The Death and Rape of a Michigan Corrections Officer — Part 2

Based on A True Story in Seven Parts

Note: Each part will first be separately published, followed by the entire story published as a single piece.

Part Two


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.”

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Joseph Abramajtys

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