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 6 of 8
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.