This is an 8 part 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 1 of 8

Just past midnight Warden Biggie Biggins’ phone rings. It could only be the prisons. Such late-night calls involved a prisoner or staff person being taken to the hospital, an assault, death, or a mechanical failure. The warden no longer guessed the emergency du juer: he thought he’d seen and handled it all. He was wrong.

It is Captain Keri Whelton, Brooks Correctional Facility Shift commander.

“Warden, I’m sorry to bother you at this hour…”

“Keri?”

“Yes Warden. We have a situation I think you need to know about.”

“Mm . . . Uh huh.”

“Warden, Lomac had an accident . . . chemical spill and . . .”

“Who’s Lomac?”

“Lomac is a chemical plant. They had a chemical spill, or some kind of accident, and, and there’s a chlorine gas cloud heading for the prisons.”

“Ah Keri, I’m ah . . . I’m going to hang up now and ah . . . and call you back in a minute or two. OK?”

“Sure . . . I guess.”

“You stay by the phone, OK? I’ll call right back, OK? You said chlorine gas?”

“That’s right.”

The binder with institutional procedures was near the phone, shelved with reference material: dictionary, thesaurus, travel books. Warden Biggins opens the binder to the mobilization procedure: Nothing but a vague reference to natural disasters and evacuation. The warden scans the eight scenarios looking for fits:

Scenario # 1: Seriously Injured Staff or Prisoner .

Maybe. We may end up with injuries, some serious.

Scenario # 2: Attempted Escape.

That’s a real possibility. Panic, Hit the fence. Staff reaction?

Scenario # 3 Escape

That too, but once they’re gone it’s up to local and State Police. Chances are they will be too busy.

Scenario # 4: Severe Weather

It’s an atmospheric attack, but not a treat to property

Scenario # 5 Fire

One thing panicked prisoners like to do is set fires. Will local fire departments respond or are they all at Lomac.

Scenario # 6: Major Mechanical/Security Equipment Failure .

If all control is lost, perhaps.

Scenario # 7: Riot.

A distinct possibility.

Scenario # 8: Hostage Situation.

It’s possible. Desperate people do stupid things.

Warden Biggie Biggins got back on the phone. “Keri, how do you know a gas cloud, chlorine, is on its way to the prisons?”

“It’s on the radio.”

“Radio?”

“Yes sir, and TV.”

“Aw shit,” is what Captain Whelton later told Warden Biggins he said. Then he asked for the name and phone number of our local Michigan State Police post contact.

.

“Hold on . . . let’s see . . . I got it right here . . . yeah, it’s a Sergeant Borst.”

“You got the number handy?”

“Yes, sir it’s…”

In an emergencies time slows; the time in Warden Biggie Biggins’ mind that slows, while time in nature passes faster. Nature’s time is a sequence of separate and simultaneous events that often collide, while his mind’s time is a series of pictures accompanied by an internal dialog. Warden Biggie Biggins sees pictures and talks to himself while shit happens around him.

The Central Office policy calls for evacuation in times of natural or man-made emergency. Evacuation? Are those Central Office folks out of their fucking minds?

Take a shower.

Warden Biggie Biggins remembers his mother in a house dress (blue with pink flowers): she is hanging wash on the clothesline running from the side of the house to the garage. Sheets, white, and his father’s blue work shirts, and his darned work socks. There is a womp and a bang and a silence, and women in house dresses slam screen doors as they exit homes for their small rectangular urban yards. They all turn and look in the same direction, where the smoke is rising. There . . . see it? Over there toward the Niagara River where the chemical plants are, where their husbands work. They watch the smoke until they hear the sirens and return to their homes hoping the phone doesn’t ring.

“Biggie, is everything OK?” his wife Anita asks from their bedroom.

“There’s a problem at the prisons and I have to go in. I’m going to shower.”

“Do you want some coffee?”

“Yeah, that’d be nice.”

Warden Biggie Biggins saw dead trees. The neighborhood he grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, is ringed by chemical plants that periodically explode. Sometimes men died fast, otherwise slowly. One of the plants, is a government facility that manufactured World War I poison gas — chlorine gas. It has no trespassing signs with the US government shield affixed neatly to the surrounding barbed wire topped cyclone fence. It too has ‘accidents’ that leak chlorine gas; not enough to kill people, but enough to usually kill or stunt every tree in his neighborhood.

His childhood neighborhoods’ houses are old, but the trees and shrubs are perpetually adolescent. The unskilled, uneducated men working in the other chemical plants are close enough to the explosions to die or have their lungs crippled. His father works at one of those plants. Warden Biggie Biggins saw the cracks in his boyhood bedroom ceiling and made imaginary animals from the way they intersected and looped around. He lay awake in bed until his father came home from the four-to-twelve shift. Mom fixed dad the same thing every night, a western omelet; he ate it and drank a beer and a shot of cheap rye and coughed himself to sleep. Warden Biggins knew from childhood what chlorine gas can do.

Think of who you want ordered in. Ordered? Fuck no. Have Keri say the Warden is asking that they come in. No need to order staff to die. Will anybody show up?

Warden Biggins loves showers, loves the hot water. The way it drains from his hair across his shoulders. How it makes him steam.

The coffee will be good.

Warden Biggie Biggins calls State Police Sergeant Borst, who asks how the warden is.

Warden Biggins says, “Well Sergeant, I’ve had better nights. How are you?”

“Busy.”

“Yes, I’ll bet. I’m surprised to get you on the first try.”

“So am I.”

They laugh and warden repeats what Captain Whelton said and the sergeant verifies the situation.

“Sergeant, what do you know about chlorine gas? I only ask because I need to know if we’re on the same page on this problem.”

“I understand,” the sergeant says. “I know it’s deadly and you’re in a lot of shit.”

This man is not diplomatic and that’s good because Warden Biggins doesn’t need diplomacy. He tells the warden Lomac is about twelve miles East of the prisons; that the cloud is moving due west at two-plus miles an hour — -“Give or take” is how he puts it — — Warden Biggins looks at his watch. Twelve fifty-five.

“Warden?”

“Yes?”

“I bet this is every Warden’s nightmare.”

It may be a Warden’s nightmare or maybe the nightmare is a couple of thousand prisoners storming the fences. What then? Squads . . . get several armed squads ready to deploy. Maybe the nightmare is staff discipline crumbling. Where will it come from, prisoners or staff? Or will everyone too sick to act. Call Keri.

“Sergeant, have you notified Post Commander Huizenga?”

“Yes sir, I have.”

“Good. When you speak to him again . . . you will be speaking again?”

“Yes sir, frequently.”

“Well, when you speak again, tell him you talked to me and I might have to mobilize the prisons. He’ll know what I mean. Tell him I’ll appreciate the assistance.”

“Assistance may be dicey sir.”

“I know. Just ask him to do whatever he can if I ask for help. He has our emergency procedures.”

The next call is to Captain Whelton to call in the two Deputy Wardens, the Assistant Deputy Wardens, additional shift command staff, and as many corrections officers as she can reach. Warden Biggins tells her not to sound any siren, but to quietly mobilize: bring them in and form armed squads with the officers, have executive staff report to the warden’s conference room, have everybody else muster in the empty visiting room. Follow the mobilization procedure: go through that first intimate hour; tap those stored memories, those things of comfort, those memory anchors of practiced emergencies. Then a call to Randell Deutchman, Regional Administrator, Warden Biggins’ supervisor. He explains the situation and there’s no response. Then Deutchman says, “Shit Biggie, what are we going to do?”

“What do you mean we?” thinks the warden

“I don’t know Randell. Honestly, I don’t know. I mean besides mobilizing. I’ve ordered a mobilization.”

Randell’s quiet and warden asks if he heard him.

He finally says, “You’re mobilizing against a poison gas cloud?”

Warden Biggins knows what he’s thinking. He’s an honest man and a competent administrator, but he’s a Central Office bureaucrat. Sharing the responsibility for ordering hundreds of staff into harms’ way isn’t on his agenda tonight.

“Well, it’s a way to keep everyone calm. It’s concrete, something we know how to do in emergencies. I suppose it’s like turning to the Bible when you don’t know what else to do. Useful, comfortable, that sort of thing.”

“But no procedures cover this.”

“We’ll wing it, just like people do with the Bible.”

“Let me send a bus,” Randell says. A meaningless gesture.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Evacuation is out of the question. Where will we get the busses? Where will we send a couple of thousand prisoners? To the local National Guard armory with the civilian evacuees? Are you kidding?”

Headline: Warden places Sex offenders and other criminals with local residents!

“I got to do something. I can’t just sit here,” says Randell

Well join the rest of us, motherfucker. But bless his heart. It’s not often we have the chance to face total irrelevance.

“I know the feeling. Why not call the Director and the Governor. Let them get ready for the media. I’ll call you back once I get to the prisons and see what we have.”

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