Roxie McFadden: A True Female Corrections Officer Story
The way in which I have come to the conclusion that human nature is lovable — the way I have learned something of its deep pathos, its sublime mysteries — has been by living a great deal among people more or less commonplace and vulgar.
— George Eliot
No girl grows up telling her mama that she wants to be a prison guard, but it’s where Roxie McFadden found herself after twelve years with a dead-beat husband, an exhausted marriage, and Robbie, a twelve-year old son she would never give up.
Her husband was considerably older, rattled by insecurity and hostage to his emotions; Roxie had only enough energy, desire, and willingness to raise one child. Their marriage was a mistake made to escape a brittle father and abusive brothers in a house where anger was like oxygen.
Roxie had a vision of a future but until now no plan on how to achieve it, so her vision continually brightened and faded, coalesced and evaporated due to the uncertain life she lived as a captive of a social class labelled the ‘working poor’: too many addresses; too many part-time jobs: too many men.
Though there never was time to fall in love with any one place or job, she always liked something about each so that when she inevitably left to deal with one crisis or another, involving one man or another, there always followed an acute sting of loss and small period of grief. Like major blows, cumulative small losses and pains form psychic callouses that muddle your thinking and erode your trust in the future. Still, what were her alternatives? Like so many women in her circumstances she wanted stability instead of a life buffeted by the random consequences of decisions made by semi-literate men. She desired stability but knew to get it required yet another change, this time a big one, and Roxie was determined that for once she would be in control.
Politicians decided they could build their way out of a crime wave and so the Department of Corrections (DOC) was erecting and opening prisons with alacrity to win politicians the hearts and votes of a citizenry scared shitless by Detroit crime: suburban, rural, and small-town white people envisioned clouds of Blacks rising locust-like from distant cities commencing to rape and pillage and demand chitterlings. Courts ruled women could not be denied jobs in prisons that housed men and this allowed the DOC to tap a labor force segment with massive pent-up demand; they hired women guards as if they stationed recruiting teams in maternity wards, pediatrician waiting rooms, and outside divorce court doors.
The corrections officer education requirement was a community college associate’s degree, but the need for officers was so great that applicants could enter the corrections officer academy as long as they completed their associate’s degree within two years of being permanently hired. This meant Roxie would have a job with good pay to support her and Robbie while she went to community college…and meant she could file for divorce.
The corrections officer job offer came as a salvation and resurrection that got her a third-floor two-bedroom walk-up apartment over a bankrupt hardware store with whitewashed windows in a seedy Michigan auto-industry town that had few three-story buildings that weren’t government offices. But it was her place, with good locks to keep Robbie safe; it had windows overlooking an alley where quiet was disturbed only by a weekly trash pick-up; where she could safely open the windows and let the dusty-rose colored lace curtains she was going to sew flutter and float above the alley high enough to keep out the smell of garbage cans christened with dog pee and tomcat spray.
There were two bedrooms, both furnished with a chest of drawers and double bedframes and box springs so Robbie would have his own space; a living room with a serviceable wine-colored couch, matching Lay-Z-Boy easy chairs that saw better days, but what the hell, it was large enough for Robbie to invite a few friends over for pizza and TV; and a kitchen-kitchenette area equipped with used but functional avocado-colored appliances. She would need to buy mattresses, kitchen utensils, a dinette table and chairs, and a shower curtain, but that would be easy because she lived near a college town with an abundance of used furniture places where graduating students sold cheap the stuff they no longer needed. And there was hope: a sign, hand-printed on cardboard on the empty hardware store’s door announced the future: “Darlene’s Second Chance Shoppe” to offer “lightly traveled women’s fashions.” What more could a gal want?
Roxie’s classmates at the corrections officer academy, Sylvia and Areta, said Roxie hadn’t told her husband about the divorce; she wanted to take Robbie to the apartment…wanted to involve him in her excitement…but knew he loved his dad as kids do when shielded from a marriage’s sordid underbelly. Roxie knew Robbie would be upset when she told him she was going to divorce his father, and she didn’t know if Robbie would keep his mouth shut long enough for her to move him into the apartment.
When Robbie was an infant Roxie bathed and baby-oiled him, then put her nose close to him to smell his sweetness. But Roxie realized that at twelve Robbie was nearing an age where he would be allowed to make important decisions, like who to live with, so she needed to make a move now to get him away from his dad; to give Robbie the space and experience he would use to make an informed choice. Roxie wanted to keep Robbie smelling sweet and couldn’t, so the next best thing was to make him smart; she knew Robbie was already dealing with the lost laughter of infancy.
Areta said the plan was to pick a time when the “the husband” was away to move Robbie and her stuff out of “that shithole where she lived” and into her new apartment, adding the caveat, “It might be a while ’cause he’s always there.”
Neither Areta nor Sylvia knew Roxie before the academy but the ordeal of being women in a predominately all male class, destined for a job historically reserved for men, was a fillip to their defensive huddle. Sylvia said “the make” was last thing Roxie was on, but like any woman excited by the thought of leaving a husband, men smelled an opening as if Roxie emitted a feral odor. They both agreed that Roxie had an imaginary lover that she talked about with just enough reticence and discretion to keep the academy hounds at bay. Sylvia said this worked pretty well most of the time until they went on the job and met an obdurate Lieutenant (as I recall, Sylvia said “monumental jerk” and Areta concurred) who wouldn’t leave Roxie alone. They both also agreed that the Lieutenant was a “looker”, but with predatory eyes. But Roxie insisted her imaginary lover was patient as well as handsome, and that she endowed him with that attribute because she’d never met a patient man, just like she’d never met an angel or unicorn. And the Lieutenant didn’t fill that bill. He was no different than her husband, father, and brothers: all irascible once their ‘nice’ wore off.
They were all of them that way: bright girls whose high school boyfriends impregnated them just before or right after graduation and were sent to ‘Nam; or left out of boredom, casting these girls adrift and vulnerable to the next guy with a velvet line and hint of security — guys you and I would take one look at and immediately see a one-story drunk in the making. The girls got married and had kids and somewhere along the way the lucky ones formed a crust of maturity that made them realize their life was an ouroboros, a snake devouring its tail.
Like Roxie, Areta and Sylvia were attracted to the corrections officer job as something that gave them the cash, health care, and security to actually frame a future, yet they agreed that it was more than that with Roxie. Being smart, Roxie did well at the academy and for the first time in her life saw helping others as a career instead of indentured familial servitude. Roxie saw herself as a drug program counselor, or even a parole or probation agent; she marveled that she was even able to think such thoughts could become reality. She couldn’t have known what was to come.
Warden Biggie Biggins met Jamal, midway through his minimum 30-Life sentence for second degree murder. Jamal participated in the 1967 Detroit riots and later killed a man during an argument over a stolen television set. Jamal was a teenager and to hear him tell it he and his buddies were out for a good time when things suddenly went bad. Indeed they did.
The ’67 Detroit race riot was the catalyst for the predominately white middle-class stampede to the suburbs that had commenced as a trickle more than a decade earlier. Jamal was a prison clerk, performing mindless routine typing and filing for 50¢ a day, an indentured servitude that got him out of his cell for six hours, a respite from the reading and writing and thinking Jamal used to control the monotony of doing time. He was at ease with his circumstances and we frequently talked when we ran into each other in the prison yard. Jamal and Warden Biggins shared a love of Jim Harrison, and Tom McGuane novels, and Warden Biggins gave him Atwood and Updike. Jamal outdid the warden with Flaubert and Joyce, and introduced him to Baldwin, DuBois., and eventually Amos Wilson.
Jamal lived near the twelfth-street area where the 1967 riots began when Detroit police raided a blind pig, an unlicensed drinking establishment, and attempted to arrest over eighty people holding a party for two recently returned African-American Vietnam War veterans. Jamal insists such harassment from four-man Detroit Police units called ‘Tack Squads’ was a daily occurrence in his neighborhood, where squads of white police stopped and searched him and pushed him around calling him ‘nigger’ and ‘boy.’ He didn’t say this as an excuse for his imprisonment, but to inform me and gauge my reaction.
Unlike many prisoners, Jamal didn’t obscure or flash anger and resentment but mounted and rode them until they broke to his will. Jamal knew anger turned inward would result in a self-hatred that would destroy his dignity and will to survive, and that lashing out was futile when his captors had all the power. Jamal was too smart for all that and patient enough to wait for and take advantage of the meager and often fickle opportunities he got to display his talents and ingratiate himself to power. I once saw Jamal defuse a gang fight in the main dining room, always a volatile place in any prison. I was ready to use my SWAT team.
There’s no doubt Jamal averted violence, and the warden respected him for what he did, and he respected the warden for letting him do it. Warden Biggie Biggins asked Jamal what he said to the gang leaders and he replied, “I told them if they didn’t stop you would shoot them.” Actually, what Jamal did was point out that violence would destroy both sides and make things tough for everybody. No doubt Jamal also convinced the gangs that whatever triggered the confrontation — control of drugs, alcohol, gambling, access to pretty boys’ assholes — could be worked out business-like, if not amicably. The warden never asked Jamal the cause of the confrontation, and Jamal never volunteered any rational beyond, “The same ‘ol bullshit.”
When Warden Biggins became warden of a new multi-security prison, Jamal asked for and got a transfer: The warden didn’t know he had arrived until one day he was crossing the prison yard from the Control Center to the Prisoner Services Building and there Jamal was with a few other prisoners near a small island of trees left standing to provide a modicum of shade in an otherwise barren space. Jamal nodded and the warden smiled.
The new prison like other prisons, had its share of prisoner-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-staff assaults. The prison was no better or worse than other similar prisons, but Warden Biggie Biggins wanted to reduce the rate of assault to as low as possible knowing it would never be completely eliminated. You can’t lock up a couple thousand men and not expect violence. The warden knew staff did not have the answer to assault reduction: there were too few of them to run the joint with an iron hand, and without the cooperation of prisoners; and sometimes staff treatment of prisoners caused assaults. The warden’s thinking was that he didn’t see what purpose he served if he couldn’t protect prisoners and staff from each other and themselves. He needed help from prisoners.
Warden Biggie Biggins had staff round-up two dozen prisoner leaders and asked for wanted their assistance in reducing assaults. They met in the Food Management vocational classroom and the instructor prepared cheese and lunchmeat trays as a bribe to get prisoner cooperation. Outside of prison, in business, government, and our private lives, we routinely meet over food to solve problems and work-out differences. Why would prison be any different? Some prisoners asked what was in it for them — early release, more privileges? — and Warden Biggins said nothing but a safer place to live. Half of them walked out, but half stayed, including Jamal, and that’s all the warden needed. Those that stayed agreed to help as long as the warden agreed that staff were occasionally complicit in assaults.
Jamal said, “This isn’t just about prisoners.”
Every time something noteworthy happens in a prison, such as an assault, a critical incident report is completed by shift commanders and sent to the warden. Warden Biggins redacted security information from a year’s worth of critical incident reports then gave copies to the prisoners. They analyzed the reports to find connections between the prison environment and the prisoners who were involved in assaults both as instigators and as victims, and found that the propensity to be involved (or not) in assaults had nothing to do with the educational programming, work assignments, religious programming, yard time, food quality, visiting frequency or duration, library time, and health and psychiatric care. The one factor that did seem to make a difference was a prisoner’s number. Those prisoners with small numbers were far less likely to be involved in assaults as either a perpetrator or victim. When a prisoner enters the prison system he receives a number that never changes. Numbers are awarded in an increasing sequence so a prisoner with a low number has been in prison longer than a prisoner with a higher number. The conclusion: Experienced prisoners who knew how to do time knew how to avoid assaults.
Jamal effortlessly took leadership of the group the warden called his Assault Reduction Advisory Group, a motley crew composed of a couple of murderers, a rapist, a pedophile, several armed robbers, and some drug dealers. The Group insisted they could teach new prisoners (those with high numbers) how to do time, and thus lower the assault rate, if the warden provided them with the resources to develop and run a program to enroll all newly arriving prisoners. Warden Biggie Biggins agreed, with the caveat that a staff advisor would be assigned to the group, and that s/he and a corrections officer would be present any time they met. Giving prisoners authority over other prisoners is inviting trouble: When prisoners are put in a position of authority over other prisoners the result is extortion and strong-arming; the strong prey on the weak. In addition, if the Group succeeded in bringing about real change, or even looked like it might succeed, some staff would try to sabotage their efforts; the Group knew this and welcomed the staff presence as a protective shield. The warden’s experience is that staff could be resistant to change in a prison environment, even change that will be to their long-run benefit, so it was good that staff were always present to see what the prisoners were doing.
Routine conversations with staff about the Assault Reduction Advisory Group went like this:
Staff: “They’re going to use you and what you have them doing as cover to run their gambling and drug hustles.”
Warden: “Shit, they’ll do that anyway, so why not have them doing something worthwhile in the meantime?”
Staff: “They can’t be trusted. They will prey on new prisoners.”
Warden: “I don’t trust them. I’m closely watching what they’re doing. Trust is not involved. They have no authority over anybody. They’ll be running an information class. They won’t even evaluate the class participants.”
Staff: “Sooner or later they’re going to get into trouble and we’ll have to put them in solitary or transfer them to higher security.”
Warden: “We’re not dealing with Boy Scouts. If they get into trouble we’ll handle it. If they need to be replaced, we’ll do that as well.”
It took the Group six months to develop and implement the “how to do time” classes, and Jamal was the driving force within the Group. Another six months of program operation and the assault rate dramatically dropped, making Brooks a safer place for prisoners to live and staff to work. Only one Group member got into trouble and had to be replaced.
After releasing the initial results, Warden Biggie Biggins spoke with Jamal in the prison yard. It was spring and the strengthening anodyne sunshine was welcome. For Jamal’s sake they sat in the open at a picnic table so both prisoners and staff could see them; talking furtively in an office or dark prison corner was the fastest way to get Jamal labelled as a snitch. Out in the open anybody could listen to our conversation.
Warden: “These are good results. You ought to be proud.”
Jamal: “Yes they are. It’s what happens when you teach people not to be assholes.”
Warden: “I thought you were teaching them how to do time.”
Jamal: “Naw, we’re teaching them not to be assholes.”
Warden: “I don’t understand.”
Jamal: “I know. But someday you will.”
Warden Biggie Biggins took a forced hiatus from his job to go to Main to conduct an administrative investigation and figure out how Maurice did what he did. While there, Warden Biggins became interested in why Maurice did what he did.
Like Jamal, Maurice grew-up in Detroit’s notorious Twelfth-Street neighborhood, a prairie of urban blight pocked with the remnants of once flourishing streets. Houses and commercial buildings — dilapidated, vandalized, and burned — line the blocks like rotting jagged teeth in an abused mouth. There’s something awkward about such open urban swaths usually seen as a tornado ravaged town on the evening news. The vacant prairie openings reveal the seamy building backsides, like open butt-flaps on old men’s long johns, only stitched with stairs casting shadows almost hiding garbage cans. Twelfth-Street is where the ’67 Detroit riots began, where black people move among forlorn forgotten facades like penitents, each submerged in his own thoughts, as if smothered by anxious breathing, living lives of serial misfortune where imprisonment is both a rite of passage and an extension of reality; a place to hone a protective façade of resentment and belligerence.
Jamal’s junior by more than a decade, Maurice missed the ’67 Detroit riots but was suckled by their aftermath and lived a ghetto life as mundane as it was corrosive — absent father; welfare mother; school failure; petty drug muleing; junky friends; breaking and entering as a prelude to kidnapping, sexual assault, armed robbery, and assault with intent to commit murder; all tied in a neat 18-year sentence — a static-state overwhelmed by personal, familial, and environmental forces making his life a constant process of annihilation. No beginning, no end. Squeezing ecstasy from anger.
Unlike Jamal, in prison Maurice reveled in deep anger by acting out in stupid ways (petty fights, insubordination, mouthing off) that kept him at Main clinging to his street fantasies of being somebody, something respected, a major drug dealer or pimp; fantasies he later described to Warden Biggie Biggins that careen from the walls of his cell and ran the length of his cell block, then hunker in dim dry corners only to spring forth and surprise. Fantasies built to a crescendo of kicking a officer’s ass and fucking a woman, all to applause that isn’t applause but instead the ceaseless insistent noise of a concrete and steel block of cells stacked five tiers high; noise made of the mashed talk and howls and curses of 500 men piled atop one another; noise that leaves no space for the self-knowledge that comes only with privacy, just space enough for fantasies that block the racket and move with a discordant undulating rhythm.
Like doing time, a young twelfth-street black man’s arrival at Main prison was only a matter of time. The smart ones soon understood that there’s a difference between doing time as if it was yours to do and use, and serving time as if serving a god, or serving someone a meal and you’re the meal. Maurice had the ghetto swagger and attitude but events would show that at Main Maurice was the main course.
It was the late 1980’s and approaches to Main prison were all rural roads populated with farm fields of marginal farms whose driveways occasionally held crippled pick-up trucks resting near front-yard trees hung with a tire swing or a chain dangling an engine block; houses with sallow mongrels barking from paint-peeled porches flanked by furzy vegetation. Here a rusty bedspring, there a hand cultivator with a cracked handle jutting up like a compound fracture, whose male owners sometimes worked at the prison.
All these roads led to Darnell Road where the prison lay upon the land like an early twentieth-century factory, which was intended; its dark brick and cement walls encasing regimental lines of long vertical opaque windows frosted with whitewash and bird shit. Intended to project the American ideals of efficiency, production, and progress, Main prison held a criminal class that was to be subjected to the techniques of scientific management, and internalize the skills and values necessary to embrace honest labor in prison industries manufacturing products for use by prisoners as well as the free world. Main prison was supposed to embody the techniques and efficiencies of the Industrial Revolution. It never happened. As Main rose from cornfields the growing labor movement, justifiably fearing competition from prison labor and the suppression of union member wages, sought and got Federal and State prison labor use-laws that severely restricting what prisoners could make, and to whom these goods could be sold. Striped of its grand philosophy, of its role as a beacon of industrial social planning, Main sunk to the common denominator of all American prisons: problem places applying surveillance and discipline without a raison d’être — nothing inspiring, uplifting, even hopeful; nothing loftier than control and punishment. Many years after Roxie and Jamal and Maurice were there, Main prison would be closed and turned into a macabre tourist destination.
Neither Jamal nor Maurice needed preparation for Main: it was their ghetto-raised destiny. Not so for Roxie McFadden. Sylvia said she talked to Roxie about Main being a place more primitive, more elemental, than the rest of their lives; a place where men behind painted steel bars piss and shit in front of you. Areta said her first reaction to Main was a visceral awareness of predators and prey; civil society stripped of defining ingredients like compassion. They immediately understood this was different from the academy. Gone were the policies and procedures and neatly typed post-orders that boiled your behavior to a reduction of simple actions like, “Lock the auditorium gate when meal lines run,” that the academy said all the state’s prisons made available to help guards do their jobs. Here, in the absence of standardized written instructions, they needed help from others to negotiate daily survival and, as Sylvia put it, the women were “shit out of luck.” Main was a place where intuition fails you not just because you’re ignorant, but because you don’t know who you are in an Alice in Wonderland sense where all the rules are different and unwritten, and for women, unspoken.
And Areta said that though they were intimidated by the size and chaos of Main, the worst part was the realization that they were thrown into a crucible of resentment: resentment from male guards whose job were handed down as a birthright father-to-son, where nostalgia governed, and where women were seen as weak, distracting, and putting everyone at risk; and resentment from prisoners under constant surveillance trying to maintain privacy and dignity in a place that afforded little.
The DOC had done nothing to prepare guards, their supervisors, or the prison administration for the introduction of women guards to an all-male world. The result, in this staggering vacuum of accountability, was that many male guards refused to instruct and guide the women, and bemoaned their presence in front of prisoners while prisoners threatened, verbally demeaned, and physically groped the women with impunity. In any prison, particularly one without written policies, procedures, and post orders, new guards form survival bonds with more experienced colleagues: in exchange for deference and compliance, wiser senior guards teach the new guards how to do the job and protect them while they learn. These silent agreements, elemental in all social relationships and situations — particularly those fraught with danger such as combat, policing, firefighting, and childhood — were not available to the women at Main.
As with all new officers, Roxie rotated daily through many assignments and discovered that the policy and procedure manuals supposed to be kept in many locations (such as Control Center, Housing Units, Food Services) were either missing or hopelessly out of date, and that post orders, which were by policy to be kept accessible to officers at every assignment, were virtually non-existent. In addition, certain assignments located in isolated areas were known to be inherently dangerous and by policy probationary officers, like Roxie, were not to be assign at these locations unless with a senior officer. Written passes, which prisoners needed to gain access to an area, were often incomplete, or easily available in blank form for prisoners to fill out. Such was the case where Roxie was assigned, alone, for the first time at the auditorium gate; in fact, according to Areta, prior to reporting to the auditorium gate assignment Roxie ran around trying to find someone who could tell her what in hell she was supposed to do once she got there.
And when she got there what she found was a place where light battles dark and everything is embraced by undulating shadows; a large dimly lit stage from which radiated row after row of empty seats gradually disappearing into a dark nothing; a dirty isolated place smelling of mold and cobwebs and flaking paint and dust motes as thick as swirling snow; a place where prisoners came to watch a movie and momentarily sequester angst and lend piquancy to their day, where also they hid to drink, smoke a joint, or fuck each other. Stairs ascended from the stage, to a dark balcony where another door was located that provided entry to a classroom area where prisoners attended community college courses. Roxie’s assignment was to control the gate that allowed access from a busy hallway to the stage, and to only permit prisoners taking college courses to enter the auditorium and ascend the stairs.
Roxie’s ignorance on how to work the auditorium gate assignment, coupled with the ease with which prisoners could forge passes, proved fatal. Roxie was in a place where tourists eventually tread unaware of its status as her final living destination.
The Murder & Investigation
Soon after Roxie started at Main prison, and her first day on the auditorium gate assignment, Maurice raped and murdered Roxie McFadden. Maurice had a daily work assignment in the prison kitchen, and from there used a stolen and forged prisoner pass to leave his assignment and gain entry to the auditorium.
Warden Biggie Biggins was sent in to investigate Roxie’s murder. His was not a criminal investigation focused on what had happened and who did it, which was already established by the State Police investigation and DNA evidence: Maurice bludgeoned Roxie (probably with her own radio and his fists), raped her while biting her breasts, and strangled her with his belt. Her body was found beaten and naked (except for her bra and blouse wrapped around her waist) in the prison auditorium. Warden Biggins was to conduct an administrative investigation to understand how this could have happened, and soon realized that determining how begged what would become the nagging question why.
Warden Biggie Biggins spent weeks poking around Main Prison, talking to staff on all three shifts, and talking with prisoners. He was fascinated about how Main avoided collapsing in chaos given its near complete lack of written policies and procedures that were the operational backbone of any prison at which Warden Biggins had worked. He soon realized that multiple officer cliques controlled and ran Main, and that each clique controlled a defined territory (such as a cell block, or the dining hall, or the yard), and each clique had a hierarchical social structure that commanded the loyalty of its members. The survival bonds that new officers formed with senior officers were embedded in these cliques. In exchange for loyalty and obedience, the cliques taught you how to do your job. A new officer without a clique had a slim chance of survival, and Main cliques resented the presence of female officers and did not trust them to do the job.
Sexual harassment is often used as a weapon and after being at Main a couple of weeks some female officers told Warden Biggie Biggins that Roxie McFadden was being sexually harassed by a Lieutenant. Roxie told the Lieutenant she wasn’t interested in a relationship with him, but the female officers said he was persistent.
Female officer: “I’m not surprised Roxie got the auditorium gate assignment.”
Warden Biggins: “What do you mean?”
Female officer: “Sometimes when a supervisor is pressing you for sex and you resist, you’ll get shit assignments until you put out.”
Warden Biggins: “Are you saying this is what happened to Roxie?”
Female officer: “I’m saying she was being pressed for sex. And I’m saying the auditorium gate is a scary, shitty, isolated assignment. That’s all I’m saying.”
Female officers also complained about being assaulted by prisoners, and that supervisors and administrators did nothing to stop these assaults, nor did their corrections officer union seek remedies. MDOC policy required that whenever an employee is assaulted by a prisoner a formal, written, critical incident report had to be completed by the shift commander and send up the chain-of-command, eventually to be reviewed in the MDOC Central Office. Warden Biggie Biggins searched for copies of these reports and found none. When he asked the Main Deputy Warden about the discrepancy between what the women officers were claiming and the dearth of reports, he said that he wasn’t going to process a critical incident report “every time a female officer got her tits or ass grabbed.” This was stated to Warden Biggins in the presence of a State Police Lieutenant conducting the criminal investigation. When asked about it later, during legal depositions, the Deputy Warden denied making the statement and the State Police Lieutenant said he had not heard the Deputy Warden say it. Warden Biggie Biggins knew both were lying because after the statement was made the Lieutenant and Warden Biggins left the Deputy Warden’s office and talked about why in the world the Deputy Warden would say such a thing knowing their roles. It was apparent that female officers were classed with weak prisoners in that they were seen useful as sexual prey and little else.
Warden Biggie Biggins put everything he found in his report to the DOC Director, including the Deputy Warden’s remark. Sometime later Warden Biggins was told that the angry Deputy Warden thought his remark should have been overlooked as a “professional courtesy… something Warden Biggins thought blithely ironic. His investigation complete, Warden Biggins went home tired of Main and tired of people in general.
Warden Biggins’ report answered how this tragedy took place and completed the investigatory task he was assigned, but it didn’t answer why Maurice did what he did. Warden Biggins read thousands of prisoner files containing third-party sanitized descriptions of what he knew where grizzly crimes, but rarely was he moved by what he read. He knew and worked with many murderers and rapists during his career, but this was the closest he ever got to murder and rape. Like Roxie, Warden Biggins was born into a working-class family so he knew I understood something of her cultural fears and aspirations, and understood Main’s all-male officer culture. What he did not understand was Maurice’s culture and how these cultures clashed.
When Warden Biggins spoke about the investigation and interest in Maurice’s motives with his staff back at his own prison, he most often got shrugged shoulders. The only motive some staff proposed was that Maurice did it for sex, but that didn’t seem sufficient. Why did he kill her? Maurice must have known he would get caught, and he’d do less additional time for rape than for murder. Hell, the way female officers were treated by staff in front of prisoners, a female could claim rape by a prisoner and not be taken seriously, or at best have a perfunctory investigation conducted. The victim would be lucky if a Critical Incident Report was filed. It didn’t make sense. Warden Biggie Biggins had to talk to Maurice.
Warden Biggie Biggins first saw Maurice through the small security glass window of his cell’s solid steel sliding door at Max, Michigan’s version of a supermax facility, where he was isolated in his cell twenty-three hours a day. Warden Biggins opened the hinged sheet-metal flap covering the window and peered in. Gee, he thought he’d be bigger, that such an out of proportion act like rape/murder would involve a big man, not a small bald guy. He noticed Maurice’s yellow nicotine-stained fingers, then his skin the color of low-grade maple syrup, not quite molasses, suffused with a dusting of gray pallor; and his face dropped, dragged down by the repetitive minutia of prison life. He got a life sentence with no chance of parole. No doubt the reality of complete deprivation clutched his mind like a migraine. In fact, the warden was counting on Maurice’s near total lack of human contact to get what he wanted.
His door slid open and Warden Biggins stepped in; it closed and hermetically sealed the their eight by ten space from everything they knew, loved, or hated — stripped of control, just the two of them in a tiny universe. The misty staleness of cigarette smoke permeated everything and a smoldering butt clung leaf-like from Maurice’s cracked lower lip. Warden Biggins had two cups of coffee and handed one to him. There was no smoking in this prison, yet there was Maurice.
The warden had two cups of coffee and he handed one to Maurice.
In isolation Maurice’s brain function had slowed to lapse-time, and minutes passed before his rheumy eyes adjusted to the warden. His mouth issued a faint gurgle: he thinks, but the connections between mind and speech are unused and tangled. Warden Biggins sipped his coffee giving Maurice time to form words.
“So . . . so who the fuck are you?” Maurice asked.
Warden Biggins introduced himself and said he conducted the murder investigation and needed to know why Maurice raped and killed Roxie. He had no chance of escape, so why did he do it? That obstinate question appeared in the warden’s dreams, vexing his still moments. It had nothing to do with his administrative investigation, but he owned it and had to deal with it.
Maurice didn’t talk so Warden Biggins leaned against the metal shelf bolted to a wall desk and silently looked at him. Warden Biggins knew Maurice saw just another white authority figure there to cause problems, one white dude in a long line that he encountered during life: a player in a structure of power and authority called the criminal justice system Maurice blamed put him where he was. What Warden Biggins didn’t know, and would later discover through both Maurice and Jamal, was that he was also part of a well-funded and ongoing effort to undo the Thirteenth Amendment.
Warden Biggins rephrased his question, “Why did you kill her after you raped her? Either way you must knew you’d be caught.”
Maurice: “Why should I talk to you? What’s in it for me?”
Warden Biggins: “Nothing. You get nothing except the chance to talk with another human being. Otherwise you sit here all day while you brain turns to shit. Way I see it you got nothing to lose by talking. You’re in for life and you can do that easy or hard. It’s your choice.”
Maurice: “Will you visit me again.”
Warden Biggins: “Maybe.” Thinking, “Are you out of your fucking mind!”
Maurice sat on his bunk staring at nothing then turned to face the warden. As if addressing a priest in a confessional — his voice flat, factual, and minimalist — he described his crime: He had tried to get into the auditorium and Roxie stopped him. They argued and he grabbed her radio from her pants belt and hit her on the head, knocking her out. The assault achieved its denouement when he removed his own belt and strangled her. He had told her several days before in the dining hall that Jackson was no place for a woman to work, so what did she expect?
Warden Biggins said, “Wait a minute, you raped her after you killed her?”
Maurice nodded “yes.”
Warden Biggins: “You fucked a dead woman?”
Maurice: “I didn’t know she was dead.”
Warden Biggins: “But she didn’t move and she was bleeding”
Maurice: “I figured she might be dead but I didn’t know.”
Warden Biggins: “But you fucked her anyway.”
Maurice lit another cigarette and looked down at the floor. “Yes,” he whispered, and meekly offered, “but she was still warm.”
Warden Biggins never met a man who had sex with a dead person, and couldn’t form a follow-up question that didn’t sound silly. Was it like masturbating? Like screwing a passed out drunk? Did it seem anonymous? So, Warden Biggins went back to why he “thought he could get away with it” since “why did you kill her after you raped her” was irrelevant. Warden Biggins was making some progress?
Warden Biggins: “I’m asking again: Did you think you would get away with what you did?”
Maurice: “Nobody gave a shit about her. Nobody wanted her there.”
Warden Biggins: “So you what… decided to join in?”
Maurice: “I did what they all wanted to do.”
Warden Biggins: “They…prisoners?
Maurice: “Everybody, prisoners and pole-lease.”
Warden Biggins: “You think the officers wanted to fuck her and get rid of her?”
Maurice: “Uh huh. That’s what they said.”
Warden Biggins: “Did you know Roxie McFadden before this incident?”
Maurice: “I knew she was a fish guard. I had seen her in the dining room. And like I said, I spoke to her once.”
Warden Biggins: “But otherwise you didn’t know her.”
Warden Biggins: “So, you thought you could get away with what you did because you were doing what everyone wanted to do.”
Maurice. “Well, nobody gave a shit about her. Nobody wanted her there.”
Jamal & The Warden
“For a white person,” Jamal said, “you certainly can be a dumb motherfucker.” Warden Biggie Biggins laughed but listened. Compared to Maurice, Jamal was dark skinned, with ptosistic eyes, and had a silky Lou Rawls baritone voice. Warden Biggins liked his seductive melodic speech and the way the smile on his round face grabbed and held his attention.
Jamal was released from prison and after about a year Warden Biggins contacted him to meet for lunch. While Jamal was still incarcerated, his sister needed a healthy kidney and he arranged to donate one of his while still in prison. Kidney transplant surgery is hard on the donor and Jamal completed his post-op. recovery first in a prison infirmary, then in his cell. The operation was successful and Jamal’s selfless act, coupled with his prison behavior record and the amount of time he served, got him a parole. He never asked for Warden Biggie Biggins’ help in getting his parole, and Warden Biggie Biggins never offered.
They ate at a yuppie restaurant located overlooking a small lake in upscale East Grand Rapids. Besides the restaurant, the lake was bordered with expensive houses, many pillared and conservatory equipped, a far cry from Main prison. They both had Caesar salads laced with calamari…also a long way from the beans and franks and cornbread served in prison dining halls.
“I’m not used to this,” Warden Biggie Biggins said.
Jamal: “What you don’t go to restaurants?”
Warden Biggins: “No, of course I do. I’m not used to this with you.”
Jamal: “Would it help if I dressed in prison blues?”
If Jamal had been dressed in prison blues Warden Biggie Biggins would have been less rattled. He had never seen Jamal in civilian clothes and today he wore a beige sport shirt with green checks, brown well-creased slacks, and brown loafers. He was more relaxed than the warden knew him to be and it wasn’t until seeing him now that Warden Biggins realized how tense Jamal was while in prison. He started with the formality of calling Warden Biggie Biggins “warden” until the warden asked to be called “Biggie”.
Jamal: “So, what is it you want? You said on the phone you wanted to talk about the McFadden incident. What’s bothering you?”
Warden Biggie Biggins mentioned the Roxy McFadden investigation while Jamal was still in prison, but they never discussed it at length. After calling Jamal to arrange lunch the warden mailed Jamal a copy of his investigation report. Now, at lunch, Warden Biggins told Jamal about his meeting with Maurice.
Warden Biggie Biggins: “After meeting Maurice I got the sense that he murdered and raped her because if he didn’t do it somebody else would. But that seems a stupid reason for doing something so bad.”
That’s when Jamal made the “you certainly can be a dumb motherfucker” crack.
Jamal would never have said such a thing before, and Warden Biggie Biggins detected a new edginess to his voice; his gut told him things had changed between them but he didn’t yet know how.
Jamal: “Sex is always the smokescreen, especially when a white woman and black man are involved. But that’s not what this is about. It’s about the hot chest-crushing anger a twelfth-street black man carries, and the rage from living a life where society saw him as a problem. And then there’s this white woman who her own kind shun, another authority figure telling him what he can and can’t do, a confluence of symbols of all his weakness and inadequacies as a man beat into him every day.”
Warden Biggie Biggins: “Are you saying Maurice killed Roxie out of anger over some broad sense of being wronged?”
Jamal: “That had something to do with it, but it’s not the reason. No, Maurice acted out of helplessness, a sense of impotency caused by decades of slavery, racial violence, racial discrimination, and the on-going systematic disenfranchise of African-Americans. While in prison you gave me stuff to read by Hannah Arendt. Well, she was right on when she said that violence is the expression of impotence.”
Warden Biggie Biggins objected; slavery was long ago so why would Maurice carry the weight of those past events
Jamal: “Slavery was just the beginning of the oppression. After slavery came reconstruction, then share cropping, employment discrimination, FHA red-lining, exclusionary zoning, and more recently high interest sub-prime lending. Even today we have Republican legislatures passing laws that disenfranchise African-American and other poor voters. No, it’s not slavery that Maurice bears, but the legacy of slavery embedded in all these other systems designed to keep Blacks poor and isolated.”
Warden Biggins still objected. He didn’t see how discrimination would cause Maurice to kill and rape Roxie. And in any event, thought it a goddamn poor reason to kill someone.
Warden Biggie Biggins: “So why aren’t other black prisoners killing and raping white corrections officers?”
Jamal: “That’s not a fair question. It’s like asking why all white people don’t go to college just because some do. The fair question is, ‘Are blacks robbing and killing, and raping people, particularly other blacks, way out of proportion to their percentage of the population?’ The answer is yes they are, and the reason is that in their impotence they want to be like white people.”
Warden Biggie Biggins: “Maurice killed Roxie because he wanted to be like whites?”
Jamal: “Yes. Maurice killed and raped Roxie because he wanted to be accepted by Black prisoners and white male guards. He wanted to be seen as a man. He wanted to fit in with prison culture and secure some crumb of self-esteem, and the only way he knew how was through violence.”
They finished their salads and the waitress brought coffee; they drank in silence as the warden digested what Jamal had said. Warden Biggins wondered aloud why Maurice thought he needed to use violence to secure what he wanted. Was violence the prevailing value in black ghetto culture?
Jamal: “Hell no. Violence is the prevailing value in white culture. Blacks see whites using violence to secure prestige and power. In this country we learned the value of violence from whites.”
Suddenly Warden Biggie Biggins realized the conversation was no longer about Roxie and Maurice, or about abstract ‘Blacks’ and ‘whites’, that Jamal used the word ‘we’ for the first time and it signaled a new direction for their conversation…indeed, for their relationship.
Jamal pulled a book from his jacket pocket and handed it to Warden Biggins. It was Black –on-Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-Annihilation in the Service of White Domination.
Jamal: “Read this. Wilson says that we learned that ‘violence is the great equalizer in a world characterized by great inequalities.’”
Warden Biggins: “But the Main corrections officers were not violent to Roxie.”
Jamal: “They didn’t have to be. That’s what they had Maurice for.”
Jamal claimed that male guards established the setting, and delivered the sacrificial lamb, and Maurice did the rest. And by doing what he did, Maurice reinforced the prevailing dynamic between white and Black, and reinforced a social structure that sees African-Americans as depraved, crime prone, violent sub-humans out to rape and murder white women, despite the fact that nearly ninety percent of the crimes committed against whites are committed by whites
Jamal: “Maurice did the white male guards’ dirty work for them. That’s what whites want. They want us to do their dirty work so they can justify shitting on us after we do what they want. As far as whites are concerned, that’s what a Black is for. In addition, the white guards reinforced their belief that female guards don’t know what they’re doing and can’t be trusted.”
Warden Biggins: “I’m surprised. You never said these things to me before.”
Jamal: “You’re surprised? When I was a prisoner and you a warden, and you with all the guns, and me with nothing, and your surprised I wasn’t entirely candid?”
Jamal stared at the warden, waiting for a response. Their waitress cleared the table and refilled their coffee while Warden Biggins thumbed the books index. He closed the book and laid it on the table and looked out across the lake and saw what looked like a small version of a riverboat, the old sternwheeler kind seen plying the Mississippi River in movies about the antebellum South.
Suddenly Warden Biggins realized his perspective was off and what he saw was a barge equipped with a rotating wheel that cleared aquatic growth from the lake. Warden Biggins got that awkward feeling that follows the disorientation that comes when you see things one way and then are faced with a new reality. He sensed he was about to be indicted for something and wanted to steer the conversation back to Maurice, but it was too late.
Warden Biggie Biggins: “I have to think about all you’ve said, but I think I’m beginning to understand…”
Jamal interrupted: “Maybe, but I doubt it. You’re part of a massive effort to extend the legacy of slavery by way of the criminal justice system. Did you know that it only took five years after the Civil War for the percentage of African-Americans in our prisons to go from near zero to 33 percent? Now white people are taxing themselves in order to spend billions to expand prisons to increase the number of incarcerated Blacks to almost 40 percent of the total national prison population, close to 60 percent in Michigan, and even higher in some other states. And you are an instrument of that policy…a policy I think is designed to undo the thirteenth amendment.”
Warden Biggie Biggins: “Whoa! I’m just trying to understand what happened between Maurice and Roxie. The way I see it, nobody won. Maurice didn’t, Roxie sure as hell didn’t, and in the long run the male officers, mostly white males, didn’t either.”
Jamal: “Oh. How’s that about the male guards?”
Warden Biggins: “There will be more women in corrections because the male officers can’t stop the hiring. So, the males lost too.”
Jamal: “They may not keep women out of guard jobs, but they set the rules on how things will work. Roxie was an example to all new female guards on what will happen if the women don’t do as they’re told. No, I disagree. I think the male guards have won. But the male guards aside, have you spoken with other women in Department of Corrections, those in administrative positions?”
Warden Biggins nodded he had, and told Jamal they all expressed regret at what happened to Roxie and…
Jamal: “And let me guess, they see an opportunity to turn this into a cause, something that will increase their safety and job opportunities and the opportunities for all women.”
Warden Biggins: “That’s true. Sexual harassment training has been beefed-up. An elaborate procedure to investigate sexual harassment complaints is now in place. More female officers are being hired. The department even has an annual Roxie McFadden award that is given to an outstanding female rookie officer.”
Jamal: “That’s right. And that’s what they should do. But don’t you see, what we have here are two people from the bottom of society — a slum Black man, and let’s face it a working poor white woman — thrown into a volatile pit of anger, fear, and despair, and from it comes a cause for one and nothing but the same bullshit for the other.”
There was nowhere else for their conversation to go. Warden Biggie Biggins had asked Jamal about Maurice’s motives and was given an answer that indicted the warden’s career and handed him partial responsibility for what happened to Roxie and Maurice.
Warden Biggie Biggins thanked Jamal for his time and honesty, but said he didn’t expect or like the answer Jamal gave him.
Jamal: “If in the future you think you may get an answer you’re not going to like, then maybe it’s best you don’t ask the fucking question.”
 Prison slang for a rooky guard.
 Prison Blues consist of a blue jacket adorned with a wide orange stripe the full length of each sleeve, and blue pants also equipped with an orange strip the length of each pant leg.
 Rollo May, Power and Innocence: The Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972.
 Amos N. Wilson, Black –on-Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-Annihilation in the Service of White Domination. (New York: Afrikan World Infosystems, 1990), p. XIX.