So, You Want a Race Riot, Huh?

Warden Biggie Biggins called a meeting of his shift commanders.

Tensions were high. Snitches were singing like the proverbial fat lady. Rumors of race riot ran rampant through the joint.

Staff were getting lots of intelligence, but nothing that identified ring leaders.

Staff noticed a drop in prisoners coming to the chow hall, a signal that many were remaining locked-up to avoid trouble. Sales of prisoner commissary junk food were increasing rapidly. Sympathetic convicts were telling some staff they may want to stay home next day. Some old-timers ignored their beloved vegetable gardens.

Western Correctional Facility was a modern design with only two perimeter guard towers: one to cover and operate the sally-port gates, and another to cover the exercise yard. That left much of the prison’s nooks and crannies between buildings without direct surveillance.

The warden gave the order to station snipers on strategic building rooftops; each sniper would be accompanied by a supervisor empowered to order a shot, and were directed to remain highly visible. Warden Biggins then went inside the yard to observe prisoner count and subsequent movement to the chow hall, but decided to first visit a high security housing unit.

Walking along a row of cells, a prisoner asked to speak to the warden. The prisoner wanted Biggins to restore good time he lost because of misconducts, and wanted to show the warden documents that attested to the prisoner’s recent good conduct. Biggins entered the prisoner’s cell to read the documents and the cell door rumbled shut for count. Both the prisoner and Biggins nervously laughed until the prisoner invited Biggins to make himself comfortable. The warden knew the prisoner by the mustache that hung morosely from the sides of his nose. Impressed by the positive work and school reports, Biggins told the prisoner he would restore his good time. Besides, given the circumstances, this was not a time to piss off more prisoners than necessary.

Per procedure, the unit officer came around taking count and saw the warden locked in a cell with the prisoner. The officer hollered for the cell door to be opened and began apologizing for having locked-up the warden. Biggins assured the officer he hadn’t done anything wrong.

“I wonder how long it will take this incident to burn through the grapevine?” said the warden.

“Are you kidding?” chuckled the officer. “Everyone will know by the time you get back to your office.”

The high security units broke for chow and Biggins walked with the prisoners toward the dining hall. A grumble swelled through moving prisoners like a spasm as they noticed the armed officers on rooftops; some stopped to stare, others increased their pace. One prisoner, whose dental malocclusion was a good argument against consanguineous marriage, approached the warden.

“Warden, those officers with guns are causing me emotional stress.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Biggins replied. “But I know you can deal with it. We can have you seen by a psychologist, so let staff know if you need help. In any case, the guns stay until I say different.”

Prison is a microcosm of our larger society, so prison racial conflict is no surprise. Western Correctional facility reflected the racial breakdown of the department: Black, 60%; White, 35%; and 5% Hispanic and Asian. The most volatile part of any prison is the dining hall, and it’s there that the races segregate themselves the most: Whites at tables on one side, and Blacks on the other. A new department director ordered prisons to integrate their dining halls, which Warden Biggie Biggins thought so fucking stupid that he ignored the order. Funny thing about prison riots; when there is one, it usually ends in the warden being fired or demoted to some useless job, not the director.

Next, the warden walked to the prisoner garden plots where a smaller than normal group white prisoners were tending plants. Prison gardeners were predominantly white guys; thus the name “peckerwood gardens”. They were doing life or very long sentences; guys who knew how to do time, didn’t play games, didn’t want trouble, and knew how to keep trouble makers at bay. Housing staff allowed the gardeners to cook and consume their garden produce; some chose to sell their stuff to other prisoners. Food and money: win-win.

“Not as many out here as usual,” the warden said to Eddie G. who was doing life with the possibility of parole, a convict the warden knew for fifteen years. Looks like we may not harvest as many earthworms to fill the plastic Jailbait® containers we sell to fishermen at the front desk. I guess you guys won’t get as much sales money put in your accounts.”

Eddie G. was on hands and knees weeding tomato plants. He stood up.

“Rumor is there’s supposed to be race trouble,” said Eddie G.

“You worried?”

“Me? Naw. Been there, seen that.”

“Should I be worried?” said Biggins.

“You can never ignore anything; you know what I’m saying. But I think it’s a bunch of bullshit. Just young punks mouthing off trying to develop a rep.”

“Nice tomatoes Eddie. You stay safe now.”

“Thanks. You too warden….and warden.”

“Yes?”

“You’ll get your worms.”

Warden Biggie Biggins wandered to the weight pit where he knew he would find Black, white, and brown convicts pumping iron. Weight pit denizens were a dedicated bunch and got pissed whenever the weight pit was closed. Warden Jerry Dells, Biggins’ mentor, once told him to avoid trouble you don’t fuck with a prisoners’ visits, food, or weight pit. True enough, but Warden Biggie Biggins saw other opportunities in that advice.

Prisoners tended to self-segregate in some program areas, but Biggins knew the weight pit to be one area where the races mixed — -neutral territory in an otherwise divide prison. A racial truce since nobody wants his head mashed by a dumbbell wielding a dumbbell.

“You got nerve coming here,” said one muscle-bound mesomorph convict. It wasn’t an overt challenge so much as a gentle territorial testing.

“That so,” said Biggins. “Well, just so happens I own this fucking weight pit.”

The convict laughed and invited the warden to lift.

“Can’t do that,” said Biggins. “But I do lift when I leave work.”

The convict gave Biggins the once-over and said, “I thought so. Come on by if you change your mind. So why you here now?”

“I just want to explain something. If there’s any racial trouble, this pit will be permanently closed.”

That got everyone’s attention and stopped the sound of clanking iron.

“Ain’t gonna be no trouble, warden.”

“It’s always good when people understand each other,” said Biggins. “Just one more thing.”

“What’s that?” Warden.

“I have all the guns.”

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Joseph Abramajtys

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