Part 5 of 8

A 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 5of 8

West Shoreline Correctional Facility (aka, MTF)

Walking briskly to avoid prolonged exposure outdoors, the warden arrives at a medium security housing unit; the air is sodden 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 negotiation?

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?”

Pause.

“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.”

“Yes?”

“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.”

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