Friday, October 28, 2005

The Siren's Wail

There are four flights of stairs, a total of sixty-six steps, from the street to the front gate of Probity State Penitentiary. The first flight is under an archway at the base of Alpha Wall Stand, or guard tower. The next two flights lead to a level area about twenty feet above the ground. On one side is the last flight of steps leading to the front gate. In the direction back toward the street is a thirty gallon barrel leaning at a forty-five degree angle and a catwalk leading to Alpha Wall Stand. The barrel is filled with sand and is where visiting law enforcement unloads their weapons before storing them in Alpha Wall Stand for safe keeping. There are no firearms allowed past the front gate.

Alpha Stand has an unobstructed view of the front of the penitentiary. The back side of Alpha Stand sports a view of the river that this penitentiary borders. During the summer months, Alpha Stand officers have been known to use their binoculars to view eye candy sunning themselves on boats on the river. Hopefully, the officer will spend the majority of their time watching the front of the institution, because that is the primary responsibility of the Alpha Stand officer. In addition to watching for escapes, the Alpha Stand officer is also to keep track of all visitors, minimum security inmates and staff in their vicinity.

On the Wall Stand is the standard complement of weapons on all Wall Stands: shotgun, .38 pistol, and semi-automatic rifle. In addition, all the weapons used by transportation officers are stored in Alpha Wall Stand and are issued and logged out to the appropriate officers when needed. All weapons and ammunition is counted every shift with any discrepancies noted in the logbook, and the shift captain notified.

Also on Alpha Stand are three buttons, rather, two buttons and a switch. The two buttons control the inner and outer door to the armory, located directly below the floor of the Stand. The armory houses a wide array of weapons which would be issued to personnel in the event of an escape and an abundant supply of gas grenades for riot situations.

The remaining switch causes the most problems. It appears to be a normal light switch mounted on the wall, but it’s not. A small sign above it declares its function: Escape Alarm. The escape siren is designed to be heard in the surrounding communities to warn them when an inmate or inmates have escaped; “Katie bar the door”, in other words. The last escape from Probity State Penitentiary was a few years before I began my correctional career so I’ve never heard it sounded in earnest. I have, however, heard it on many occasions. New officers, known as “fish guards” are always the culprits. There are two reasons. First, out of curiosity or possibly boredom, a new officer feels compelled to throw that switch “just to see what it would do.” It will make your ears bleed is what it will do, along with bringing a lot of much unwanted attention and mounds of paperwork. The other reason a new officer will sound the alarm is because they are the brunt of a practical joke. It usually goes something like this…

*phone rings*

“Alpha Wall Stand, Officer Bluegill speaking.”

“Um, yes, Officer Bluegill this is Lt. Jokester. It’s now 11:45 and I haven’t heard you test the escape alarm yet. Is there any reason for that?”

“Uh…I didn’t know I was supposed to.”

“Have you ever worked that post before?”

“No, sir.”

“Didn’t you OJT on that post?”

“Yes, but I don’t remem…”

“Haven’t you read your post orders?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“Get with it Bluegill or I’ll have to put this in your file.”

“Yes, sir.”

This is where the smart or wary officer will quickly review their post orders to find that they are not supposed to test the alarm. The naïve and trusting ones, eager to please, flip the switch. It doesn’t happen very often now. A couple of years ago, a computerized phone system was installed. Every call’s origin and destination is logged and recorded. The first “Lt. Jokester” to try the con after the new phone system was caught and given five days off without pay. As far as I know, it has not been tried since. That was why I was so surprised to hear the siren go off yesterday morning, about 7:30. I was Yard Lieutenant and was sent to Alpha Wall Stand to ascertain the cause of the foul up and to “counsel” the new officer.

When I arrived, the young officer apologized, but said he was just doing what the sign said. That was when I looked above the switch and saw the memo attached to the wall. Done with the penitentiary header, complete with a reasonable facsimile of the Warden’s signature, was a memo that stated in bold letters: “Test Once Per Shift.” The Officer who worked the stand on midnight shift is in deep s**t.