Part 3 of an 8 part series about a poison gas attack on three Michigan Prisons located in Muskegon, Michigan

Scenario Number Nine: Death by Poison Gas

A True Michigan Prison Story

Part 3 of 8

Lomac Damage Site-2

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 sits and looks at Keri and when she smiles, he feels the role of warden envelope him like a soft glove. That’s when he knows they have a fighting chance.

Brooks Correctional facility

“So, what do we have?” Warden Biggie Biggins asks.

The group sit at 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 answers the warden’s question until Captain Whelton runs 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.”

More silence.

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.”

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Joseph Abramajtys

Old Man, Retired Prison Warden, Social Critic, Recovering Catholic, Pain in the Ass.