Charles P. Norman attributes his storytelling ability to his grandmother’s tales of pioneer life in Texas, where he was raised.  At the University of South Florida, he studied finance, writing, and romance languages. After his incarceration, he won a MENSA scholarship, which enabled him to continue his college education.  He has taught computer classes and writing, and has worked as a counselor as well as at a boot camp for first offenders. Winner of a number of prizes in the Prison Writing Program’s annual contest, including First Place for memoir in 2008, Norman has also won awards from Prison Life magazine and most recently from the Tampa Writers Alliance.  His essay “Pearl Got Stabbed” appears in Doing Time, the PEN American Center prize anthology, and more of his work, as well as more information about him, appears on a website,, which is maintained for him by friends on the outside. He is being honored by the Prison Writing Committee this year with a special award for Continued Outstanding Excellence. 

Jones: You’ve written in various genres—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, plays. Do you have a favorite? If so, is your choice based on aesthetics, or on your situation? Do you have particular subjects for each?

Norman: I sometimes feel my mind is a stagecoach tethered to a herd of wild horses racing across one of those old western vistas, with some scruffy driver struggling just to hang on. The stagecoach is filled with people, ideas, and stories that are screaming to get out, and some can only escape as poems, plays or short stories. Each genre is a test of skill, and I believe I must explore different styles to advance and improve as a writer.
I have books to write. I struggle to stay alive long enough to put more on paper, to get it all out so it won’t be lost. Perhaps that’s a conceit or delusion that attaches more importance to my works than they deserve, but that’s all I have. If I had my way, I would write, direct, and act in plays. The late Fielding Dawson [a former chair of the Prison Writing Committee] told me years ago that he wanted me to come to New York upon my release and write a full-length play. I would like to do just that one day. I still miss him.

Although much of my “prison” work is dark and tragic, I’m actually the class clown, and my humor is an important part of who I am. I have to be careful to suppress it in prison, though, for those who rule us are humorless, and easily offended, such tempting targets for mockery. Among those with whom I feel safe, I laugh a lot. 

Jones: When did you begin writing and what compelled you to do it? 
Norman: “Compelled” is a good word. That describes my impetus. Before I was able to write I thought for years—now, I see, in preparation for writing. I did my first “creative” writing at nine. I had been reading an old encyclopedia set, and looking at the structure of an atom was struck by its similarity to our solar system. I wrote a science fiction story about an atom in a thread in a pair of socks on the shelf in Sears that was actually a tiny sun and planets teeming with even tinier life forms. The scene ended with a telescoping that went from the tiny solar system, to our own, to a much bigger scene, the universe. Our own solar system was just a tiny atom in a thread of countless other atoms, in a pair of immense socks on the shelf of an even more immense Sears store, and so on.  I folded the story and placed it inside a volume of the encyclopedia, and every now and then, when I was looking something up or re-reading entries, I would come across it and smile at my childish handwriting. It may still be there.
I really came into my own in high school. I had some very tough, dedicated teachers in advanced English, teachers who forced me to outline, organize, rewrite. In eleventh grade I wrote a parody of King Lear that really irritated my teacher, a Shakespeare purist who brooked no disrespect, but my fellow students loved it.

I began writing letters in jail, locked in a cage in the dark for a couple of years before my trial, murder conviction, and life in prison. I wrote thousands of letters to different people over the years, and included poems and short stories, most of which are lost. I began “organized” writing in 1985, taking a computer class from Vivian Barnard, a wonderful teacher who was dedicated to educating prisoners and encouraged me to enter a 500-word essay in the MENSA writing contest. Twenty minutes later I printed out an essay that won $500. I was the only prisoner who’d ever won a MENSA prize, competing against college professors and geniuses, and I realized, “I can do this.” (Mrs. Barnard is long-retired, 87 years old, and still encourages me. Great woman.)

Jones: Your blog, available on your website, is titled “Communiqués from a Dead Man,” and you wondered in one entry whether that title was too extreme. You talk about men serving decades-long sentences who “just keep walking around—eating, sleeping, turning inward.” Yet writing is an inward turning in itself, and you seem very much alive. How do you account for your success in overcoming this “death” for thirty years?

Norman: I have never given up my hope for freedom. I come from a long line of stubborn, hardheaded people, so perhaps it’s genetic. I’ve lived my life in prison every day as though I were getting out tomorrow. I am ready to go. I’ve kept myself as healthy as possible, as educated and skilled as I can be, prepared to get a job, become a productive citizen, help those less fortunate than myself.

Don’t think it has been easy. I’ve suffered great deprivation, torment, and loss. The psychological torture far exceeds the physical trials. I’ve never been the victim of physical abuse or brutality by the guards. Perhaps my size and fighting prowess provided some protection. But the daily verbal harassment and abuse by guards constantly erodes one’s stability. Many men can’t take it. Many are heavily drugged. Every day we have “psych emergencies” when men freak out and are put in strip cells, “psych cells,” for attempted suicides or threats.  The love and support of a few family and friends have given me the strength and determination to survive intact. My faith in God and the hope that he has a plan for my life has protected me from harm. This can’t be all there is, can it?

Jones: You’ve taught writing in prison. Given that, do you mentor other writers? Is there an opportunity for an inmate workshop situation?

Norman: I could write a book about that! Sadly the Florida Prison System has changed for the worse since I came in. Forget about rehabilitation. Where we once had a vibrant education system in prison, from very basic first grade level to advanced college, the cutbacks and changes in “correctional philosophy” have relegated learning to the back of the bus, and reduced the remnants to Potemkin villages, paper programs that accomplish little for few prisoners, but let the public believe otherwise. I have done all I could for the entire time of my imprisonment until today, but I am Hans, my finger hurts, and the dike is cracking.
I have worked with literally thousands of prisoners in formal classes, workshops provided by outside volunteers, several guys sitting on the ground at the rec field reading their poems, from remedial to advanced. Some of my most meaningful successes came in teaching men how to write a letter to their mother, wife or children, men who did not even know how to put down, “Dear Mom,” or say, “Love, Joe,” at the end. I had to write countless more myself for those who couldn’t even do that much.
I’ve said for years that imprisonment is a tragic waste of tons of brainpower. I taught a haiku poetry class once to a group of college-educated prisoners—college-educated prisoners being trained as teachers, culled from camps across the state and overseen by a wonderful Catholic nun, Sister Ann Wood, S.S.J. She wrote one, too. I typed up the twenty or so haikus on a single sheet, made copies, handed them out. When we read the individual entries in the class the day we wrote them—start to finish, lesson to haiku in one hour with no names attached and no one asking who wrote which, no one could tell which one the nun or anyone else had written. People were surprised at the universality of the poetic vision.

As for mentoring others, I do. There are a number of aspiring poets and novelists in prison, sadly most of them unskilled and bad. I encourage them to read, and to study English, grammar, and writing, but not many are strong enough to do these things on their own, outside a formal class. I’ve read so many bad first chapters that I’ve come to shudder when a new guy approaches me and says, “Hey, I heard you’re a writer, would you read my book?” But I always say yes. The problem is that most really don’t want feedback, they instead seek affirmation. I’m not going to lie and say, “Man, that’s great,” when it’s garbage. For myself I seek constructive criticism, long for the red pen crossing out and correcting, but many prison writers can’t handle that.

The columnist and editor James “Jack” Kilpatrick, a friend and mentor, commenting on something I’d written, and referring to my long sentences, wrote, “There’s a bit of punctuation they use in English…”  There followed about a hundred dots—periods—and the conclusion, “they call them periods, and you should try using them.” I rewrote the piece, added a number of periods, and my writing had suddenly, miraculously improved.

It’s a little more difficult in here. You must be more diplomatic and diplomatic to more sensitive feelings. You don’t want to begrudge a homicidal maniac, whose love poems to his dead victim are weird and disturbed, and cause him to focus his psychopathy on you when you start laughing when you read them. (This really happened.)

Jones: Are other prisoners able to read your work?

Norman: There are a dozen or so in my building who read a few first or second drafts. Some demand to read the next one I write. Prisoners have sought me out after reading works published in various media. I asked a number of HIV-positive gay prisoners to read, “Fighting the Ninja,” a sort of field test to see if they were offended by it, and to a man, everyone praised it for being “the real deal.” I find that most prisoners are affected by my writing and act differently toward me. It has been 98% positive.

Various guards and staff members sometimes read my work, too. A former English teacher, now a prison guard working in a nearby department, read the first draft of “Fighting the Ninja.” I gave it to her to read in her office, then went outside to my garden to pull weeds, which was my job assignment. A little later, she came rushing out of her office, shouting my name and brandishing my story. I thought I was going to jail for sure, but didn’t understand why. She came up to me, held out the pages, and asked, “You wrote this?” I nodded yes. “No way!” she said. “Why?” I asked. “What’s wrong with it?” “Nothing,” she said. “I just can’t believe it. It’s incredible. It made me cry.” That was all the feedback I could get, though.

Years ago I wrote a piece I’d titled, “Booty Bandits – How to Avoid Prison Rape.” It appeared in the prison literary journal I was publishing at the time, at state expense, and we sent a copy to the DOC secretary, the “boss” in Tallahassee. He was so struck by it that he demanded we run another printing because he wanted to give copies to every state legislator, which he did. Nevertheless, the warden didn’t like it, had me locked up and shipped off in the middle of the night to a distant, much harsher prison far away from my family. One hand gives, one hand takes away.

Jones: Are poetry/prose readings possible where you are?

Norman: We used to do all those things, but as I said, prison times have changed greatly and conditions are much harsher. It’s like they’re having a contest–how much can we take away from them before they riot? Each person seems to be trying to be meaner and more repressive than the next. I see bad times ahead for the human warehousing business. I’ve said many times that if this was a zoo, the Humane Society would close them down.

Jones: In the boot camp where you addressed young first offenders did you mention writing as an outlet?   [Note to readers: see the PEN website Prison Writing Program prize list for “Fifty Percent,” an essay Honorable Mention in 2005, which describes this experience.]

Norman: Yes, I really worked on writing with the boot camp boys. I taught them the writing part for the G.E.D., and conducted daily exercises on mock subjects such as “What’s your favorite sport and why?” to start them off on things they could relate to. Write a topic sentence, intro, three paragraph body, and conclusion on “How to kiss a girl.” That got a lot of interest and argument, but at least half of them had never kissed a girl. The final result was that during my tenure (I did other things, too) the boot camp boys had the highest passing percentage of any class in the state of Florida, according to the Department of Education. They were, on average, at a higher education and intelligence level than the typical adult prisoner, so it was easier in one way, harder in others, such as their being younger with lots of special needs like ADHD.

Jones: In your blog of 4/14/08, you refer to the illiteracy you often encounter. What suggestions, if any, do you have for PEN members (and others) who might want to address this problem?

Norman: Yes, I have suggestions. Those on the “outside” can help by demanding that state legislators refocus on education for prisoners and not confuse it with “soft on crime” attitudes. When we had Pell grants and college classes for prisoners, I don’t know how many times I heard guards and others complain they had to pay for their educations while prisoners got them for free. That’s not true. I paid a great price for my education in prison. Life. And I’m still paying.

What they don’t realize is that it’s in society’s best interest that prisoners develop educational and vocational skills, in order to become wage-earning and law-abiding members of society when they’re released. About 90% of those men who return to prison are unemployed at the time of their arrest. Make society safer by educating prisoners. Do everyone a favor.

There’s another aspect of illiteracy, that pertaining to legal and illegal immigrants in prison. I’ve worked with crowds of prisoners in ESL classes (being fluent in foreign languages is a great advantage in prison). Men from virtually every Spanish-speaking country south of us, plus Haitians, are a growing presence in prison. Many are illiterate in their native language, but virtually speechless in English. What has impressed me about these men is their desire to learn.

There are so many sad stories, wrenching accounts of starving families, struggling to come here, work, send money home, literally to save their children. One man, a Cuban, had an American wife and children in Miami. He spoke no English. He was working in another city, got mixed up in something, went to jail, had no way to call or communicate with his family; all his wife knew was that he had disappeared. She didn’t know whether he was alive or dead, had abandoned his four children or not. She’d been living in a rental, couldn’t pay, went home to her family in Kansas City.

Four years later, he was in my ESL class, trying to learn enough English so he could write letters to government agencies to find his family. His inability to speak or write English crippled him, had a terrible effect on his mental state.  Fortunately, Luann Meeker, a friend of mine in Kansas City, made a phone call and found his wife and children. He was alive! What a lift. He wasn’t yet able to write a coherent letter in English, but he’d dictate and I’d translate. It was an incredible mail reunion. Later they came to visit him.

Just recently, I was seriously harassed by a bad guard and got put to work in the chow hall, normally a punitive job. I found myself on the serving line next to a young Mexican with all the gang tattoos, teardrops, bravado, broken English. I’ve been friends with many Mexicans and have learned to differentiate various indigenous differences, native American tribal differences, Spanish, mestizo, etc. This young man had a classic Aztec appearance, and after a couple of days of our working together, speaking to him in Spanish, I asked him where he was from. It’s often a shock to Latinos to be greeted in Spanish by such an obvious American. Many ask me what country I’m from, thinking I’m a native from another Latino country; some have called me a Spanish word that means a blond Mexican.

I’d told this young man about having taught ESL classes, and so he asked if I would teach him English. The gang membership, he said, was a survival tactic. He had two children in California that he couldn’t contact. What he really wanted to do was learn to speak, read, and write English, get out of prison, become a vendor in Texas, earn a legitimate living, hire other Mexicans, and become successful so he could reunite with and be able to support his family. On the outside, he has the swagger and tough guy persona, but inside he is wracked with doubt and insecurity, feelings of inferiority. I’ve seen it so many times. Those who’ve learned to speak English are so proud, they really want to join our society. Why can’t we help them? He told me, “I’ll quit watching TV, no card games, no handball, study English only.” I told him, “Whoa, caballero, not so fast. I’ll help, but I’ve got things to do, too.” Okay. It will work out.
Jones: Since from your bio and your website it appears that you have a number of interests—you’re an artist and horticulturalist as well as a teacher and a writer, and all this while incarcerated—do you see yourself as a “special case” or could anyone in prison with enough talent and will equal your accomplishments?  Do you have any suggestions for anyone who’d like to follow your lead?

Norman: You ask such probing questions! I don’t mind. Flipping all the switches, flexing one’s brain, making it process and compute, to think, that’s very good.     

I used to take surveys of prisoners. I’d ask questions of a significant sample of men, figure out the stats, and write an article about their views. I asked once, “What do you think?” The number one response, although I don’t remember the exact percentage, perhaps it was 40%, was, “I don’t.” Number two was, “I try not to.” And that’s indicative of many prisoners. They blank their minds.

Am I a special case?  Could anyone else replicate my accomplishments? This aspect of my life doesn’t respond to a simple “yes” or “no.” It’s much more complicated than that, but the short answer is no, I doubt it. It is not likely that today, starting now, a person could enter the prison system and do what I’ve done, at least not in Florida. The DOC has changed too much since the 1970s. It has become meaner, more user unfriendly, more trying. Today, it’s designed to break people down, not build them up. Thirty years ago there were perhaps 20,000 people in the Florida prisons. Now, there are over 95,000, and they estimate 120,000 by 2012.

They’ve stripped us of so many resources and opportunities that most prisoners coming in the system now have no concept of what they’re missing. In just the past year, they took all the musical instruments out, gone. We had a band program, a man taught music theory, and you could learn how to play the guitar, sax, piano. Do you know how important that is, what it means to a person to learn to perform music? No more. Gone, just like that.

I am an artist. I’ve always been artistic. My grandmother was an artist, but I didn’t actually follow through on it, develop my abilities or reach a professional level, until I’d been in prison several years. I watched a number of skilled artists create their work, and then took a year to study art. We had the inter-library loan program from the state library of Florida available to us then. I ordered, read, and studied over 200 art books before I picked up a pencil and began. That can’t be done now. Some will still do little pencil sketches, whatever, but all the art programs have been closed and materials can’t be ordered.

Forget education. You have to be very determined, single-minded like me, to continue your education. I’ve read over 4,000 books in over 30 years. I’m slowing down to no more than six or eight a month now. I’m too busy writing and trying to get out of prison. I’ve read a lot of novels that are escapist fare. Yes, the time weighs on me, too. I am human, although some might question that, but I have spent this life in prison studying a wide range of topics. You name it, and if it was in a university or public library in Florida on microfiche or books in print, and I wanted to learn about it, I ordered it. No telling how many college advanced degrees I’d have had if I had sought credit. I was only interested in the knowledge.

I created my job growing flowers, plants, herbs, vegetables. I wanted to do it, I knew how, set the goals, got permission, and they magnanimously allowed me to work my butt off. I did it for my own reasons. It’s good for my mental health. A study at Raiford [Florida State Prison] by University of Florida psychologists found that men who worked in the horticulture/greenhouse program, a minimum of one year or more prior to their release, had an 11% recidivism rate, compared to a 66% rate for everyone else.

My advice for anyone who wants to follow my lead? Be your own person, don’t let peer pressure lead you in negative directions. Set goals to improve yourself, and complete them. Study a foreign language. Pick a subject, get a book, and learn everything you can about it. Don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. Remain celibate. You’ll love longer. Follow the lead of the monks. Stay in touch with family and friends. Explore your spiritual leanings.

Jones: Can you name some literary influences?  And who are you reading now?

Norman: Hettie, you work me so hard! What a taskmaster you are! So many influences. The Beatles and Bob Dylan. My earliest memories of books were of my mother reading Golden Books to me. Three years old?  As a boy, I discovered a shelf of the complete works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and worked my way through them. Rudyard Kipling, too.
Edgar Allan Poe–eleven years old, I couldn’t afford to buy the book, but every Saturday for weeks I stood at a shelf in Archway Bookstore and read Poe’s complete works, every poem, every story. Loved him. My mother gave me copies of “The Hardy Boys” each Christmas for years until I had them all.

Literary influences? I loved the Russians, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. For years, my favorite writer was Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird. I read everything E.L. Doctorow wrote. I studied wars, American Revolution, Civil War, on and on, and the writers.  I’ve alternated serious reading with commercial fiction. I read many bestsellers, Thomas Wolfe, Stephen King, I used to like Stuart Woods’ early works, until he became a millionaire and sold out. I’ve read every book Elmore Leonard has written. James Patterson taught me to write shorter chapters.  Some years ago I saw the list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, and I’d read about 60. I’d never read number one, Ulysses, so I ordered it from the state library. I only had it for 21 days, and it took me the whole time to finish it. I was determined to read every word, in hopes that I would “get it.” I never did.

I’ll admit I’ve loved Nora Roberts and her aka, J.D. Robb, for years – how amazing is her prolific mind! And I’ve read every Sandra Brown, every Sara Paretsky  (T Is For Trespass), every Lisa Scottoline, quite a few Iris Johansen, Elizabeth George, Joyce Carol Oates. I haven’t neglected the women writers.  I love the short stories of  Jhumpa Lahiri.

 I’m leaving out many. If I made another list of influences tomorrow, it would be different.  I love poetry. There are so many wonderful poets. Poetry has been a strong influence. The more I learn, the happier I am.