This is the final installment of Scenario Number Nine
Part 8 0f 8
A 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 8 of 8
“What surprises me,” Warden Biggie Biggins says to prisoner Alvin-X the next day back at the prison, “is the prisoners’ compliance. Nobody panicked. Nobody hit the fence.”
Warden Biggie Biggins doubts they could have prevented a mass break-out. Not sure staff would have fired on hundreds of people trying to get to safety. Staff could just as naturally succumb to induced panic and ran. Who would blame them?
Warden Biggie Biggins visualizes the gates frozen shut; he imagines one organism forming: hundreds of trapped staff and prisoners crashing over the fences, razor ribbon cutting deep, blood, gas, gasping, wrenching; the organism bursts and people use the entangled bodies of others . . . cellmates, co-workers… to crawl and walk and run across the fences.
But Alvin-X is still a prisoner and Warden Biggie Biggins just says he’s surprised at the level of cooperation they got from convicts.
It’s several months after the gas incident — all those fears and thoughts have been nicely packaged into what’s called an incident report and sent to central office. The warden and Alvin-X are in the prison library, where Warden Biggie Biggins normally meets with prisoners, where staff and prisoners usually see them, and where other prisoners will hear their conversation, as will the library staff and the assigned officer.
“It’s simple,” Alvin-X says. “As long as the staff remained, we stayed.”
“Tell me, was it like a school of fish, you know, a herd of some sort? Or was it a thoughtful group decision?”
“What are you talking about? You run this place. You have all the guns.”
If only he knew how lost Warden Biggie Biggins had been.
“What do you think was the level of realization? I mean did everybody know what was really going on?”
Alvin-X says nothing. His tan t-shirt molded the contours of his upper torso like leather body armor. He works out. He leans toward Warden Biggie Biggins and lowers his voice and says, “I think many of them didn’t know what the fuck to think.”
How could that be? Prisoners have television, they have radio. They’re not stupid.
Anticipating what Warden Biggie Biggins is going to ask, Alvin-X adds, “No disrespect, you know I respect you Warden, but sometimes I believe you don’t know what this place is about.”
The warden utters a short huffing laugh and says, “Excuse me?”
Alvin-X waits a beat and says, “These are two different worlds. What goes on out there goes on out there. Its surreal. What was on the TV was not about our world in here.”
“But . . .”
“You come from home, and you come in here, and you go back home.”
This conversation wasn’t going where Warden Biggie Biggins wanted.
“But you get visits and phone calls and mail and…”
“And it’s all mediated. You control it all.”
“Sure, but it also does something else. These processes, they proclaim Know this: you are now leaving that world and entering this world. Anyway, what happens out there doesn’t always translate the same in here.”
“Oh, come on. Sometimes it does. I’ve seen free-world news spread through here like it’s a barber shop.”
Alvin-X laughs, leans back and says, “News, maybe. But not actions. Not actual events. With those we’re just spectators until something triggers our own action. Staff stayed so no trigger.”
And that’s when Warden Biggie Biggins saw his chance to swing it back to why the prisoners cooperated.
“And if old and weak prisoners got sick or died? Then what?”
Alvin-X scratches the back of his neck and shrugs, “On both sides. It would have been on both sides.”
“What both sides?”
“We have some old and ill prisoners, but you have some old outa shape cops.”
His words hit Warden Biggie Biggins. He hadn’t thought about those particular officers. The thought that some might be asthmatic, and that some are indeed old, never entered his mind.
Alvin-X adds, “It could have gone either way. I’ve seen prisoners riot when they think one of their own has been mistreated. I’ve also seen — actually felt it myself — a sort of diminished fear of death when there’s been a killing or a death. You know, a dismissive feeling of “OK, that’s taken care of, now I’m safe for a while”, like your ticket’s not punched yet. In this case both sides were willing to give something up to get that feeling. Sacrifices have to be made.”
Alvin-X starts to stand; he’s been locking long enough to now sense an impending lock and count as if it were a meal time.
“You want I should stay and talk or lock and count?” Alvin-X says.
“Wait for the yard count tone and go lock,” Warden Biggie Biggins says.
Alvin-X turns to leave but stops and says, “Tell me something Warden, what has Central Office done with your report?”
This didn’t surprise Warden Biggins because he thinks about it all the time. He hadn’t heard a single word from Central Office. Nothing. Warden Biggins had called Randell and suggested the director might want to put a work group together to review what happened. Randell said that was a good idea. Still nothing. Not a single acknowledgement of what had taken place: no meetings, no mandatory incident review committees, no quarterly Wardens’ meeting agenda item, no policy revision meetings, no mention even in the Department’s monthly newsletter.
“It’s still a bit early,” Warden Biggins says, putting Alvin-X off as well as beating back the realization that what he had here is a case of deep Central Office institutional denial.
Or they’re embarrassed about something. But what?
At the yard count tone prisoners casually return to their housing units for lock-down and count.
“Let me make a prediction Warden,” Alvin says. “I predict nothing will happen. Nothing will change. They don’t care.”