“I really don’t think we should be in here,” I said, hoping for someone in authority to agree with me.
“What?” Officer Medet replied, a mixture of confusion and fear as evident on his face as the huge swath of scar tissue that covered his neck and cheek. The marks were the results of him being badly burned as a child. As I watched him starring wide-eyed and impotent with fear at the smoke filled corridor I could only guess at what horrors his paralyzed mind was conjuring. Unfortunately I couldn’t afford the luxury of being sensitive to his psychological peculiarities. I felt sure that if I didn’t do something soon everyone in the building would die.
It was a brisk winter morning. The sun shone brightly in the cloudless sky, plumes of vapor evacuated my body with each exhalation as I walked to work. My closest company was over one hundred yards behind me and the stillness of the morn hadn’t yet been shadowed by the bustle of man bristling against their confinement. There was beauty, solitude, peace, contentment. None of them lasted for long.
Upon entering the building my eyes immediately registered how dim it was, but I had just been reveling in the sunshine glowing against my closed eyelids and assumed that I only needed a moment to allow my peepers to adjust. I went about my usual routine. I entered the office, said good morning to my supervisors, gathered my box of supplies, then went back into the hallway. There was no smoke in the office area, but in the minute and a half that I had been in there a definite and undeniable haze had developed in the hallway. The corridor was long—about seventy yards—but every other day I’d been in the building I could see the entire length of it with zero difficulty. On this day I couldn’t see beyond twenty feet in front of me.
My coworkers and some of the regular visitors to the law library were all going through the motions like it was business as usual. There were a few grumbles of complaint, but none of the alarm I was beginning to feel was evident in any of them. It seemed like no one wanted to upset the usual balance of another day of predictability.
I could now clearly smell the encroaching fog for what it was. Smoke, the result of something somewhere burning. My eyes itched, nostrils burned, and throat echoed with a scratchy distress of its own. Correctional Officer Medet was the only authority figure present but wasn’t projecting any kind of authority. He kept looking around for assistance and direction, but the other officer that was usually posted to the building with him hadn’t yet arrived. Each new arrival asked about the obvious smoke situation and was reassured by CO Medet in a shaky and unsure voice that everything was fine. It wasn’t.
Finally the second officer walked in. He was an hour later than he should have been. He looked tired, confused, and possibly severely hungover. Not an uncommon occurrence. The two officers conferred with one another out of my earshot for a while until I could hold my tongue no longer. I expressed my opinion that we shouldn’t be in the building. From Medet I received mixed up terrified confusion. His coworker was nothing but a useless blank stare.
Rules in prison are made to be enforced, no matter how idiotic or asinine they may be. Once I’d signed out in my housing unit and entered my work building I wasn’t allowed to just leave again, not without permission. Even if the building was so obviously on fire. Even if I could be considered to be in the right, I’d still be wrong and face the consequences. After a dozen years of being programmed to follow the rules and toe the line (sometimes literally) it was no small feat to rebel. “I’m leaving, Medet. I’m not staying. You can’t make me stay. This building is on fire.” CO Medet and I had seen and interacted with each other five days a week for over a year. We had built an easy rapport and mutual respect. He only stared at me in disbelief. The other officer hadn’t been working in the building long and I didn’t know him well. He only scoffed at me with a noise of disdain pushed past his lips and a look which let me know that he had less regard for me than he had for the leftover smudge of viscera stuck to the bottom of his boot after having squished a bug. There would be no voluntary help from him, but I could force him. I pulled rank on him.
“Well call the lieutenant then. Maybe he can see the smoke. He can call the emergency code himself.” The other officer looked around, blinking like he had only just woken up, and as if he was seeing the cloud of smoke for the first time.
“Yeah,” he declared, “I guess it is kind of smoky in here. Yeah, uh, go ahead and call the code Medet.”
“What?”Medet asked. “But you just told me . . .”
“No, forget that. Call the code.” He finally put some power in his voice and straightened his back to better project a sense of being in charge. Medet obeyed.
Four lieutenants, a major, two wardens, and a dozen officers descended on the building in droves. Some arrived on fleet feet, others poured from vehicles that came screeching to a halt outside the entrance. Everyone was evacuated and made to stand in a line fifty feet back from the building. We endured the cold while even more staff members showed up to help. They each adopted the task of counting us to be sure no one was left behind. So many COs walking up and down the line of inmates, I lost track of how many times we were counted. Eventually we were allowed to go back to our various housing units and had the rest of the day off.
It turned out to be an electrical fire in the ceiling. Wires had been smoldering and producing a copious amount of smoke which was then sent through the ventilation system. This made it appear worse than the situation actually was. Still, given enough time, the heat could’ve found a better avenue to conduct its destructive capabilities and sent the whole building up in flames. Officer Medet was commended by the Warden for his quick thinking and decisive actions which controlled a dangerous and potentially deadly set of circumstances.