From Bill Buffett
There are numbers embedded in our lives. Like you, I have a Social Security Number, a phone number, a zip code and a birthday. And I’ll never forget 4515, the house number on Hickory Street in Omaha where our family lived. Two months ago I added a new number -- 026260. I won’t forget it. Neither will Steve Thomas nor the Florida Department of Corrections. I sent Steve a letter several weeks ago, but got his number wrong. I put 026026 on the package instead of 026260. The book was returned and marked “ADDRESS UNKNOWN.”
Making sure the number was correct, I later sent him a copy of one of my books. This too was returned. To be accepted, books must come from a bookstore or authorized booksellers, so had my local bookstore send it for me.
Prisons aren’t supposed to be ”nice” places for those within their walls or for those on the outside. There are hurdles to jump on both sides. Prisons are known for bars-- and bureaucracy. The Santa Rose Corrections Institution in Milton, Florida has as both, as well as, locked up for life, Steve Thomas, #026260
A year ago I joined PEN, a national organization for writers, and noticed on their website a program that matched members with a prisoner who wanted to improve his or her writing. I filled out an application, but heard nothing for several months.
One day a letter came. PEN had a match for me, Steven Thomas. They gave me his address, asked me if they could send him mine, and sent some guidelines for our correspondence. I think I mailed him first, sending Steve a short biography.
As I finished that last sentence I heard a sound at the door. Our mailman was dropping off the day’s delivery. I took it from him and found what I hoped was there: a letter from Steve. Written in pencil and in small print was his address in the upper left hand corner, and, where it belongs, mine.
Our correspondence has been going on for two months, and Steve has become an important part of my life. Like many of us, I want to add meaning to my life and in knowing Steve I have.
So who is this guy I’ll probably never see? As I’ve said, he is in for life at Santa Rosa, one of Florida’s maximum-security prisons. He’s in his sixties and has been in solitary much of the time. From his letters and entering his umber in the Florida Department of Corrections website, I’ve learned about him. I see his picture and that his main crime was Aggravated Assault with Intent to Commit a Felony. I learn that he was born in 1951, and that in 1975, he was incarcerated at Santa Rosa.
Steve is 5”11’ and weighs 152 with brown hair and hazel eyes. He has a winged horse tattooed on his back and a spider on his right leg. Seeing him, I'm reminded to send him my picture.
After I sent Steve my brief biography, I received one from him.
O.K. to start –who am I?
I was born in 1951 in Racine, Wisconsin. My father was an in-law who forced himself on my mother, a fourteen-year-old girl. From two years old I spent the majority of my life as a ward of the state—in orphanages, foster homes, juvenile detention, reform schools, etc. In between I spent short spells living with my dysfunctional family, which included two alcoholic and abusive stepfathers, and a mother who didn’t quite know what to make of me or what to do with me, torn as she was between a mother’s love and resentment in the manner of my conception which placed her on the outs within the family, who either didn’t believe she was forced, or did understand and looked askance at my father, facts that were very disruptive for family relations.
Of course, I was the center of the controversy, yet was never really accepted within the family. But I wasn’t around that often either, the family preferring me to be state raised. The state took me from my mother’s custody when I was two….
I was a throw away child who became a throw away adult. I have two brothers and two sisters, none of us have the same father.
I was released from the Green Bay Reformatory in 1969 having spent most of my teenage years there…I finally ended up in Florida doing a favor for a friend who had gotten stabbed in my stead by a disgruntled father who missed me and got him by mistake. I did from 1972-1982 in Florida‘s maximum-security prisons. Growing up I spent a lot of time in closets and solitary confinement cells, a quiet introspective child, one who attempted suicide at least three times before the age of fifteen.
I received a life sentence in 1973, trying to be what I was brought up to be, yet never feeling that it was any part of who I was, but it didn’t keep me from trying to fit in, even if the manner in which I was raised—psychopathic institutions were my home. Society was a strange world they let me visit from time to time.
I said once that violence was the language of the inarticulate and those who have no other voice. I had no voice and wasn’t articulate, violence was the language of the world in which I grew up…I could have gotten a lesser sentence other than life, but at the time I felt it appropriate. I was going home, and wouldn’t have to spend more time as a stranger in the world outside.
Reading Steve’s bio I could not help but compare his life to mine. I grew up in a stable middle-class family, the child of parents who loved me. Though my life was not always smooth, I went to good schools and have had a full life in the outside world. My main response when I read about Steve’s life was to shake my fist at the heavens about life’s unfairness. Sheer luck plays a dominant role.
The year he was born, 1951, was the year I entered college. By the year he entered Santa Rosa, 1975, I was divorced and living in the woods of Western Massachusetts, a free man who could get in his VW Bug, drive to town, buy groceries, and cook what I wanted for dinner.
I try to write Steve twice a week. After being away for a week, I found five letters from him waiting at home. I keep his letters in a metal filing box organized by the month they were received. In two of his letters he mentioned not having heard from me. I can’t match him letter for letter, but I’m committed to reading every word he writes.
Getting to know Steve has changed my perspective on prisons and prisoners. I found a series of five videos on the Internet, each showing a prison for dangerous criminals. Santa Rosa was one.
I saw guards working to keep the prison orderly. Twice they had to deal with prisoners who cut themselves. Blood, wheel chairs and the medical unit appeared. About one of the “cutters,” I heard a nurse say, “If you ask me, he just does it to get attention. A trustee cleans up the mess, and in return, gets time off his sentence. An older prisoner, one of two who speaks into the camera, is in his sixties.
"You’re lookin’ at the stupidest man in the world," he says, and adds, "if you obey the rules you won’t get into trouble."
The other prisoner is a young Afro-American gay man who says his sexuality has been hard for him in prison. He is later shown on the day of his release, walking down the road to freedom. An overlay at the end of the film informs us that two weeks after his release he was caught in a burglary and returned to prison. The last scene of the film thanked the Florida Department of Correction for their co-operation.
Having heard from Steve about his experience, I watched the video from a different perspective. The film crew wouldn’t have received the FDC’s co-operation had it presented a balanced view of life behind bars. In this sanitized depiction of Santa Rosa, no guard treats a prisoner harshly, or in a demeaning, bullying manner. The boring, sensory deprived environment in which inmates are kept is not presented. Any Floridian who watches the film can be assured that the bad guys are locked up and treated with civility.
What that nurse said, “He only does it to get attention,” stays in my mind. I want to say, “DUH! Of course!” He’s a number, routinized and demoralized by the bureaucracy. Naturally he wants to be noticed. Thanking the Florida Department of Corrections for their cooperation is a veiled admission that the film is not an inside, honest attempt to present what a prisoners life is really like. Cutting, for whatever else it might mean, says, “I can assert myself,” “I’m no longer faceless, “I can get attention.”
Twice Steven has tried to escape. Both attempts were unsuccessful. As Steve was describing them in great detail, I found myself saying: “Come on Steve, atta’ boy, good move.” I was there with him, hoping that his effort would succeed. Before I met Steve and read about a prisoner escaping, I thought, “I hope they catch him soon.” But I don’t feel that way about Steve, a man I know.
That said, I don’t know what Steve would do if he were out. He’s intelligent, well read, and a good writer. He writes letters to the Department about prisoners’ rights being violated, which doesn’t endear him to the authorities.
Once, Steve kidnapped a guard who he locked in his own cell. The staff came with guns. Steve was hit in the leg and remanded to the hospital. He describes his experience:
The officer loaded me up with restraints, and put me in the back of a transport van for the trip to the hospital in Gainesville. At the hospital, the officers brought me to an administrative place called the Atrium where the hospital security offers exchanged the steel restraints with leather ones. I was left in the Atrium with one hospital orderly for several hours while my case was discussed by the psychiatric staff and hospital security. The Atrium was enclosed, the sun streaming in, surrounded by plants, and I could see the other floors and people entering and leaving the offices. The sound of a small fountain splashing—it was really a pleasant spot.
There was a debate about how I should be treated while at the hospital. The psychiatric staff wanted me treated like any other patient, while Security was all for draconian measures given my past history. One thing I learned about the system is that any good you might do is considered yesterday’s news, while any bad that you do remains forever fresh in their memory. Sixty years can pass and they will trot it out at every opportunity.
The doctors won the argument and rather than being trundled off to solitary confinement, put in five point restraints and given massive doses of psychotropic medications in the security building, I was assigned to an observation room in one of the regular dormitories. I was to be treated like any other patient with the understanding that I would be watched closely given my past history. Their scrutiny nowhere near approached what I was used to circumventing.
Nonetheless, the treatment I was accorded has a profound effect on me. Something so simple as according me the dignity as another human being, revealed a whole other world that I had heard and read about yet never experienced. It caused me to understand both compassion and empathy in a manner I’d never don. This enabled me to rise above my own suffering to see that of others. Knowing for the first time in my life the finer qualities of being a human being and what unlimited possibilities existed, altered many things.
But the time came when he no longer needed the hospital and was returned to prison. Further excerpts from Steve’s letters included:
...The average reader will never be able to reach across the void that exists between the outside world and the inside of a prison cell.
...In boy’s reform schools, Detention Centers and prisons, I learned never to be at the front of the line or at back. When staff came looking for volunteers or victims, the front and back of the lines were usually the first chosen. It was safer towards the line’s center. You were most apt to be overlooked. I can’t tell you the number of times that simple lesson let me avoid beatings or humiliating work details.
...One time I tried to count the number of stabbings, murders, assaults, rapes, robberies that occurred during one year and lost count.
...By the time I was five my nose had been broken twice and never set. So bad were the breaks it affected breathing through my nose.
...One of my earliest memories is of the police taking us from the custody of my mother and placing us in state care.
...At one point in my life for whatever reason an officer pulled me aside and said that if I wanted to survive the system to never make direct eye contact with any officer because what they could see in my eyes would make them want to kill me for their own safety. I had always been abused and treated as something less than human and it’s no surprise that I began to respond in that manner as well.
...When the light burned out in the cell, they had seven members of security squad come into the cell, place me in full restraints, naked, then surround me as they let a prisoner in to change the bulb.
...You learn early in prison that while you can hope for the best it is always wiser to expect the worst. Then, whatever the outcome, if the worst happens, it doesn’t exact a great toll on you. Only too often prisoners exist on the edge of despondency and despair. You maintain your precarious hold on sanity and the will to live, you feel your spirit slowly being crushed beneath the weight of years and the toll imprisonment exacts upon your psyche. It becomes easy to lose your sense of self when your spirit succumbs to the ever-present sense of isolation and despair. I fear more for my soul than I do for my humanity for without a soul there can be no humanity. I know because I’ve ventured down that path.
...I am planning another round of letters to state officials concerning prison conditions.
...Before the order to transfer came through I had been busy setting up an underground black market operation on Q-wing and other confinement wings.
...I haven’t written in the past day or so—caught up in sewing projects doing repairs on other prisoner’ clothing. Part of barter for stamps. They give me stamps or canteen items to make repairs or alterations on clothing they send.
...I was asked recently if I could have any superpower what would I choose. My response was “to love unconditionally.” Oh, that’s right. We already possess that power; we just don’t express it well or fully. Every other superpower pales in comparison. It is that which carries us beyond the mundane, secular world into living a life fully expressed.
...Most prisoners, after they’ve been released, entertain the fantasy of being across from the main gate during a shift change with a high- powered rifle…for most prisoners it is only a passing fantasy to express the emotions roiling within from the injustice of the abuses they experience while incarcerated.
One major experience Steve recounted was when he and some other prisoners made a major effort to take control of death row and the execution chamber. He writes:
Defying all the system can do to us and preparing to strike back. Why my involvement in what will be a last stand? If we succeed in the shootout with officers, state troopers and the National Guard, as we would be in possession of both weapons and explosives, it would result in a number of deaths and national and international media exposure.
How would they get weapons and explosives? Here and in other letters, Steve explains that there are guards who are “mules,” i.e. those who will do favors for prisoners for money:
We were having one of the officers bring in the materials required for the zip guns’ production and components for the radio to convert it to being able to pick up the prison communication system. We obtained the frequency codes from one of the officers, including the frequencies the prison used.
He also describes Mark, one of the group’s leaders:
Mark—the escape artist—the mechanical engineering, locksmith, and electrical genius whose emotional growth had stopped somewhere approaching puberty.
But Mark’s talents were essential in putting together the elements necessary for the takeover.
The takeover would draw attention away from a simultaneous escape attempt. Steve knew he’d be killed in the prison’s retaking of death row and the execution chamber. He assumed that the escapees would be caught and become—society’s scapegoats to vent their frustration and spleen on.
The rest of us would be laughing at society from the other side of the grave. They would make us beasts—well, we would give them beasts.
I’m amazed at their resourcefulness.
We didn’t fully trust the integrity of the prison orderlies. Their loyalty to us was financial in the money they could make in working for us. However, the majority of them owed their positions as orderlies to their cozy relationships with prison staff to whom they would provide information on other prisoners’ activities. In some cases we would provide them with specific information to convey to their staff handlers about contraband being in certain locations to enhance their standing and value to the prison staff.
Steve explains that all of the preparations took place over a year:
We had to be very careful about coming out of our cells. We’d have to wait until the right crew officers were on, usually the midnight shift as they slept through most of the shift. We used Marion as a lookout and to distract officers should they appear.
Concurrent to planning the takeover was Steve’s trial for kidnapping a guard. Psychiatrists testified that Steve was competent to stand trial. At the outset, Steve announced that he was dismissing his defense attorney and would represent himself. The judge replied that he was not competent to do so. Steve pointed out the contradiction and referred to a Supreme Court decision that allowed prisoners to represent themselves.
026260 would not go quietly.
Rather than endure the expense of a trial, the state offered to plea bargain. Steve rejected the offer. Not long after that Florida’s State Attorney decided to drop the case. The prison officials were not happy with the decision. They’d hoped that Steve’s conviction would be a lesson to other prisoners. Now they felt prisoners would be encouraged to push the system as Steve had.
Naturally Steve was pleased with the state’s decision, but wondered whether he should proceed with the takeover and escape plot.
I did a lot of soul searching as to what to do. On one hand, this was something I had initiated and gotten others involved in. If I withdrew now I’d feel as if I’d let the others down. And of course, ego. Others would think I had lost my nerve.
On the other hand, did I want to throw away the opportunity I’d been given? Yes it was a very slim shot at a life I had never had. My choices in life had expanded by one—from whether to kill myself, have the state do the job for me, or to see if perhaps now that I knew that life had more to offer than what I’d known heretofore and had caught a glimpse of at the hospital. You would think the decision would be an easy one to make; however, it was one of the most difficult I would ever make….
However, I finally determined that I had to give it a chance. I didn’t want to believe I had been so crippled by what had been done to me that I couldn’t adapt and change. Hadn‘t I already done so at the hospital? I informed others what I was withdrawing from the takeover and escape plots. I would continue to coordinate matters for them, but I was out.
Recriminations came, some directly and some indirectly. Some felt I had betrayed them in backing out of the plans, others felt I had lost my nerve, and some felt I had sold out and couldn’t be trusted anymore.
knew of prisoners’ tendency to belittle others—what we call the Crab’s in a Bucket Syndrome, where the other crabs see one of the others trying to make their way out, and reach out and drag it back down.
This episode took place in 1984, and is part of the long saga of how he became a writer. He reminded me that his story still has a long way to go. Since writing about the plot and the dropped charges against him, Steve has written me 13 letters — 14 if you count the one I got today.
It included a form sent to him by the authorities stating that for good behavior his sentence had been reduced by eight days. This sounds promising until at the bottom of the letter are these words:
CURRENT TENTATIVE RELEASE DATE: 99/98/9999 (sic)
That one line is a perfect example of the prison’s meanness.
But Steve’s spirit stays alive. One day a Christmas card arrived.
Know you’re not much into the religious gig, but, hey, love is always in season. And doesn’t always need a reason to be articulated to for or by anyone. It is a reason unto itself.
I appreciate your friendship and letters. I value both. You are helping with my skill as a writer albeit it is a slow process. Takes time for an old dog to learn new tricks.
So even if you’re not really into the Religious scene do know that you are loved. By Many.
Happy holidays and may the Grace and Peace of the One bless those days with joy for you--
I can’t imagine getting a Holiday greeting I will cherish more. With friendship come responsibilities. Mine include to keep writing Steve and sending him books, an obligation I’m blessed to fulfill.
I began this essay with numbers and would like to end it that way. These numbers are 091151, or September 11, 1951. You may want to mark it on your calendar. This is Steve’s birthday. He won’t receive many cards, but I know he’d appreciate yours.
Stephen Thomas #026260
Santa Rosa C.I.
5850 East Milton Road
Milton, FL 32583-7914
After 11 years of being a high school teacher in Illinois, Bill Buffett entered the Administrative Careers program at Harvard School of Education. There he earned an EdD in 1974. Bill lived in the woods for a year, then became a taxi driver in Boston. Eventually he earned a Masters in Social Work and was hired as an administrator at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, a job he held for 16 years. Since retiring Bill has published five books, the latest being "An Old Man’s ABCs". He continue to write essays. Bill has a wife named Susan, three grown children, and four grandchildren.