The Death and Rape of a Michigan Corrections Officer — Part 4
Roxie meets Main Prison, her first assignment as a Corrections Officer Trainee.
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.
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.