By Michael Lambrix
(Part I can be read HERE and 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 Hand 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 Hand Luke” provides the best metaphor… “Shaking the Bush Boss.”
In the movie, the convict (Cool Hand 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.
Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017