For Those of You Who Prefer the Full Story in One Post
Scenario Number Nine: Death by Poison Gas
A True Michigan Prison Story
Just past midnight Warden Biggie Biggins’ phone rings. It could only be the prisons. Such late-night calls involved a prisoner or staff person being taken to the hospital, an assault, death, or a mechanical failure. The warden no longer guessed the emergency du juer: he thought he’d seen and handled it all. He was wrong.
It is Captain Keri Whelton, Brooks Correctional Facility Shift commander.
“Warden, I’m sorry to bother you at this hour…”
“Yes Warden. We have a situation I think you need to know about.”
“Mm . . . Uh huh.”
“Warden, Lomac had an accident . . . chemical spill and . . .”
“Lomac is a chemical plant. They had a chemical spill, or some kind of accident, and, and there’s a chlorine gas cloud heading for the prisons.”
“Ah Keri, I’m ah . . . I’m going to hang up now and ah . . . and call you back in a minute or two. OK?”
“Sure . . . I guess.”
“You stay by the phone, OK? I’ll call right back, OK? You said chlorine gas?”
The binder with institutional procedures was near the phone, shelved with reference material: dictionary, thesaurus, travel books. Warden Biggins opens the binder to the mobilization procedure: Nothing but a vague reference to natural disasters and evacuation. The warden scans the eight scenarios looking for fits:
Scenario # 1: Seriously Injured Staff or Prisoner .
Maybe. We may end up with injuries, some serious.
Scenario # 2: Attempted Escape.
That’s a real possibility. Panic, Hit the fence. Staff reaction?
Scenario # 3 Escape
That too, but once they’re gone it’s up to local and State Police. Chances are they will be too busy.
Scenario # 4: Severe Weather
It’s an atmospheric attack, but not a treat to property
Scenario # 5 Fire
One thing panicked prisoners like to do is set fires. Will local fire departments respond or are they all at Lomac.
Scenario # 6: Major Mechanical/Security Equipment Failure .
If all control is lost, perhaps.
Scenario # 7: Riot.
A distinct possibility.
Scenario # 8: Hostage Situation.
It’s possible. Desperate people do stupid things.
Warden Biggie Biggins got back on the phone. “Keri, how do you know a gas cloud, chlorine, is on its way to the prisons?”
“It’s on the radio.”
“Yes sir, and TV.”
“Aw shit,” is what Captain Whelton later told Warden Biggins he said. Then he asked for the name and phone number of our local Michigan State Police post contact.
“Hold on . . . let’s see . . . I got it right here . . . yeah, it’s a Sergeant Borst.”
“You got the number handy?”
“Yes, sir it’s…”
In an emergencies time slows; the time in Warden Biggie Biggins’ mind that slows, while time in nature passes faster. Nature’s time is a sequence of separate and simultaneous events that often collide, while his mind’s time is a series of pictures accompanied by an internal dialog. Warden Biggie Biggins sees pictures and talks to himself while shit happens around him.
The Central Office policy calls for evacuation in times of natural or man-made emergency. Evacuation? Are those Central Office folks out of their fucking minds?
Take a shower.
Warden Biggie Biggins remembers his mother in a house dress (blue with pink flowers): she is hanging wash on the clothesline running from the side of the house to the garage. Sheets, white, and his father’s blue work shirts, and his darned work socks. There is a womp and a bang and a silence, and women in house dresses slam screen doors as they exit homes for their small rectangular urban yards. They all turn and look in the same direction, where the smoke is rising. There . . . see it? Over there toward the Niagara River where the chemical plants are, where their husbands work. They watch the smoke until they hear the sirens and return to their homes hoping the phone doesn’t ring.
“Biggie, is everything OK?” his wife Anita asks from their bedroom.
“There’s a problem at the prisons and I have to go in. I’m going to shower.”
“Do you want some coffee?”
“Yeah, that’d be nice.”
Warden Biggie Biggins saw dead trees. The neighborhood he grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, is ringed by chemical plants that periodically explode. Sometimes men died fast, otherwise slowly. One of the plants, is a government facility that manufactured World War I poison gas — chlorine gas. It has no trespassing signs with the US government shield affixed neatly to the surrounding barbed wire topped cyclone fence. It too has ‘accidents’ that leak chlorine gas; not enough to kill people, but enough to usually kill or stunt every tree in his neighborhood.
His childhood neighborhoods’ houses are old, but the trees and shrubs are perpetually adolescent. The unskilled, uneducated men working in the other chemical plants are close enough to the explosions to die or have their lungs crippled. His father works at one of those plants. Warden Biggie Biggins saw the cracks in his boyhood bedroom ceiling and made imaginary animals from the way they intersected and looped around. He lay awake in bed until his father came home from the four-to-twelve shift. Mom fixed dad the same thing every night, a western omelet; he ate it and drank a beer and a shot of cheap rye and coughed himself to sleep. Warden Biggins knew from childhood what chlorine gas can do.
Think of who you want ordered in. Ordered? Fuck no. Have Keri say the Warden is asking that they come in. No need to order staff to die. Will anybody show up?
Warden Biggins loves showers, loves the hot water. The way it drains from his hair across his shoulders. How it makes him steam.
The coffee will be good.
Warden Biggie Biggins calls State Police Sergeant Borst, who asks how the warden is.
Warden Biggins says, “Well Sergeant, I’ve had better nights. How are you?”
“Yes, I’ll bet. I’m surprised to get you on the first try.”
“So am I.”
They laugh and warden repeats what Captain Whelton said and the sergeant verifies the situation.
“Sergeant, what do you know about chlorine gas? I only ask because I need to know if we’re on the same page on this problem.”
“I understand,” the sergeant says. “I know it’s deadly and you’re in a lot of shit.”
This man is not diplomatic and that’s good because Warden Biggins doesn’t need diplomacy. He tells the warden Lomac is about twelve miles East of the prisons; that the cloud is moving due west at two-plus miles an hour — -“Give or take” is how he puts it — — Warden Biggins looks at his watch. Twelve fifty-five.
“I bet this is every Warden’s nightmare.”
It may be a Warden’s nightmare or maybe the nightmare is a couple of thousand prisoners storming the fences. What then? Squads . . . get several armed squads ready to deploy. Maybe the nightmare is staff discipline crumbling. Where will it come from, prisoners or staff? Or will everyone too sick to act. Call Keri.
“Sergeant, have you notified Post Commander Huizenga?”
“Yes sir, I have.”
“Good. When you speak to him again . . . you will be speaking again?”
“Yes sir, frequently.”
“Well, when you speak again, tell him you talked to me and I might have to mobilize the prisons. He’ll know what I mean. Tell him I’ll appreciate the assistance.”
“Assistance may be dicey sir.”
“I know. Just ask him to do whatever he can if I ask for help. He has our emergency procedures.”
The next call is to Captain Whelton to call in the two Deputy Wardens, the Assistant Deputy Wardens, additional shift command staff, and as many corrections officers as she can reach. Warden Biggins tells her not to sound any siren, but to quietly mobilize: bring them in and form armed squads with the officers, have executive staff report to the warden’s conference room, have everybody else muster in the empty visiting room. Follow the mobilization procedure: go through that first intimate hour; tap those stored memories, those things of comfort, those memory anchors of practiced emergencies. Then a call to Randell Deutchman, Regional Administrator, Warden Biggins’ supervisor. He explains the situation and there’s no response. Then Deutchman says, “Shit Biggie, what are we going to do?”
“What do you mean we?” thinks the warden
“I don’t know Randell. Honestly, I don’t know. I mean besides mobilizing. I’ve ordered a mobilization.”
Randell’s quiet and warden asks if he heard him.
He finally says, “You’re mobilizing against a poison gas cloud?”
Warden Biggins knows what he’s thinking. He’s an honest man and a competent administrator, but he’s a Central Office bureaucrat. Sharing the responsibility for ordering hundreds of staff into harms’ way isn’t on his agenda tonight.
“Well, it’s a way to keep everyone calm. It’s concrete, something we know how to do in emergencies. I suppose it’s like turning to the Bible when you don’t know what else to do. Useful, comfortable, that sort of thing.”
“But no procedures cover this.”
“We’ll wing it, just like people do with the Bible.”
“Let me send a bus,” Randell says. A meaningless gesture.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Evacuation is out of the question. Where will we get the busses? Where will we send a couple of thousand prisoners? To the local National Guard armory with the civilian evacuees? Are you kidding?”
Headline: Warden places Sex offenders and other criminals with local residents!
“I got to do something. I can’t just sit here,” says Randell
Well join the rest of us, motherfucker. But bless his heart. It’s not often we have the chance to face total irrelevance.
“I know the feeling. Why not call the Director and the Governor. Let them get ready for the media. I’ll call you back once I get to the prisons and see what we have.”
Warden Biggie Biggins dresses (it’s automatic: shirt, tie, suit) and the last thing he slips on is his father’s watch. That old Bulova his dad wore to church and fishing but never to work. Dad didn’t want to die with it on.
A peek into son Tom’s room and he’s asleep. The kid sleeps through anything. Warden Biggins touches his lips to Tom’s forehead and it’s cool. Tom rustles, then is still. Warden Biggins thinks of the walks they take in the woods behind their house, past the witch’s tree with its branches like gnarled old knees, and along the ravines where deer and woodcock explode from cover then disappear. He asks so many questions and Warden Biggins loves those questions and loves answering them. They’re often gone for hours and Anita worries and when they return. She says, “Well it’s about time you two decided to come home,” but she always smiles and Tom and the Biggie blame each other for being so tardy.
Anita fills a travel mug with more coffee and puts it on the kitchen counter near the side door.
“Call me when things calm down,” she says. She knows not to press for details because she knows Biggie doesn’t have them. Anyway, by now he hardly hears her. He’s in turtle-like withdrawal, she’s used to it in emergencies, when the world recedes and becomes very, very small. They kiss. He walks from the house to the garage passing under the large dark maple with throbbing cicadas and crickets answering their own rhythmic lament.
The trip in, and his body is hyperesthesiac: the air is heavy; every ridge and bump in his truck’s seat is alive; the radio a harridan. He turns it off. He calls Captain Whelton to bring in the Physical Plant Superintendent, and Fire Safety officer, and what medical staff she can round up.
“Oh, and see if you can reach Hannah Look,” Warden Biggie Biggins says. “We’ll need to activate the media team.”
Anita and Tom: Her intellectual companionship. Her soft brown hair. The warm press of her body at night. His amazing curiosity and curious laugh.
Warden Biggins descends a country road into the Grand River valley and crosses the bridge north of Allendale. Shoulders of fog hug the riverbank. Headlights shimmie against the fog, shadows ricochet off the dense, black, suspended wet — is this what the gas will look like, only green? And the fog parts and folds around his truck and the vents deliver it to him and he smells its dampness and sucks it in his lungs. His gray mottled world was jarred by the cell phone’s electro-chirp in the seat next to him.
“How did you know?”
She laughs and says all the officers came in and she dressed them out and placed one squad in the visiting room, and another in the muster room.
Was Warden Biggins surprised so many showed up? Responding to emergencies is in their DNA. Many live near the prisons in the area being evacuated. He suspects they’ve sent their families off and are adhering to the practiced prison procedure ritual. He’s grateful.
“And the PSPO? I don’t feel right leaving him out there.”
Warden Biggins says, “Leave him out there for now. We still have time. I figure four hours, max. But tell him what you’re doing and you’ll be getting him in as soon as the squads are ready.”
“Should I issue gas masks?”
Gas masks? Will they work against chlorine? How many are there? Who will get them? Who will decide?
“No,” Warden Biggie Biggins say. “But have a supervisor, make it a Lieutenant, you do have a Lieutenant…?”
“Yes sir, Saleem.”
“…have him count the gas masks and report that count only to you. When I get there let me know what we have…wait, on second thought, we must have enough for two squads. Distribute them to everybody carrying a weapon, then let me know what’s left over.”
There’s silence, and Warden Biggie Biggins hears a cough, or maybe a cleared throat, and Captain Whelton says, “You don’t want anyone in the control center to have one?”
“Keri, tell your staff they’ll get theirs when I get mine . . . but frankly, I don’t see that happening.
Hell Keri, we don’t even know the fucking things will work against chlorine gas.”
Warden Biggie Biggins drops the phone between his thighs and fumbles to retrieve it. “Keri? Are you still with me?”
“I’m here. What happened?”
He laughs and says, “It’s too complicated.”
“Warden, I want to give a gas mask to the bubble officer, the PSPO. And the two guard tower officers. They’re going to be our last line of defense if anything, well, what I mean is…”
Five fifty-five. Warden Biggie Biggins wonders: Is this what it’s like on death row; to know the time of your death? Is it this quiet, this calm, this calm melancholy, this scared resignation? Warden Biggie enters Muskegon and approaches the roadway to the prison property entrances blocked in his direction by local police. A line of vehicles moved away from him like a funeral procession. Civil defense officers keep everyone moving with rhythmically swinging flashlights. Klaxons of disaster. Emergency vehicles emit multi-colored flashes that illuminate the surroundings with strobing movement.
Warden Biggie Biggins shows ID and they let him pass. About a quarter mile more through thick scrub oak and the glowing prison compound emerged from the woods: a cement and steel netherworld, harshly lit and devoid of movement. Warden Biggie Biggins pulls into his designated parking slot and the PSPO vehicle silently glides past. He watches it disappear, along the perimeter fence, finally enveloped by humidity. Warden Biggins doesn’t want to leave his truck. The engine is still running.
Muskegon: Sandwiched between prosperous resort communities on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore; one of several blue-collar communities defined by hard times, unemployment, crime, drugs, the perfect place for prisons. The resort communities are white, white sand, white people, and Muskegon is heavily black, its waters and beaches laced with old industry pollution. Paper mills, chemicals.
Muskegon: During the Second World War tank parts were made here and many African-Americans moved north for the work.
Muskegon Heights: Where the prisons are now the second largest employer, and a major employer of African-Americans. White America’s solution to crime: hire blacks to lock up blacks.
Muskegon Heights: Where the toxic cloud is heading; how convenient for richer, whiter, communities.
And this is where the warden will die? Another blue-collar town? After all the childhood chemical explosion bullshit. All the education. All those lousy jobs to get through school. To die like his old man? Not slowly like his dad’s accumulated exposure, a triumph of lung cancer, but all at once. Or maybe it will be slow and painful. God damn it! You think when you’re this close to it you’d know what it’ll be like.
Go home. This is it. You can still go home. Anita is there. Tom is there. Put it back in gear and go home.
The PSPO stops next to the perimeter fence, and Captain Whelton approaches it.
Warden Biggins shuts off his truck and locks his cell phone in the glove box. Keri talks to PSPO officer.
Warmth and humidity cradle Brooks and excite pale green cicadas hidden among scrub oaks that borders the perimeter fence shielding adjacent neighborhoods. Rhythmic cicada chatter, almost throbbing, a counterpoint to the radio’s electro-squawk, magnified by night stillness, a breezeless blackness behind the mercury-vapor illuminated prison compound. Yellow-Orange harsh. Quiet.
Sweat rivulets form on the Officer’s arm braced on the windowless PSPO vehicle door. Keri’s bare brown arms sleeved by humidity.
“This better be good,” she says to the PSPO.
“Yes Mam,” he says and turns down the volume on his FM radio and increases that of his institutional radio. “Listen to this.”
“….to repeat a breaking local story, the Muskegon County Sheriff’s department has stated that Lomax Chemical plant personnel have reported a large chemical spill at their Muskegon plant. A Sheriff’s spokesman says a chlorine gas cloud has resulted and is moving west toward the city of Muskegon Heights. Persons located between the plant and Muskegon Heights, from an area north of Sherman Boulevard and south of Laketon Avenue, are being advised by Muskegon County HAZMAT to evacuate immediately….”
Warden Biggie Biggins is near enough to hear her say, “I already know and have called the warden. James, we’re going to quietly mobilize and I need you to do your job. I’ll get back with you. Continue making your rounds.”
“Yes Ma’am . . . I mean Ma’am, with all due respect, should I be out here?”
She’s recently been promoted to captain and sensitive to the image she projects during these first few months, particularly with the white male officers.
“James,” she says, placing her hand on his left elbow resting on the windowless driver’s side door, struggling to maintain a sense of sang-froid, “you need to trust me. I won’t forget you.”
“Yes Mam,” he says, placing the vehicle in gear and resuming his crawl along the perimeter fence.
Waiting in Warden Biggie Biggins’ conference room are the Deputy Wardens, Jake and Kay, and the Fire Safety Officer, Ben Davis, Bart Eckburt, the Physical Plant Manager, and his boss, Rick Kominga, Assistant Business manager. Captain Whelton entered behind the warden.
The warden sat and looked at Keri and when she smiled, he felt the role of warden envelope him like a soft glove. That’s when he knew they had a fighting chance.
“So, what do we have?” Warden Biggie Biggins asks.
The group sat around a large faux-maple oval conference table. Earlier, Captain Whelton had somebody put coffee on in the adjoining kitchenette and the familiar gurgling and odor eases the late-night tension in the pale-blue room. Four long windows with open blinds, reaching almost from floor to ceiling, let in no light except a softly diffused residue from the illuminated perimeter fencing.
Nobody answered the warden’s question until Captain Whelton ran down a checklist of the evening’s events: calls received, calls made, decisions made, orders given, staff count reports, prisoner count reports, assignments staffed, weather report, news broadcast items: Their world in a capsule. Keri’s unceremonious voice is soothing, almost intimate, as she relays the mobilization framework. The effect calming and reassuring; they are starting in familiar territory. Diane Sommers, the Medical Services Director enters and takes a seat, as does the Training Lieutenant, Pete Friend.
“What we have,” says Bart Eckburt, “is a fucked-up situation.”
“Now come on Bart,” answers Pete Friend. “Tell us what you really think.”
They laugh nervously and Warden Biggie Biggins shakes his head and says, “Indeed we do. But is there anything we can do to defend against this?”
The warden summarizes his conversation with Randell Deutchman and says evacuation is out of the question. Look at their eyes. They’re relieved to not have to implement the impossible.
“So does anybody have suggestions?”
Ben Davis says to wet as many towels as possible and cram them around doors and in spaces in occupied buildings that might open to the outside. He calls this defending in place.
Wow, that sounds reasonable. It’s doable.
“If we had massive amounts of Duct tape and plastic, we could seal the windows and doors,” Ben explains. “But otherwise, our best bet is wet towels.”
Bart asks about the building air handlers and Ben says to shut them all down. They agree it’ll get hot in the housing units, but better than dead.
Dave Grunny, the Food Services Director, enters the room in time to hear about the air handlers and heat. “I can have my staff prepare large urns of ice water for the occupied buildings,” he says. And with that simple utterance skinny, jeans-clad, Dave sets the tone for the evening.
“And I’ll have Officers and prisoners deliver them”, says Captain Whelton.
Jake and Kay object to letting prisoners out of the units at night, and Keri says her officers can handle it.
Kay says they should involve the prisoners in rounding up and wetting towels. They will involve only those already assigned to each unit’s janitor crew, with the rest remaining in their cells. Kay reminds us that only the Level-IV high security prisoner cells can be gang locked.
“Shall we individually lock the Level-II cells?” Mary asks.
That question is kicked around and they conclude it’s best to not cause a panic by trying to lock down the lower security levels. Movement will be allowed within the housing units in order to achieve as much normalcy as possible. They don’t want to foster the sense that prisoners are being left to die trapped in cages.
Sure, there’re the armed squads, but shit, if the prisoners were to hit the fences en masse they couldn’t kill enough of them. Besides, they’ll lose a lot more to the chlorine gas if everybody is chaotically running in the night than if they’re calm and keep casualties to a minimum. And the housing unit officers: why would they stay if everybody is running wildly all over the place?
“What about the gas masks?” Keri asks.
“They won’t work against chlorine gas,” Pete Friend says and Ben Davis concurs.
Whew, that’s a relief, Warden Biggins thinks. Can’t think of anything worse than being a masked survivor when your colleagues are scattered around dead.
“No shit!” someone says, and Warden Biggie Biggins could see on Keri’s face a what next? expression.
Pete and Ben explain how each type of gas mask is made to deal with only a limited number of chemicals, and theirs don’t deal with chlorine because they would never use that gas to control prisoners.
“They might give some minimal protection . . .” Ben says.
“. . . maybe better than nothing.” Pete adds.
“Just barely,” concludes Ben.
Warden Biggie Biggins looks at his watch. Five fifty-five is in three hours. Silently he implores The Great Warden in the sky to not increase the breeze.
Decisions are made:
Jake and Kay: Form teams to go to each housing unit and explain what’s happening and coordinate wetting and stuffing.
Bart & Ben & Rick: Assemble maintenance staff crews to shut down every occupied building’s air handler.
Dave: Ready ice water for the units and have staff start to make sandwiches in case we have to feed prisoners in their cells and staff on their assignments.
Captain Whelton: Complete an emergency count to make sure all prisoners are accounted for; Ready armed squads for deployment (don’t tell them the gas masks won’t work); Pull the PSPO off the perimeter; Initiate written log of actions taken for after action report (and as a record if there are no survivors). Maintain contact with State Police.
Diane says the old prisoners and those with respiratory illnesses will be the first affected by the gas, and suggests they be taken to a central location, such as the gymnasium, for possible evacuation to hospitals. The gym is in the same building as health services so there’s the added advantage of having them near medical services. Everybody agrees this is a good idea.
Warden Biggie Biggins says no.
Captain Whelton says it’s also near the sally-port so they could get them out fast.
Warden Biggie Biggins says no.
Keri also said transportation staff are checked in and available.
Warden Biggins stops the discussion by saying they will identify the name, number, and lock (cell) of those most susceptible to the gas, but they will not congregate them. “When you have an emergency and start splitting up groups, people wonder what’s going on, especially if those doing the splitting are uniformed. Each group thinks it’s being singled out for special treatment, and special doesn’t necessarily mean something good.”
Diane motions to interrupt but Warden Biggie Biggins waves her off and continues, “People panic. It doesn’t take much. Besides, if we house people in the gym that’s just one more area we’ll have to defend against the gas.”
“But,” argues Diane, “the ill and weak may die or be very sick.”
Nobody spoke. She fingers a cross on a thin gold chain around her neck and stood. She is determined.
“And who will do the choosing? You? You’re going to tell a prisoner claiming to have breathing problems that he’s not on your official health care list? What do you think he’s going to do, go quietly back to his cell, allow us to lock him in while he sees others taken to an area of higher safety? Our mission is public safety,” Warden Biggie Biggins heard himself say that stock phrase automatically, mechanically, but with unaccustomed conviction. “And that trumps the weak and the old.”
Diane objects “For the record.”
Cheap fucking shot . . . typical of health care staff.
Warden Biggie Biggins notes her objection “For the fucking record.”
The warden’s experience is that medical angels of mercy look after their own, and in a prison it’s usually at the expense of everything not medical: security, prisoners, and other staff. Oh, they cloak it all right, usually under a desire to help others, but it’s really their own asses being saved. This custody-health care thing is an historical conflict in prisons and at Warden Biggins’ exchange with Sommers some staff scuffle notes in folders and otherwise prepare to leave to get to work; to them it’s the usual bullshit about medical staff having a higher calling: custody wants something, health care objects citing “professional reasons”, and enormous effort is spent reaching a solution displeasing to all. Warden Biggins can’t afford that now. He needs to know she’s heard him and is compliant.
Warden Biggie Biggins, tense, places his arms fist-down on the table and leaned toward her.
Staff thinking of leaving smell conflict like sharks smell drops of blood in seawater and settle back in their seats for the pure joy of it; if they live through it, this is one of those “Do you remember when the warden . . .” stories they’ll tell and re-tell each other in bars, laughing so hard they’ll cry and blow snot.
Warden Biggins starts slow and deliberate, his eyes clamped on hers, and says, “I want you to divide your staff into teams, equip them with first-aid kits and anything else you think they need, and assign them to the housing units, staying in place until they’re told otherwise.”
She is startled but keeps her composure — after all, she hadn’t gotten where she was by letting wardens shit on her — and comes back with, “Is that a direct order?”
Warden Biggie Biggins had never been asked that question. He never asked his superiors that question.
Staff push their chairs away from the table.
The room turns cold as a eunuch’s balls.
Warden Biggins says, “I don’t give direct orders.” He’s talking to more than Sommers. “Anybody who needs to ask me that question needs to look for another job.”
They faintly hear the main gates opening and closing to admit incoming staff. A random couple of coughs, throat clearings. The muffled squawk of Keri’s two-way radio.
“Look,” she says in an anodyne tone, but not yet submissive, “I feel my staff will be more effective if they’re located in the health care unit.”
“I want them in the housing units,” the warden says without looking at her. “I want them where the people are going to need them. I want minimal movement outside the units. And I don’t want to haul the sick outside to health care.”
“I feel…” she starts.
“I don’t give a shit what you feel.”
Warden Biggins and Captain Whelton leave the conference room for the lobby where the armed squads are waiting. Warden Biggie Biggins asks Keri to brief the squads and when she finishes, he asks for questions. No questions. He asks again. A hand up.
“You see, Warden. I mean, what good is this riot gear and these weapons if the problem is . . . is chlorine gas?”
Captain Whelton tosses a should I or will you glance at Warden Biggie Biggins who nods, and the captain says, “It’s a good question. What we have here is different from what we’ve practiced. The gas, dealing with the chlorine gas, is not your objective. You can’t do anything about that. That’s not your worry. Your worry is to keep everyone inside. Your job is to stop anyone trying to leave.”
“Anyone?” someone asks.
Some rustling and shifting.
“And lethal force? Are we to use lethal force?” from another.
Warden Biggie Biggins steps closer to Captain Whelton, puts his hand on her shoulder, and says, “Remember your training. Your shift command will tell you when to use lethal force.”
They murmured and looked around but seem to accept his answers. At least no one was objecting.
One more hand raised: “Warden, how long will this last? When will we know it’s over?”
How to answer that one? Tell them what you know.
“From the information we have I estimate the gas cloud will be here by five fifty-five.”
“Could you be more precise?” someone shouts, and they all laugh.
“But I’ll tell you I honestly don’t know what will happen after that, or how long it will last. None of our emergency scenarios cover what we’re facing so we’ll improvise. I guess this is Scenario # 9 in the making.”
Warden Biggie Biggins has no damn idea what else to say.
Keri cuts the silence with, “Warden, why don’t you explain the concept of defending in place?”
Goddamn he loved that woman. Just what’s needed: a female voice giving gentle direction.
“Yes, Captain. Yes, thank you,” and Warden Biggins and explains what Ben Davis said earlier. “That’s how were going to handle it. That’s the scenario.” They all know Ben and respect him, and the word “scenario” brings a few nods of approval. They know what scenarios are. Scenarios ground them in reality and the warden sees their body language relax. He explains how they’re cobbling a ninth scenario, one made up of the pieces of the others they all know and have practiced so many times. It’s the comfort that comes with the first good news after the shock of the bad as in yes you have cancer, but it’s treatable and we have a plan for making you safe. They eagerly suck the tiny bit of hope through their pores.
“I’m going into the housing units,” the warden tells Keri.
Walking briskly to avoid prolonged exposure outdoors, the warden arrives at a medium security housing unit; the air is soddened but sweet. No gas…yet.
The unit is locked so Warden biggie Biggins pushes the buzzer button next to the main entrance. An officer appears, removes wet towels from around the door casing, and opens the door triggering an electronic warning screech. Before entering the warden turns to watch Sommers and her escorts enter health care. That’s when he sees Lt. Saleem approach.
“Lieutenant, I told Captain Whelton I didn’t need an escort.”
He smiles, shrugs and says, “I do what I’m told.”
They enter and the door closes automatically killing the screech. The Officer replaces the towels and Lt. Saleem says, “Seems we have the beginnings of something going on here.” Warden Biggins nods to Officer Wainston.
Diagnosing the health of a prison is best done by placing a finger on its point of strongest pulse, the housing units. Even during languid nights, the quietest medium security housing unit has some activity: officers talk softly at the unit desk, backlit by the day room’s soundless surreal cathode ray TV flicker; two-way radios chirp to life demanding occasional radio checks with the prison Control Center; prisoners leaving their cells shuffling silent, slippered and modestly robbed, along polished concrete corridors seeking community toilets, filling coffee cups with kitchenette hot water.
The second officer is in the middle of the unit with a prisoner in an open bathrobe revealing bare skin to his waist and yellow, blue, and red, Donald Duck pajama bottoms. The prisoner is animated and the officer silently faces him; small prisoner groups lounge against cinder block walls, dayroom window casements, and toilet stalls, watch and listen. Each group’s size slowly increases with the addition of prisoners drifting in the social current, cups in hand, towels thrown across shoulders.
Since the housing unit is medium security, late at night prisoners are allowed to leave their cells to accomplish something and then promptly return. They are not permitted to congregate in common areas. Some of the spectators, the warden, and lieutenant enter and a few prisoners head back to their cells. Most remain, forming a rough circle of spectators maybe thirty feet in diameter with the engaged officer and prisoner in the middle.
A prisoner in the group closest to the warden turns, takes a few steps, holds up a hand-rolled cigarette, and asks Warden Biggins for a light. The warden gave smoking up long ago but always carries a lighter. Prisoners ask him for a light if they are nervous about approaching but need to say something; it gives them cover, however flimsy, to linger and whisper. Sometimes clichés work.
“It’s a play Warden,” he mutters. “Ain’t nothing.”
Well maybe, maybe it’s a play for attention, for control. Maybe not. Desperate people do strange things to feel in control, to strike out when hopeless.
Warden Biggins nods and the prisoner returns to his group.
The prisoners are aware of an audience; one speaks with increasing levels of asperity:
Prisoner: “I need to know what the administration is doing about this situation.”
Officer (locked eye-to-eye with the prisoner): “When I know you’ll know.”
Prisoner: “I have a right to know.”
Officer: “And I have a job to do, so if you’ve done what you came out for, it’s time to go back to your room.”
“I know this prisoner,” says Lt. Saleem, but doesn’t attempt to intervene.
Warden Biggie Biggins never intervenes. Not unless a prisoner appeals directly to him. Even then his usual response is “Listen to the officer”, even if he disagrees with the officer; if need be, the warden makes his opinion known later, away from prisoners. Bottom line: Warden Biggie Biggins doesn’t run the fucking housing units, the officers do.
A stand-off, but it hasn’t escalated anymore and there’s been no touching. Total quiet. Spectators relaxed, being spectators.
Someone in the crowd says, “That’s right. We need to know what’s going on,” and a murmur jumps like a hummingbird from one small group to another followed by a new tension. Then Lt. Saleem, a Nation of Islam Muslim member, steps forward and gets the prisoner’s attention with, “Assalamu alaykum, brother” (peace be with you, brother). And the prisoner, startled for a moment, returned with, “Wa’ alaykum assalam” (and peace be with you). Saleem disengages the prisoner and officer by asking the officer to direct the spectators to their cells. Relieved, the officer is joined by her partner, who has been circling mongoose-like from one prisoner group to another, and gradually moving prisoners away. Saleem asks the prisoner where he locks and the prisoner says his cell number. Saleem starts towards the cell, stops, jerks his head in the cell’s direction, and the prisoner follows. The last thing the warden hears Saleem say to the prisoner is, “OK, let me tell you what we’re trying to do . . .”
Warden Biggie Biggins moves toward the closest prisoners and asks what they want to know. The herding stops and officers and scattered prisoners turn to listen. Warden Biggins motions toward the dayroom.
Blue Formica-covered tables and multi-colored chairs are scattered throughout the large room and an officer activates a control panel switch and the room fluoresces awake; three eggshell colored cinderblock walls define the room, along with a glass wall that separates it from the rest of the unit. The exterior wall has long thin windows framing the glare of outside yard lights. The warden sits at a perimeter table and prisoners enter and sit and stand.
“Here’s the deal,” Warden Biggins says, and explains the situation, and the concept of defending in place. A wall mounted color television behind him is muted but flickers pictures of cops and civilians with orange Civil Defense vests evacuating neighborhoods surrounding the prison. Prisoner eyes slowly track between the warden and the TV. Though Warden Biggins can’t see the TV, He knows from their relaxed attention what he’s saying is in concert with what they’re seeing: Instant credibility, or not, Warden Biggie Biggins fells like a contestant on a game show, immediate evaluation and feedback.
“Ain’t no dee-fend-ding in place going on out there, Warden,” says a prisoner leaning on the entrance doorframe, motioning with a toothbrush to the TV, his head in a hairnet, a towel over his shoulder. Several prisoners laugh and “dee-fend-ing in place” spreads through the room.
“They got options. We don’t,” Warden Biggie Biggins says. “You know as well as I there’s no fucking way . . .”
(Warden Biggie Biggins was going to say “we can evacuate” but that won’t work. They’re in this together. Prisoners gotta know that.)… “we’ll be evacuated.”
“So, we do nothing?” from another prisoner.
“No, like I just explained, we’re taking all the steps to make sure we’re safe. Let me repeat what I said before . . .” and they entered a general discussion about the ridiculousness of evacuation, and how the methods they’re employing have been successfully used before.
“You got staff coming in?” a prisoner asked.
Prisoners could see additional housing unit staff checking in at the officers’ station
“Yes, for the units and to form emergency squads.”
Emergency squads meant weapons and they all knew it.
“Why the squads?”
Stay direct, focused.
“To deal with emergencies.”
The room became quiet, until a prisoner asked the jackpot question, “You mean escape type emergencies?”
They are testing. They need to know the limits, how far Warden Biggie Biggins will go.
“Did I say anything about escape? Listen to me. Escape to what? Into the gas? Is that your escape?”
“I know you don’t want that. And I know you don’t want something else . . .”
Pause. Let it build. Have their attention. Now!
“I know you don’t want to get shot.”
Some prisoners shake their heads, while others nod, and still others brake into side conversations. Prisoners respect honesty and strength.
OK, time to wrap this up.
“I appreciate the time to talk with you, and I guarantee we’ll get through this alright. And the reason we’ll get through this is because nobody’s going to panic. We’re working together to deal with this shit. I have to get back to work. Any more questions?”
Working together is not something prisoners do well, hence the effectiveness of concentration camps, the disastrous end to any prison riot. But prisoners are used to situations with limited options, so maybe with the proper mix of leadership and threat, who knows?
A prisoner seated along the opposite wall says, “Warden? Just one more question.”
“Warden, what does this chlorine gas look like?”
“It’s green,” says another prisoner.
“He’s right,” says the warden. “It’s green . . . actually, a yellow-green… and you can see it coming.”
“You can see it!” several prisoners shout. “No shit.”
And then it struck Warden Biggie Biggins that being able to see it gives these guys a measure of control, false control, maybe, but something they can hold onto.
“Yes, you can see it.”
Not that it makes a lot of difference in a secure compound. But whatever it takes to make you feel better.
The officers tells the prisoners it’s time to return to their rooms. They filtered from the TV room to the cell block corridors, asserting what little independence they have with stops at water fountains, the microwave to heat coffee water, and the toilets. Some decide it’s time for a shower but the officers say no.
First Officer, Charlie Wainston, whom Warden Biggie Biggins knew since he started in this business, finishes herding prisoners and comes toward the warden. “Warden,” he says, “why aren’t we locking these guys down?”
Charlie’s the perfect corrections officer: by the book, but able to finesse flexibility; calm to the point of emotionless; not interested in promotion, only in being a good officer. So when “Seen It All” Charlie asks a question it’s an important opportunity to test your thoughts, gather information, and spread the word.
“Things getting a little testy are they Charlie?”
He grins and reaches for a count sheet from the officers’ desk. “It looks relaxed but they’re watching.”
“Watching for what?”
Lt. Saleem now returns and helps Charlie order the count sheets. Between the three of us we have about a hundred years’ experience in corrections. Rank exists, it always must with anything any group of people, but with an officer like Charlie rank is mitigated by his contribution to our collective wisdom.
“You know Lieutenant,” Charlie says, “the Warden would help us with count but I doubt he’s ever done one.”
They laugh comfortably. Charlie has worked his magic; this is a conversation of equals.
Charlie says, “They’re watching us and it’s creepy.”
He is right. Warden Biggie Biggins feels it too. Saleem agrees.
Warden Biggie Biggins waits to give Charlie’s admission the respect it’s due, then said, “So it must be important they see us, right?”
Prisoners can’t see us when they’re locked up; not locking them up in this situation is really controlling them. Charlie shrugs: he can handle creepy.
“And the other housing units?” I ask both of them.
“’About the same,” Saleem says, “tense, some minor stuff….creepy.”
Nothing left to do.
Five o’clock in the morning and what Warden Biggie Biggins was not doing and experiencing is what he found interesting. He’s not thinking about his family, at least not much. He’s not scared, though certain he would be. For the moment at least, he has stopped worrying, going against something he’s convinced the gods put him here to do, and put his mother here to teach him. Routine paperwork, catching up, getting ahead of those not here who normally generate it. He hasn’t called to update his supervisor. No concern. He’s seen people experiencing conditions of total submission, and thinks he may be there. Not sure. He knew the immurement of total submission, a loss of control, can leave people bemused, froward, introspective, vengeful.
Warden Biggie Biggins’ phone rings and he looks at it. It rings again and he looks at it. On the third ring he raises the receiver and it’s Jake Johannson, his Deputy Warden at West Shoreline Correctional Facility across the street; after the meeting in Warden Biggie Biggins’ conference room, Jake went there to run things on site.
“You free?” Jake asks. “I thought I’d come over to chat.”
“I’ll be here. But I’m not sure how safe it is outside.”
There’s a short pause and he says, “I’ll chance it. I’m bored.”
Jake runs West Shoreline so Warden Biggie Biggins’ doesn’t have to worry about it. Jake’s a former Marine and not much rattles him, which is good because West Shoreline is a sex offender treatment facility and managing sex offenders can be bizarre.
It doesn’t take Jake long to walk the thousand feet between facilities.
“No thanks. I’ve had enough. I’m already too restless.”
They talk about how it’s almost morning and how this should be over soon, one way or another. Jake had a round baby face and short brown hair and a smile that makes you happy. He looks much younger than the warden but they’re the same age. The knot of his tie is loose and his shirt’s top button undone.
“Strange night,” Jake says.
“Tell me about it. I’m sort of floating. I don’t know where my head is. Part of me feels like I’ve done everything that I can, yet another part feels powerless.”
Jake says, “Maybe resigned to fate?”
Warden Biggie Biggins laughs, “I’m not big on fate, but at a moment like this you got to wonder, don’t you?”
They’ve known each other for about ten years and Warden Biggie Biggins never knew Jake to lie or break a confidence.
“When you were driving in, what went through your head? I mean what did you feel?”
Jake smiles and looks at Warden Biggie Biggins, and then looks slightly away. “I wondered why I am doing this. That I could die.”
Warden Biggie Biggins says nothing.
“I mean my family or a bunch of prisoners? What in hell am I doing?”
“So we’re here. Why?”
“You know about two hours ago I suddenly remembered my parents live around here.”
“I remember. How’re they doing?”
“I told them to leave their home and go stay with my brother. I mean I didn’t want to alarm them but they’re old and I know they were sleeping and have no idea what’s going on around them. I told them I didn’t have time to explain but they gotta go to my brother’s place. I made them promise to go right away.”
Hmmm. Warden Biggie Biggins wonders what his own mother would do if she were alive and he called her? He doubts she would listen without an explanation.
“Will they do it?”
“Who knows? I think so. I had to try.”
They sit without looking at each other.
“You know what we’ll have to deal with,” Warden Biggie Biggins finally says. “The fact we chose our job over our families. Ain’t that a bitch? I mean it kinda puts the hammer to all that ‘my family comes first’ bullshit.”
Jake shrugs and says, “Maybe so. But Biggie, to have stayed home would have meant giving up any right to lead in the future.”
Jake was right. They are there as much for the excitement of leading and to protect their power as to do anything noble or fulfill some sense of duty. Yet, Jake was also talking about honor, both inner honor — -that level of congruence between our acts and our conscience, unknowable to others — -and outer honor — -what others think of what we say and how we act as judged by their values. And what’s also being tested is Brooks and West Shoreline’s collective honor, its esprit de corps and dedication to ideals.
“Tell me something else”, Warden Biggins says. “What are you going to tell Sally about this?”
Jake doesn’t hesitate, “Not much, I suspect.”
“I know what you mean. I suspect it’ll be the same for me. And Anita now knows not to push too hard.”
Veering from introspection, Jake says, “Defending in place isn’t going to work across the street. There’s no way we can seal those buildings.”
West Shoreline was not like most prisons in that it is just a bunch of pole-buildings thrown together and encircled with a double security fence — -like a temporary high chaparral corral housing animals — -to address an immediate prison bed-space overcrowding problem. The politicians said the place would be temporary, hence its original name, Muskegon Temporary Facility, but they knew that was a lie. When the wind blows hard, as it often does off Lake Michigan, it comes through the gaps and barely insulated walls and prisoners cocoon themselves in thin wool blankets, six to a bay, laid out morgue like on stacked bunk beds.
“So I have to inform you a lot of people are going to be hurt, maybe die.”
“Have you done the defending in place stuff?”
“Of course, but people over there think it’s ridiculous.”
“It is ridiculous. When there’s nothing left to do, you do the ridiculous.”
What should they be told? That their lives as well as their place of employment are throwaways? That when the gas passes through, the bed space will still be there even though they may not? That they are the sacrificial we will all mourn while the DOC color guard does its practiced precision things to pull survivors together and make them feel some higher purpose?
The phone rings. This time it’s Keri Whelton asking the warden to meet her in front of the administration building.
What the hell, nothing else to do.
Jake left and though Warden Biggie Biggins was weary of coffee he fixed another cup. Something warm to hold. He takes a sip, realizes his mouth is stale and goes to his restroom to brush his teeth; a peppermint bloom fills his head and he splashes his face with cool water. He straightens his tie, puts on his coat, and walks to the main entrance still holding his coffee. Keri is outside with Jake and a few other executive staff and the daybreak is a rosy swelling just above the scrub oaks. They look north, along the perimeter fence, and the PSPO vehicle is midway between them and what they’re looking at.
About a hundred yards ahead of the PSPO vehicle, right next to the exterior perimeter fence, suspended several feet above the ground and hovering as high as the tree tops, is a contained yellow mist cloud that came to the perimeter fence and stopped. Would it kill everything in the trees? Would it kill the trees? “I’ve experienced chlorine gas before, and it’s yellow-green” Warden Biggie Biggins tells Keri. “I’m surprised that cloud is pale yellow, almost white.”
“It’s not chlorine gas,” she says, nonchalantly.
The swelling day brakes, yielding a deep red sun pasted above the trees and filtered yellow-white by the gas cloud; as the air warms, the cloud thins then disappears. Gone? That’s it?
“What was it?”
“They just called and said it was tetronitro… something or other. Less dangerous because it’s diluted, is what they said.”
Fatigue grips Warden Biggie Biggins’ body like a mailed fist. Others look around, some tensely pacing, not knowing what to do with their energy. Some softly wept. Warden Biggie Biggins had seen this before, in crises that auto-resolve and leave staff hanging. Warden Biggie Biggins tells the two Deputy Wardens and Shift Commanders to contact the institutional chaplains and psychologists and let staff know they’ll be in the training center if anybody needs to talk.
The warden goes home.
“What surprises me,” Warden Biggie Biggins says to prisoner Alvin-X the next day back at the prison, “is the prisoners’ compliance. Nobody panicked. Nobody hit the fence.”
Warden Biggie Biggins doubts they could have prevented a mass break-out. Not sure staff would have fired on hundreds of people trying to get to safety. Staff could just as naturally succumb to induced panic and ran. Who would blame them?
Warden Biggie Biggins visualizes the gates frozen shut; he imagines one organism forming: hundreds of trapped staff and prisoners crashing over the fences, razor ribbon cutting deep, blood, gas, gasping, wrenching; the organism bursts and people use the entangled bodies of others . . . cellmates, co-workers… to crawl and walk and run across the fences.
But Alvin-X is still a prisoner and Warden Biggie Biggins just says he’s surprised at the level of cooperation they got from convicts.
It’s several months after the gas incident — all those fears and thoughts have been nicely packaged into what’s called an incident report and sent to central office. The warden and Alvin-X are in the prison library, where Warden Biggie Biggins normally meets with prisoners, where staff and prisoners usually see them, and where other prisoners will hear their conversation, as will the library staff and the assigned officer.
“It’s simple,” Alvin-X says. “As long as the staff remained, we stayed.”
“Tell me, was it like a school of fish, you know, a herd of some sort? Or was it a thoughtful group decision?”
“What are you talking about? You run this place. You have all the guns.”
If only he knew how lost Warden Biggie Biggins had been.
“What do you think was the level of realization? I mean did everybody know what was really going on?”
Alvin-X says nothing. His tan t-shirt molded the contours of his upper torso like leather body armor. He works out. He leans toward Warden Biggie Biggins and lowers his voice and says, “I think many of them didn’t know what the fuck to think.”
How could that be? Prisoners have television, they have radio. They’re not stupid.
Anticipating what Warden Biggie Biggins is going to ask, Alvin-X adds, “No disrespect, you know I respect you Warden, but sometimes I believe you don’t know what this place is about.”
The warden utters a short huffing laugh and says, “Excuse me?”
Alvin-X waits a beat and says, “These are two different worlds. What goes on out there goes on out there. Its surreal. What was on the TV was not about our world in here.”
“But . . .”
“You come from home, and you come in here, and you go back home.”
This conversation wasn’t going where Warden Biggie Biggins wanted.
“But you get visits and phone calls and mail and…”
“And it’s all mediated. You control it all.”
“Sure, but it also does something else. These processes, they proclaim Know this: you are now leaving that world and entering this world. Anyway, what happens out there doesn’t always translate the same in here.”
“Oh, come on. Sometimes it does. I’ve seen free-world news spread through here like it’s a barber shop.”
Alvin-X laughs, leans back and says, “News, maybe. But not actions. Not actual events. With those we’re just spectators until something triggers our own action. Staff stayed so no trigger.”
And that’s when Warden Biggie Biggins saw his chance to swing it back to why the prisoners cooperated.
“And if old and weak prisoners got sick or died? Then what?”
Alvin-X scratches the back of his neck and shrugs, “On both sides. It would have been on both sides.”
“What both sides?”
“We have some old and ill prisoners, but you have some old outa shape cops.”
His words hit Warden Biggie Biggins. He hadn’t thought about those particular officers. The thought that some might be asthmatic, and that some are indeed old, never entered his mind.
Alvin-X adds, “It could have gone either way. I’ve seen prisoners riot when they think one of their own has been mistreated. I’ve also seen — actually felt it myself — a sort of diminished fear of death when there’s been a killing or a death. You know, a dismissive feeling of “OK, that’s taken care of, now I’m safe for a while”, like your ticket’s not punched yet. In this case both sides were willing to give something up to get that feeling. Sacrifices have to be made.”
Alvin-X starts to stand; he’s been locking long enough to now sense an impending lock and count as if it were a meal time.
“You want I should stay and talk or lock and count?” Alvin-X says.
“Wait for the yard count tone and go lock,” Warden Biggie Biggins says.
Alvin-X turns to leave but stops and says, “Tell me something Warden, what has Central Office done with your report?”
This didn’t surprise Warden Biggins because he thinks about it all the time. He hadn’t heard a single word from Central Office. Nothing. Warden Biggins had called Randell and suggested the director might want to put a work group together to review what happened. Randell said that was a good idea. Still nothing. Not a single acknowledgement of what had taken place: no meetings, no mandatory incident review committees, no quarterly Wardens’ meeting agenda item, no policy revision meetings, no mention even in the Department’s monthly newsletter.
“It’s still a bit early,” Warden Biggins says, putting Alvin-X off as well as beating back the realization that what he had here is a case of deep Central Office institutional denial.
Or they’re embarrassed about something. But what?
At the yard count tone prisoners casually return to their housing units for lock-down and count.
“Let me make a prediction Warden,” Alvin says. “I predict nothing will happen. Nothing will change. They don’t care.”