25 October 2007

Cell Extraction

A phone call this afternoon sent me out of my office and across the campus to the Intensive Management Unit. It was serious, the Custody Unit Supervisor said. They had a man in the holding cell who was giving them problems.

Usually problems in the IMU are handled by the Special Emergency Response Team, SERT. They have uniforms that resemble Darth Vader and special tools that blink and shriek and put the plastics business to shame. All suited up, the SERT guys look ferocious. Big black boots, batons, helmets, plastic shields that light up and give a trouble-maker a jolt he won’t forget: you don’t want to SEE them coming, much less hear them. When they’re marching in step, they are intimidating, which is precisely the point. If intimidation doesn’t work, there’s a special spray they use that burns the eyes and the lungs. Although they have to be ready for some rough and tumble, often times the troublemaker will just back down at the sound of them coming down the hall.

The group practices often and some of their moves are art in motion. One move used regularly, especially in the Intensive Management Unit, is designed to move an inmate from his cell when he doesn’t want to go. He may flood his cell or block the window so he can’t be seen. He might yell and scream or throw feces and urine on anyone trying to get into his cell. That explains all the uniform and tools that SERT puts to use: they’re trying to stay safe and use the least force possible. Cell extractions are tough, no guarantees when the action starts that the offender will comply with directions or decide to act out.

So why call in the chaplain? The Unit Supervisor was certain that I was the person they needed today for this special bit of trouble. It was an extraction, he told me. I went, armed with a ballpoint pen and a plastic baggie. Within three minutes, I had the item in hand—well, in baggie—and was on my way.

The offender was polite and soft-spoken as he stood in his white jumpsuit in the holding cell. Two officers were at my back as we talked. I explained that he could keep the medicine bag while he was here, but the tooth that was beaded on to it was going to have to come off. He handed me the medicine bag, a work of beaded art, and I went in search of something sharp. Scissors are hard to come by in prison. A letter opener finally did the trick. I gave him the medicine bag and a receipt. He gave me his sister’s address so I can mail the coyote’s tooth to her.

“Did he give you a hard time?” the supervisor asked.

“No. Did he hassle you?”

“All kinds of trouble. We couldn’t mess with his medicine bag or the spirits would haunt him or his head would spin or something.”

“He gave it to me right away. No trouble.”

The supervisor shook his head. “Figures.”

So there. I’ve done my first cell extraction—or tooth extraction. A lot of my work is like pulling teeth. Today, it really was.

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