fear overcame me.  Had I looked in a mirror at that moment, I have no doubt I would have seen the fear upon my face.

Anyone who stood in my shoes at that very moment and said they were not scared was either a fool or a liar.  But I also knew that in this prison world the only thing worse than showing fear would be to admit being scared.

I didn’t know what to expect and from all the stories I had already heard, I knew it wasn’t good.  Finally, the face of a guard appeared at that small window and the sound of the big brass key being inserted into the lock was quickly followed by that door now swinging outward.  As the door was opened, a gust of cold air blew outward.  It was late March of 1984 and not especially cold, but that single unexpected gust made me shiver.

Obediently I stepped across that threshold on to the Death Row wing, almost expecting to be sucked down into the depths of hell as I did, but the concrete floor beneath my feet remained solid even if the strength of my own legs beneath me didn’t.  Just as quickly that door now behind me crashed shut with what seemed to be a thunderous sound, and the lock turned and I was trapped within, with nowhere to run even if I might had wanted to.

As with all the wings at Florida State Prison, when entering from the main corridor, one finds himself standing on the “quarter-deck” of the second floor.  The quarter-decks are the officer’s station, its walls lined with bulletin boards, including a large one with the names, prison inmate number and race of each inmate housed on the wing.  To the left of where I stood, just inside that door, was the sergeant’s desk and to the far side of that were three small rooms – a small storage closet, a small bathroom, and then another smaller closet used to store cleaning supplies.

To my immediate right there were concrete steps leading to the third floor cell blocks and down to the first floor cell blocks. On the wall next to the door I had just walked through was a “fire escape plan”- a diagram of each floor that showed the layout of the wing.  Since I was left standing there while the sergeant and two officers were doing something else at the desk, I took a few minutes to examine the layout.

All three floors were laid out the same, with a quarterdeck area from which the cellblocks extended.  In the very middle of each floor, running in length from the quarterdeck all the way back to the very end of the wing was what was called a “pipe alley” where all the plumbing and electrical outlets ran.  This pipe alley also served to separate the north side from the south side, with each tier of six by nine foot solitary cells backed up against that pipe alley facing outward.

Each tier had both an inner and outer catwalk, with the very narrow inner catwalk providing access to each of the cells, and the much wider outer catwalk used by the guards when they made their periodical cell checks. Each tier had 17 cells, each virtually identical, measuring six foot by nine foot with a steel bunk securely affixed to one side and a combination of stainless steel sink/toilet affixed to the back wall.  Towards the ceiling on the back wall was a single vent measuring not more than a cubic foot, although wider than it was tall.

Each of these 102 cells on the wing was a concrete crypt, with three sides and the floor and ceiling solid concrete.  Only the front of each cell open by way of a wall of steel bars spaced precisely four inches apart, as was the sliding cell door itself, with the exception of a “bean flap” on each door, which is a cutaway section with a steel plate about six inches wide where the food trays were passed in (which is why it is traditionally called a “bean flap”).

As I stood there examining the wing layout, I couldn’t help but notice the loud noises coming from each side of the quarterdeck, obviously coming from the cellblock area.  It wasn’t just prisoners taking but I could hear their T.V.s and radios, many radios.

The sergeant stood up from the desk and walked across the quarterdeck, motioning at me to follow.  Along the one wall next to the center door leading into the pipe alley was a single, long wooden bench and the sergeant sat down and instructed me to sit, too.  I remained in the handcuffs and leg shackles and I shuffled over to the bench and sat as instructed.

Without any malice or animosity in his voice, the sergeant began by telling me I needed to know how things work.  He began by looking at me and telling me point blank that he’s not there to judge me and as long as I don’t give them a problem, they won’t give me a problem.  That seemed fair enough – but as time went by I would learn that although this philosophy was generally true, there were still other guards who thought it was part of their job to antagonize Death Row prisoners and go out of their way to make us as miserable as possible.  But fortunately, these few were the exception to the general rule.

It quickly became clear that the sergeant had given this same introductory speech only too many times before.  I was told that I was the fourth condemned prisoner that week alone.  The class of 1984 would prove to be one of the busiest years for the Florida courts in sentencing prisoners to death.

Much of what the sergeant told me I already knew – Death Row was not a regular prison and we would not be allowed to move around like those in the general inmate population (“gen-pop”) do.  In gen-pop, each prisoner is required to work at an assigned job whether it is in the kitchen, mowing the lawns, or maintaining the facility.  When not working, most gen-pop inmates could play sports, or go to the prison chapel, or just hang out with their chosen group of other inmates.

But not Death Row, as we were special.  Under the politically motivated pretense of “security,” all death-sentenced prisoners in Florida are kept in continuous solitary confinement for as long as they might remain under that sentence of death.  Incredibly, they say that this confinement status is for our own protection, as if allowing us to mingle and move around other prisoners might get us killed, which is kind of ironic, considering that the state sent us to death row to kill us.

But logic has nothing to do with this, and it becomes only too clear that the continuous solitary confinement of all Death Row prisoners has nothing to do with any legitimate “security” concerns. Rather, it is intended to serve the State’s greater purpose of breaking the condemned man both physically and psychologically in a methodical process towards what they hope will be our execution.

The sergeant continued in an almost monotone, instructing me on what was expected of me.  Once assigned to a cell, it was my responsibility to keep it clean.  If a guard told me to “cuff up,” I was to immediately comply, without question.  I already knew that the common prison term “cuff up” meant that the guard intended to place me in handcuffs, but until then I did not know that anytime any death-sentenced prisoner left his assigned cell, he must be first handcuffed, unless he had medical problems verified by the prison doctor.  This meant that we had to be handcuffed behind the back whenever we left our cells.

But then again, we didn’t leave our cells that much.  In Florida, all death-sentenced prisoners are prohibited from eating meals in the prison chow hall, or going to the prison gym or chapel.  All meals were brought to the individual cells and the only regular departures from your cell would be to shower three times a week and go to the recreation yard built just for death row – a relatively small concrete pad enclosed on all sides by twelve foot high security fencing topped by razor wire.  A few hundred feet away was a guard tower where the watchful eye of a trained marksman waited ready to shoot anyone stupid enough to try to scale that fence.

Otherwise, the only time I would leave my assigned cell would be if I had a medical appointment at the clinic up front, or if I had either a legal or a family visit.

I was surprised to learn that even on Death Row, I would be allowed visits with family or friends each weekend for up to six hours at a time, per day.  And that although death-sentenced prisoners were kept in restraints even when walking the few feet from the assigned cell to the shower cell, the only two exceptions were when we went to the recreation yard and when we had social visits.

For all the negatives I could speak of regarding Florida’s Death Row, the one positive was social visits from family and friends.  Unlike many other Death Rows, (such as Texas) that permit only non-contact visits through a thick plate of glass, Florida allows its condemned prisoners to have regular contact visits with family members or other friends as long as they are approved to visit, a relatively easy process that requires a criminal background check by prison officials to make sure the visitor is not a wanted outlaw.

I would come to learn that the Death Row visiting park is seen as “sacred ground” by prisoners.  No matter what problem you might have with another death-sentenced prisoner, you do not make it an issue during a visit.  We all knew only too well that there were many politicians and prison officials who did not want death-sentenced prisoners to have visits at all, much less regular contact visits and if given any excuse, they would quickly push to take these visits away.  For that reason, there was an understanding among all death-sentenced prisoners that the visiting park was holy and God help the idiot who might get stupid and give them a reason to take our visits.

But even as the sergeant explained how I would be allowed to have visits with family and friends each weekend, I already knew that I would have few, if any, visits.  In those first few years I had no visits at all, and the vast majority of death-sentenced prisoners had just as few, if any, as a big part of being condemned to die is being removed from that world out there.

The sergeant then explained that the laundry workers came to wing once a week to change out the state clothing each inmate was provided.  At the time, the designated uniform for all Death Row inmates was a pair of dark blue denim-type pants with nothing but an apricot colored t-shirt.  The state would not provide death-sentenced prisoners any type of shoes, but at that time we could have family and friends send us shoes and clothing as well as various basic hygiene products (soap, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, etc.), but of course, that was dependent upon each prisoner having someone willing to send a care package.  If not, many did without.

With the introductory speech complete, the sergeant told me to follow him and we were joined by the other two officers as we went to the nearby concrete staircase, and then descended down into the bowels of that beast.  Upon reaching that lower level quarterdeck, I noticed that, unlike that second floor quarterdeck that also served as the officers’ station, the lower level had nothing but an enclosed area that appeared to be an office at the one end, which I later learned was for the classification officer assigned to the Death Row wing.

As with that second floor, to each far side of this quarterdeck were steel bar gates leading into the catwalks.  The sergeant said that I would be housed in “1-south-6”, which meant that my assigned Death Row cell was on the first floor, south side, cell six, and I was led toward that south side gate that led into the cellblock area.

The closer I got towards the actual cells, the louder the sound of various radios and T.V.’s became, and above those electronic noises were the voices of unseen prisoners conversing with each other, often yelling to be heard above others.

We entered that gate and took the first few steps only to have the sergeant stop at two side-by-side empty cells, which he explained were the shower cells where three times a week on the evening shift I would be escorted, then locked within, to take a 5 minutes shower.  He then proceeded further down the tier and came to the first cell housing another inmate.  Still wearing both the handcuffs and leg shackles, I slowly shuffled by that first cell, then another and another, each housing an inmate. The first five inmates paid me no mind at all, with only the Columbian in cell five looking up at me to inspect his neighbor.

There were no loud screams of “fresh meat” or the derogatory calls that Hollywood movies typically exaggerate as a new guy enters into a prison cellblock that first time.  Just that quickly, we reached cell number six, and the cell door was already open and I entered into my new home.  Almost immediately the cell door rolled shut with a loud metallic clang and the sergeant first told me to back up to the cell door, then he reached through the open bean flap and removed the handcuffs, then reached down to my legs and removed the leg shackles and without another word, they walked away.

Although the noise continued all around me, I felt an overwhelming silence within as I stood there those first few moments in that cold concrete crypt that was my new cage.  It had been a long day, a very, very long day and I was both physically and mentally exhausted.  For more than ten continuous hours I had been kept restrained and both my hands and feet tingled almost painfully as the blood finally was able to circulate in each.  I looked around and my new cell was nothing more than an empty concrete box with the exception of a steel bunk along the one wall, and a rolled-up prison “mattress” (if it can be called that) with a bedroll consisting of a rough wool “horse blanket” and two bed sheets – all of which had seen better days.

There was not table or chair and the height of the bunk made it uncomfortable to sit upon as a metal rail ran its length that cut into my thigh, so I sat on the toilet.  I learned quickly that the toilet was the only seat in the house.

I was just sitting down to untie my shoelaces so I could pull off my shoes and try to rub some life back into my too-long shackled feet, I heard a voice nearby calling out, “Hey, new guy – cell six,” then, “Hey, what’s your name?”  It took me a long moment to realize that the voice was calling me – I was “cell six,” I was the “new guy,” and I responded, “I’m Mike. Who are you?”

With those simple words, a long conversation began.  Although I was exhausted, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep right away, anyway.  It was already late afternoon and I assumed they would be bringing dinner soon.  I stood up and took the few steps to the front of my cell so I could try to see who was calling me, and as I did, I noticed an arm reaching around that concrete wall from the adjacent cell and didn’t know what to make of that.

At the time, each cell had only a single incandescent light bulb that hung down from the ceiling in the upper front corner of the cell, and it was barely enough light to see by.  But in that dim light, I noticed that the arm extending outward towards my cell held what appeared to be a Popsicle stick, and at the very end of that stick was a small fragment of a mirror.  My new neighbor was “spooking” me, prison slang for checking me out, but not necessarily in a bad way…just curious.

“Hey,” the voice called out. “My name is J.D.”  I would learn that his full name was James D. Raulerson, and he would soon become my new friend and mentor, making my transition to the life under a sentence of death somewhat tolerable.

With introductions quickly behind us, J.D. offered me a cup of coffee and as I accepted, a few minutes later he again reached around the wall towards my side, and I reached out and took that steaming cup of coffee from him, expressing my gratitude as it had been at least a year since I had a good cup of coffee.  No sooner did I take that cup of coffee, there was J.D.’s hand reaching out again, this time with a pack of cookies, which he insisted I take and I really didn’t offer much opposition as I hadn’t eaten all day.

That night was not shower night and once the guards brought our dinner then returned to collect the empty trays, I found that other than the once-nightly “master count,” we didn’t see a lot of the guards other than an occasional cell check as one walked by in the outer catwalk, essentially paying no mind to any of us.

I would spend the next hours leaning up against that concrete wall that divided my cell from J.D.’s and we talked around the wall.  Others also hollered out, wanting to know who the new guy was, but each time even before I could answer, J.D. would yell back, “His name is Mike”.  As the evening progressed, guys I didn’t even know were passing various items from cell to cell towards me.  I quickly learned that Death Row really was different from the gen-pop.  When I first came to the row, there was camaraderie among the guys and for the most part, we looked out for each other.

None of these guys knew me and only J.D. was close enough to actually have a conversation with me over all the other noise.  But that first evening I received “care packages” from others around me with food and snacks and basics that we all used, such as toothpaste and deodorant and someone even sent me a state coat and an extra blanket, which I soon learned was most important as once it got dark outside, the temperature quickly dropped and that extra blanket kept me warm that first night and many nights after.

Most of the snacks and other items sent to me came without any note or means of identifying who sent it.  Nobody asked for anything in return – back then, we all called it “looking out.” My first night on Death Row was nothing like I had expected it to be, although my expectations themselves had been vague. I really hadn’t known what to expect.  I only knew that what I found was not at all what I had thought it might be.

Sometime after midnight the T.V.s and radios on the wing slowly faded out and even the guys talking to others died down and the wing went to sleep.  I bid J.D. a good night and threw the sheets and blankets on the already worn-out mattress, and lay back, and as I lay there thinking about my new environment, I too drifted off into a deep sleep and my first day came to its end.

Next: Part III Shaking the Bush, Boss,



Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017


4 comments:

Jasa Militon said...

Your description of your first day on death row was very powerful. I could actually felt the fear and the loneliness in your words, even though you where surrounded by a lot of other people that day. That first day was probably traumatizing within itself. It would have been for me. I can see the importance of your cell mate who spoke to you. Crazy thing is that some prisons don't even want prisoners talking to each other, passing notes, and they want them to have no kind of communication with each other. Texas is notorious for that. Well....they've had several death row prisoners escape, so I could understand that. However, I'm looking forward to your next post. You should actually think about writing a book about your experience. You're very descriptive and you use your words well, or at least a fictitious novel loosely based on your own experience. You should tell some back ground information as well. Particularly the case that led you to death row although you can't talk in details just what happened. I know that my previous comments about your friend Manny probably slightly offended you, but on some level I kind of agree with your response. A person can change. That's what makes death row so outrages. I did not know him, for the man he changed into. It's wrong to judge completely. The fact that they allow men to sit there for YEARS and let a life time pass and then kill them is shameful. The person who did the crime might not be the same person on the day of his death. Sometimes these crimes where committed a life time ago, literally. Even China has more leniency with their death row inmates. Any how, I know that your story would be worth reading. God Bless

crissie46 said...

I find your writing fascinating. I can't wait to read the next installment. Praying for you and yours.

Cryst

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Mike Lambrix:

To Jasa Militon: Thank you for your comment and my apologies for the delay in responding. It means a lot to me that you enjoy my writings and you’re right; I am fortunate that I am allowed to at least talk with the other prisoners housed around me. But believe me, if Florida could find a way to prohibit all inmate-to-inmate communication, I have no doubt they would, and many of the guards tell us to shut up. I too often wonder whether prisoners in China are allowed more freedoms as prisoners. Anyone familiar with the American prisons knows that in recent years the prison system is evolving towards prolonged isolation of prisoners and what were once open compounds (like UCI) have been portioned off by razor wire and electric fences and prisons are becoming virtual concentration camps. Even worse, fewer and fewer people out there are willing to advocate for reform and conditions continue to deteriorate as the mainstream media will no longer even cover prison issues. As for me writing a book about my experience, it is a dream of mine to do so but it is also impossible under my circumstances. But I truly am grateful for your comments and invite you to further comments.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Mike Lambrix:

To Crissie46: Glad to hear you find my writing fascinating and I would like be able to post many future installments. But the FDOC is pushing to pass a new rule that will prohibit all Florida prisoners from contributing to any form of blog, web site, etc… so I’m afraid that within the next few weeks I will be silenced forever. I thought freedom of speech was a scared, fundamental right of all Americans but apparently not in Florida. But it means a lot to me that what I was able to write before being censored and silenced was appreciated by so many. I will certainly miss sharing my submissions.