What happens when the balance of power in a prison is turned upside down? Warning: gritty, realistic and disturbing.
The porter’s mop hissed as it glided across the linoleum floor and slapped against the cellblock’s moldings. His muscles flexed with each push and pull working in concert with the constant swish, swish. The methodic rhythm interrupted the early Sunday morning quiet. A prisoner rolled over on his bunk. A toilet flushed. Officer Sherwood took a routine count. Her rubber-soled shoes squeaked as she made her way down the gallery.
When Sherwood approached cell 103, the door swung open. Suddenly, a hand thrust out, grabbed her arm and yanked her through the opening. The officer’s count board crashed to the floor. The cell door banged shut. A thundering noise rumbled through the second tier of the prison block.
“He’s got her,” the porter yelled. “Baker’s got Officer Sherwood in his cell.”
Jill Sherwood raised her head and stared into the angry eyes of a prisoner, Paul Baker.
Baker twisted Jill’s right arm as he pointed a piece of pipe at her face and laughed. He used her arm as a lever to throw Jill onto his bunk.
Sprawled across the cement bed, Jill watched, paralyzed, as Baker piled the mattress against the door and quickly tied one end of a sheet to the door handle. The other end had already been secured to what was left of the radiator, preventing the door from swinging open onto the cell block’s walkway. Baker created a formidable barricade with his meager cell furnishings.
Baker turned to Jill. “You don’t move unless I tell you. And you don’t talk to nobody but me . . . or I’ll kill you.” Spit flew from his mouth.
Jill pulled herself up and rested her back against the soiled gray cell wall, clammy from the summer’s humidity. Her mouth formed silent words when Baker gripped a fistful of her hair, and pulled her head toward him. “Did ya hear me?” he screamed. He tugged her hair again. “Answer me when I talk to you.”
Jill winced and nodded. An involuntary gasp forced its way from deep inside her.
Baker let go of her hair. He threw his head back and laughed. But his laughter abruptly stopped as he jabbed Jill’s ribs with the pipe he’d been holding. “This ain’t personal,” he said. “It’s not between you and me. It’s me and them mothafuckas.” He tilted his head toward the door. “Including your pig husband, the great Lieutenant Billy Sherwood.”
Jill crumpled from the blow. But the pipe didn’t break her skin. The homemade weapon appeared to be from the cell radiator, pieces of which were strewn across the floor. What radiator could withstand Baker’s rage?
“Call the captain for help,” Officer Williams, ordered as he banged at the cell door. “Baker, let her go, man,” he yelled. “Don’t be stupid.” Williams’ body thumped against the cell door in an attempt to dislodge it.
Jill glimpsed the outline of the officer’s head as it jerked back and forth across the narrow door window. What took him so long to get here?
Jill heard the other block officer, Clarence Thompson, shout, “Forget it, Williams. It’s too late. Baker’s got the door tied shut.”
The image of Thompson trying to wrench Williams away from the cell door formed in Jill’s mind. She wanted to shout, Don’t leave me, Williams! Yet Baker’s threat hung in the air. He would kill her if she disobeyed his order not to talk to anyone but him.
Baker’s lips curled back, exposing his teeth like a mad dog. “I ain’t lettin her go. And I ain’t talkin to nobody but The Man. So get The Man here, Williams.”
The Man. Baker meant the prison’s hostage negotiator. Jill had been an officer less than six months at Century State Prison and now she found herself the victim in the second hostage taking. In the first one, Baker also took a woman officer hostage. He played out that scenario just long enough to make everyone feel anxious about his threats. Baker had little to lose. He’d been sentenced to life for murder.
Jill’s entire body trembled. Would she die at Baker’s hand? Jill knew Baker should’ve been transferred from the prison after the first incident. She shouldn’t be facing him like this. How many times would prison officials let Baker have his way? What chance did she have to get out of his cell alive?
Jill slid her body across Baker’s bunk, to try and get as far from him as possible. She held her breath so she didn’t react to the pain in her ribs where the pipe hit. When she reached the corner, she laid her head back and watched Baker.
Without warning Jill’s breathing quickened. She pressed her hand across her mouth to quiet the noise so she didn’t incite Baker. She couldn’t stop the sounds and her body gave into convulsive motions.
Jill consoled herself with thoughts about the last time Baker took a hostage. He let the officer go within an hour and walked calmly from his cell. It was a terrifying hour, but nobody got hurt. Maybe her situation would turn out the same. She could survive an hour.
Jill bolted upright. The impact of the pipe banging against the cinder block wall vibrated through her body like thousands of needle pricks. Baker hadn’t had a weapon the last time.
Baker paced the cell—ten deliberate steps in each direction. Each time he reached Jill he slammed the pipe against the wall just above her head. Each time the piercing sound pulsated through her body. Each time it drove her deeper into a human ball rolled into the farthest corner of the bunk. Vomit rose into her throat. She swallowed it back. Jill clasped her hands behind her head and pulled forward with all the strength she had. But it didn’t shut out the sound of the pipe slamming into the wall. If she buried her face between her thighs, and pressed them against her chest, and pressed her upper arms against her ears, would the tormenting sound of the pipe go away?
Though tucked deep into herself, she couldn’t block out that sound or pretend Baker had disappeared. What if he missed the wall? Think of positive things. You’ll get through. Don’t do anything to provoke him. What did they say in training? If you make it through the first twenty minutes, you probably won’t be killed.
How long had she been in his cell?
Baker walked faster.
All sorts of thoughts rushed through Jill’s mind. She knew when she took the job the inmates at that prison were the most dangerous in the state. And she was told about Baker the first day. He raped and murdered more than one woman. Why hadn’t she listened to her husband and asked for a transfer from that joint?
Jill lifted her head just enough to see Baker raise the pipe over her. It was too late to think about what she should’ve done. Like a turtle, she retracted her head and shuddered. She just didn’t want Baker to kill her.
She could hardly breathe. The cell was too damn hot. But Baker didn’t deserve even those meager surroundings. If the bunk wasn’t cement, he’d tear it up like he did the radiator and use the pieces for weapons.
Williams and Thompson were still at the cell door. They talked in low voices. Williams ordered Thompson to call the shift commander to see what kept the negotiator. But Thompson didn’t leave. Instead he whined, “We’re in big fuckin trouble. She’s a rookie and the only woman on duty in this block.”
Thompson walked back and forth. “I’m suppose to make the eight a.m. round, Williams, not her.”
The footsteps stopped. Jill wanted to call out, You got that right, Thompson. You’re always supposed to be doing something that I end up doing.
“When Baker grabbed her, she was doing my job, man,” Thompson confessed “What do ya think the warden’s gonna say ’bout that?”
Both stopped talking as the pipe’s thwack resonated. Jill flinched at the sudden interruption fearing the worst. She could almost see the two officers facing each other, heads tilted toward the cell door to hear what might come next. When nothing happened, Williams continued, “That’s not the only thing that’s gonna piss the warden off, Thompson. Nobody noticed that Baker’s cell door was unlocked.”
Williams and Thompson were silent for a few moments. Then Williams spoke again. “But that’s not the problem right now. It’s saving her,” he scolded Thompson. “So hustle your ass and call the shift commander. I’ll stay here until help arrives.”
The cell block became unusually quiet. Water dripped from the faucet and hit the cell’s sink in a perfect cadence- -drip, drip, drip. Then the prisoners started yelling. Their voices sounded like a musical round as they shouted one after the other.
“The Man’s here, Baker.”
“Baker, The Man’s here.”
“Tell ‘em whatcha want—to get outta this mothafuckin hole.”
“Hey Baker, take me with ya.”
Jill peeked through the narrow cell door window directly across from her. Tony Dodge’s blank face filled the window as he stared into the cell. The Man. The negotiator. His eyes darted from one corner of the room to another. He appeared to be sizing up the situation. Although he was one of the prison psychiatrists, Jill had little respect for him. In the past he seemed to spend more of his time boasting about the books he’d published than with the prisoners on his caseload.
“It took you long enough to get here,” Williams chided.
But Dodge wasn’t the type to throw on last night’s clothes even in an emergency—he must be ready, look good, in case he might be interviewed for the evening news.
Nevertheless, his arrival calmed Jill. She reminded herself he did negotiate the three previous hostage situations, including the last one with Baker. All of them were brought to successful conclusions though a couple of officers suffered minor injuries.
The last time Baker took a hostage it was also on a Sunday when there were fewer officers and administrators on duty. For the past several months, he’d been quiet. No trouble. His compliant behavior convinced everyone he’d changed and just wanted to do his time. So the officers became too lax, too trusting, and stupid.
Jill also reminded herself that if she got out of the cell alive, she’d never do Thompson’s or anyone else’s job. She’d never cover their asses again.
The cell block quieted once more and Baker stopped pacing. Yet the sound of the pipe slamming against the wall still echoed in Jill’s aching head.
The prisoners on the block stopped their taunting, no doubt to eavesdrop on Dodge. He spoke to someone out of Jill’s range of vision. “Baker appears more agitated this time,” he reported. “And unlike the last time, he has a weapon.”
Jill imagined Dodge pushing his fingers through his raven hair as he talked. What did he mean Baker was more agitated? Her body felt stiff from sitting on the hard, damp cement surface. Yet her spine felt as though it was massaged by a hundred fingers made of ice. Agitated, agitated, agitated, repeated over and over in her head. Her heart beat so hard she saw her chest move with its rhythm.
Suddenly Jill remembered something else from training. Never use the same negotiator if the hostage taker was the same or if they knew each other, because the hostage taker would know what to expect. He’d have the advantage.
The sound from Jill’s hammering heart pounded its way into her head and roared into her ears. She clutched her knees to her chest, tighter than she had earlier. She lowered her head onto her knees and rocked. This can’t be happening.
The other prisoners on the block resumed their taunts.
“Hey Dodge. Think you’re gonna save that honky’s ass?”
“Baker, get us all outta here with you.”
“Big man Dodge. Let’s see ya open the door.”
The sound of their voices reverberated down the block into a deafening explosion of words making it difficult for Dodge to talk with Baker. Usually the prisoners were removed from the area during a hostage incident. But not this time. There was no way that group of killers and rapists could be herded from their cells without a lot of problems. Maybe even a riot. The time was right for a riot. They were all hyped up.
Opportunity. That’s what it was all about. Prisoners are opportunists. They look for the right time to make their moves. Was Baker waiting for Jill to walk by his cell that morning? He’d had a fight with her husband earlier that week when he searched Baker’s area. Was she the pay back?
Jill chastised herself for taking Thompson’s count for him. He’d been a lazy bastard from the start. As a fish—a new officer, and a woman trying to prove she could do the job, Jill did more than her share. Yet what would that prove if Baker killed her?
Jill lifted her head heavy with sweat. She breathed in the thick summer air pushing through the window hinged slightly open. Baker paced the cell again, taking long measured strides as he twisted the pipe in his hand. When he reached the door window he shouted at Dodge, “Hey man, whatcha got for me this time? A ride out of this joint to the Feds like I asked the last time? You can do it. You’re my friend ain’t ya, Dodge?”
WHACK! Baker slammed the pipe against the cell door.
Jill pressed her fingers into her temples and rubbed. She sneaked a look at her watch. The second hour had begun. She was no closer to getting out.
Jill noticed her wet clothes. Or perhaps just her pants. When had it happened? Did Baker know about her wet pants?
Baker came at Jill, slamming the pipe into the palm of his hand. He was right. They should’ve transferred him after the last hostage thing—like they were supposed to.
Funny, Jill hadn’t noticed before that moment that Baker had no shirt on. A patchwork of scars covered his chest. Most of them looked like knife wounds. The milky scar tissue glowed in what little sunlight squeezed between the bars covering the gritty outside cell window.
Baker leaned his glistening, muscular body toward Jill. He pointed the pipe at her head. Jill recoiled. She thought he would hit her for sure that time. Instead he asked in a deep controlled voice, “Whatcha rubbing your head for? Want some aspirin?”
Jill nodded as her mouth formed the soundless word yes.
Baker walked to the cell door window and negotiated with Dodge. They agreed that Baker would give up some of the radiator parts in exchange for aspirins. It seemed to make no difference that the aspirins would go to Jill. Dodge unlocked the cell door slot where officers usually delivered Baker’s food tray. The grating sound of the metal door slot opening echoed down the block. Jill placed her hands over her ear to cutoff the jarring noise which she had never noticed before.
The officers would give no food to Baker that day.
Dodge and Baker exchanged items.
After the exchange Dodge watched Baker give the aspirins and a paper cup filled with water to Jill. When she finished, Baker took the cup and nabbed a few squares of toilet paper from a roll sitting on the floor next to the stainless steel toilet. He turned back to Jill and wiped the tears from her face.
“It’s them.” He gestured with his thumb at the door. “But ya gotta be my bargaining chip for a little while longer. OK?”
Jill closed her eyes and nodded. Still she could see Baker’s wicked glare.
When Baker wiped away her tears again, Jill opened her eyes. She studied Baker. She believed the deep creases she’d seen earlier in his face had melted away. Could Baker really care about what happened to her? Or could it be just another game so Baker got what he wanted?
Jill didn’t care. She only wanted to live.
Jill rested her hands on her chest hoping that gesture would stop her pounding heart. Her eyes followed Baker as he trod across the cell. His scars gleamed. Perhaps what had been said about Baker wasn’t true. Perhaps he’d been a victim himself. He was just twenty years old, a kid only a few years younger than Jill. Yet his face often looked like an old man’s, especially when he became anxious. His rage nurtured the hate that flooded his mind and etched the meanness on his face. Jill shared a cell with that Baker.
Dodge’s face, still framed by the cell door window, appeared less tense, almost victorious, since Baker gave him parts of the radiator. Hope filled Jill. Maybe it would end peacefully. She shook her head. Baker seemed determined. When Baker reached Dodge he stared him down with eyes filled with contempt and superiority. Dodge shuffled his feet and shifted his head away from the window. He no longer looked pleased with himself.
Jill had to force her eyes to remain open. She couldn’t let the exhaustion overcome her. She had to stay alert. But it was so damn hot. How did the prisoners stand that heat all day? No wonder they walked around in their undershorts. No wonder their tempers flared. The heat can do that to anyone. Jill had to ignore all that. She had to be vigilant.
A light breeze forced its way into the cell between the bars covering the outside window just above the bunk. The window’s hinged six-inch opening allowed in needed air, and didn’t pose a security problem. Or so the officers had been told. Jill scooted closer to the vent to gain full benefit from the cool breeze. It helped settle her nausea.
Almost the entire prison came in view from the window, though its dirty coating distorted the scene. Jill imagined what it would be like as a segregated prisoner like Baker. He no doubt spent endless hours staring through the unforgiving bars. He had no identity, no other choices.
Jill halted her reverie when she heard Baker at the door, mumbling something to Dodge. She ignored the conversation and gazed at the identical two-story brick-buildings that surrounded a college-like quad. It all seemed out of place. Her mind wandered back to her thoughts about being a prisoner. She’d keep a constant and envious vigil over the animated prison compound: officers scurried along the flower-lined sidewalk; general population inmates went to work, chow hall or sick call; nurses headed to the segregation cell blocks to distribute medicine and listen to prisoners complain; teachers rushed to get to classes on time; psychologists, carrying an armload of files, raced to counseling sessions. As a prisoner, the only other world Jill would know came through the narrow window in the cell door as she strained to see who walked the block.
Baker’s voice increased to a shout which drew Jill’s attention to him. “You’re an asshole, Dodge,” he screamed. “I can’t let you have this.” He waved the pipe above his head. “Unless you can give me a ride outta here, you understand?”
Any hope Jill had felt earlier had been erased. She decided her own imagination would be her only salvation. So she turned back to the window. Jill watched the continuous rounds of officers patrolling the yard. She heard the steady chatter from their hand-held radios. Could the conversation be about her locked in Baker’s cell? She couldn’t make out any words. Instead, Baker’s booming voice came at her like a challenge. “Where’s your big-shot husband now?”
Jill wondered too. She imagined him pacing the prison’s waiting room or harassing the warden for answers. Jill’s eyes followed the twelve-foot electrified double chain link fence topped with razor ribbon as though she searched for her husband. Instead she saw an officer in the gun tower across the quad. The stern-looking watchman kept an automatic rifle at his fingertips. On normal days he waited to break up a yard fight or stopped an escaping prisoner from scaling the fence. On normal days he raised binoculars to his eyes and surveyed the grounds. On normal days, he often looked disappointed when he couldn’t fire off a round.
On normal days.
The leaves on the trees that bordered the prison shivered against a radiant, blue sky. Though a comforting vista the officers’ tactical movements on the compound aroused thoughts of looming danger. Jill then considered the flowers along the sidewalks. They seemed silly, twisted and colorless to her at that moment. Did the tower officer ever notice the flowers and question them?
Hour number three had come and gone. Baker paced like a caged circus lion. Cage. Cell. No difference. The walls seemed to press in on Jill, crowding out the air. Though prisoners called a cell their house, the only living things that could be at home in them were the cockroaches and the occasional transient rat. Who could survive in such a dungeon? Who could remain gentle, forgiving? The system made Baker an animal.
Baker left the door window. He talked to Jill as he walked back and forth, back and forth. “You know, the last time I took a hostage I tried to get outta here for protection. The officers here like to play with me. Abuse me.”
He stopped and stared at Jill. His eyes accused her. “They mess with my time outta my house and do things like trip me so I fall.”
Baker stabbed the pipe into the air punctuating each phrase. “And sometimes they just beat me for kicks.” Stab, stab.
He walked again, faster, faster. “But nobody hears what I’m sayin.” Stab. “I’m always the bad guy.” Stab.
Baker suddenly stopped in the center of the cell and cocked his head like a dog. He listened to the other prisoners’ warnings. The lines in his face deepened with each alarming prediction forecasted by his block mates.
“Baker. The SWAT Team’s here.”
Baker’s eyes widened. He looked like a wild animal caught in a trap as the quick footsteps of heavy boots progressed down the gallery walk.
“They’re comin’ to get ya, Baker.”
Baker rubbed his head in a frenzied motion. Drool seeped from the corner of his mouth.
“Your ass is cooked this time, Baker. Game’s up.”
Baker bashed the pipe against the cell door. His hand quaked from the vibration. “Dodge!” he shouted. “I don’t want no cops in here. Just you. Keep them outta here, and I’ll come out at noon.”
Dodge didn’t answer.
“Dodge! D’ ya hear me?”
What seemed like several minutes ticked before Dodge responded. “Okay, Baker,” he conceded. “You have twenty minutes . . . ’til noon. But after that, it’s out of my hands. The SWAT Team will take over.”
Baker turned toward Jill. The angry lines in his face diminished, even though nothing had really been promised. Jill wanted to believe it was a good sign. Maybe Baker had tired of the game. Or maybe he feared the SWAT Team would come in and he’d get hurt or even killed. Maybe he thought the game had gone too far that time.
Suddenly Baker’s mouth formed an unbalanced smile. His eyes turned to ice. He moved like a robot as he covered the cell door window with a blanket.
Jill couldn’t see Tony Dodge anymore.
And no one could see her.
Baker broke his promise. They all broke their promises.
Jill rummaged through her training. If she made it beyond the first twenty minutes – – I’ll be all right, I’ll be all right, I’ll be all right. The mantra kept rhythm with her increased heart beat.
Baker circled his large sweaty hands around Jill’s ankles. He pulled her so that her back flattened against the cement bunk. He pressed the pipe against her chest using his left hand, while he ripped her slacks and panties off with his other hand.
Jill couldn’t breathe. You don’t have to do this Baker.
I’m on your side.
I can help you.
I’m not one of them.
Though the words formed in Jill’s head, her pleas went soundless. Only gasps forced their way out as Baker’s body bumped heavily into her, smashing Jill into the hard bed.
Baker’s eyes never looked away from Jill.
Tears stung Jill’s cheeks as they flowed down to the bunk. She turned her head so she didn’t see Baker’s bloodthirsty stare. Her tears formed small dark circles on the cement. She wondered if Baker planned to kill her.
Baker’s heaviness pushed into Jill in one final moment of conquest. Then he lifted his body off hers. He put the pipe down on the floor and pulled up his white prison issued undershorts. He walked to the cell door. He methodically moved the mattress and untied the sheets. He opened the door and sauntered out of the cell onto the block at exactly noon.
State Police officers in impeccable blue fatigue-like uniforms surrounded Baker. They cuffed his hands behind him. One officer stood to each side and each clenched one of Baker’s arms. A third officer stepped behind Baker as the three led him away to the unacknowledged cheers of his block mates.
Jill prayed that it all had been a bad dream. But when she pulled herself up, the pain that shot down her back into her groin told her otherwise. She leaned against the dank wall. Her thighs seemed glued together from the poison that had spewed from Baker. She stared at her underpants and uniform slacks heaped on the floor. How could that tainted pile have ever held any authority?
Alone in the cell. No one—not Dodge, not Thompson, not Williams—peered through the open door. It was as though Jill didn’t exist.
Then, from the other end of the block, a male voice commanded, “Someone get the hostage and debrief her.”
Jill snatched one of the sheets from the floor, wrapped it around her, and waited.
Tekla Dennison Miller is a former Michigan warden of a men’s maximum security and a women’s multi level prisons. She is also the author of two novels: Life Sentences and Inevitable Sentences and two memoirs: The Warden Wore Pink and A Bowl of Cherries. She is a national speaker on criminal justice and women’s issues.
Tekla, this is a very powerful story. Well done.