2. Change of the guard
The moment he stepped into the cell and over the half-naked body of the seemingly unconscious inmate, Gershon felt his stomach tighten. Carla, the warden he was sharing the evening shift with, remained on watch in the door opening, a suspicious look on her face, holding the heavy steel door as if ready to throw it shut when things got out of hand. Carla was a tall woman in her forties. Her face had strong masculine features enveloped in long brown hair which she wore bound together in a tail as regulations required. With her stood Marianne, the nurse from the medical post, with twinkling eyes. Marianne apparently found the scene more amusing than threatening. According to the prison rules the head warden from the upper floor should be present when a cell was opened in the evening, as he was the senior in the building. But because the still jumpy survivors of the cell complex fire were keeping him busy, Michael had allowed Gershon, also a head warden, to go in with the assistance of Carla and the nurse. Their colleagues on the second floor would be listening in over the radiotelephone in case something went wrong. The second occupant of the cell, a chubby Dominican chap of little more than twenty years old, sat on the lower bunk, legs raised so tight that his knees were toughing his chin. He was sweating heavily. Gershon kept all options open, for all he knew this could be a trick and he would have two rebellious inmates all over him. He didn’t know these detainees well enough to trust them as this was not his department he was working at this evening.
“Quál es tu nombre?”, he asked the boy without taking his eyes of the body under him. The Dominican relaxed visibly when he noticed being addressed in his own language and said that Orlando was his name. The language trick had worked again, Gershon concluded with satisfaction and proceeded to ask what the boy had seen. The answer rattled out in the melodious Latin American version of Spanish.
“He has no idea why his cellmate fell,”, Gershon translated for the nurse, “his buddy jumped from the upper bunk to go to the bathroom and fell flat on his face and passed out.”
Gershon maneuvered himself between the bed and the unconscious man, bending over him so as to be able to see his face, but also in order to force him back to the floor with his knee, would the man suddenly move. He wasn’t sure if that would work, though. The detainee on the floor was aged end twenties and had a muscular torso topped by a bull’s neck leading up to a shiny bald marble of a head. Gershon was a lightweight compared to him and hoped that the sporadic hours of defense and repression training that detention center guards were offered would prove sufficient for such a situation. He actually derived more confidence from the Taekwondo martial arts training he had followed years ago. According the prison rules he was of course not allowed to use any of that in the Judicial penitentiary setting. All he was supposed to do was to sound the alarm by pressing the button on the small Personal Security Unit which was attached to his belt and get himself and others to safety. Wardens from other departments would come rushing in to stabilize the situation. That was the theory. Gershon had heard lots of stories of incidents where the PSU had failed to forward the alarm or omitted to add the location of the incident with the alarm. One could always revert to the old method and shout something in the radiotelephone to get help.
Marianne entered the cell at his beckoning and squatted next to the unconscious man. She placed her hands on his shoulders. “ Martinez, hello mister Martinez,“ she called and shook his torso gently to and fro. It surprised Gershon how tenderly, almost intimate, she handled a man that she didn’t know. Personally he had considered poking the body with the pointed part of his shoe. But the Florence Nightingale method had effect. Martinez regained consciousness, looking up, confused and surprised about his position on the floor. They helped him up and back unto the upper bunk.
“So Martinez is not going to pass out again?” Gershon asked, when he closed the cell door ten minutes later. “When you go home there will be no more nurse on the grounds of camp Zeist until morning.”
Marianne looked at him with a searching, teasing smile which he ignored. She was in her thirties and had a friendly freckled face and the blond ponytails of a teenager. Wearing a tight T-shirt with yellow and green flower motives, it made Gershon ponder whether the ladies at the medical post dressed up sexy on purpose for the men that were locked up in this facility.
“Don’t worry, he just didn’t stick to the agreed protocols for his diabetes. That’s what you get. I’ll put him on the agenda for a consultation tomorrow. We’ll have a little talk about his eating pattern. That will stabilize him.”
“Okay, I will put it in my report. Thanks for your help, I know your shift was already over when I called you. Appreciate it that you came.” He held out the ward door for her.
“Not to mention. I could use a little excitement after putting pills in little boxes all evening. Do I see you tomorrow night?”
“No, I’m off for two days.”
“Alright, I’ll see you around than. Bye Gersh.” And off she went.
Back in the command post Gershon dropped in the chair at his terminal and opened the daily report to update it on the incident. Carla was sitting in the other desk chair, arms folded in front of her chest, not very talkative as she had been all evening.
“How do you think it went?” he asked her.
“I’m not going into that cell”, she answered resolutely. “Way to big a risk. And the shift leader from ward E-F should have been present. Koen is there now”, referring to Gershon’s colleague from department A-B where they were.
“Koen is on duty upstairs?” Gershon asked in surprise. Well, I have agreed with shift leader Michel to do it without him present, so that’s no problem. It’s still his responsibility. But I wonder why Koen is not sitting here? Then I could have worked on my own ward.” Since the coming of the Airport group he had seldom worked on the ward where the victims of the airport fire where held. Planning kept asking him to stand in for colleagues in other buildings and at the other wards in this building.
“No idea”, Carla said with an indifferent expression on her face. “I worked there yesterday and the day before with Koen. I thought I would again tonight but turned out they put me here with you instead.”
“How are the men from Schiphol airport? Have they calmed down somewhat?”
“O yeah, normal, just like all the other rejected asylum seekers. They just try to use the fire to get a permanent visa out of it. Just as I would.”
“Well, you should have seen them the first few days. Many of them were really traumatized. Weird types, some of them.” He told her about Happy on the isolation ward. “…the next day Happy got a visitor, the chaplain. The poor man also couldn’t get through to the savage. But he did give him a bible. That night one mattress hadn’t been enough to mute the noise. Happy smote the cell door and walls with the ‘power of the Word’, giving us another night of noise, talking and more noise.”
“I heard about that from the boys at Iso. That prisoner should never have been here, he belongs in a high risk prison. The day after the Bible banging incident he was escorted to the high risk penitentiary facility at Vught where they know how to deal with guys like him. Say, do you mind if I go up to Koen and the boys at E-F ward? I’ll be back before eleven to distribute the medication and do the head-count.”
“Sure, if you like. I’ll be busy finishing the reports anyway.”
At about ten thirty Gershon saw Remon, the young warden who was going to replace him to take over the night-shift, at the end of the B-ward, talking to a detainee through the door hatch. He suspected that Remon had already started the eleven o’clock headcount. He waved at him and returned to the smudgy keyboard to finish his last report. As he typed in the dry words into the daily reporting format, he felt the adrenaline surge he had felt when entering the cell and stepping over the unconscious Caribbean detainee. He completed his report with the words: : The detainee was brought back to consciousness by nurse Marianne and was left in his cell in stable condition. He will be called for a medical consultation in the morning.”
Remon entered the central post without greeting Gershon. He remained at a distance, a surly look on his face, eyes fixed on a point somewhere in the air where Gerson sat.
“He Remon, have you heard about the fire that broke out in building 3 earlier on tonight?” Remon did not respond, which puzzled Gershon.
“It doesn’t seem to move you? How come?” He looked up from the screen and tried to make eye-contact with his colleague. “For the last two weeks the fire at the airport detention center has been headline news. Questions are being asked in parliament about the performance of our fellow detention workers there, security measures at all Justice institutions are being questioned. And then tonight some other detainee sets his cell on fire in what can be considered an exact copy of that cell complex, but now in our own Camp Zeist! Thank God the fire was extinguished almost immediately, but you can take my word for it that management was nervous to the point of total panic. All department heads where called back from home. They were scared as hell that the information would be leaked to the media. Wards C and D in building 3 were vacated and all cells were combed out. I could follow it all from here, look, I switched on three radiotelephones on three channels. I was expecting them to call us in for help.”
Remon maintained his silence. He was a tall slender boy with brown hair and pimples on his smooth cheeks. The face of someone fresh out of school. Gershon filled the awkward silence with more news.
“This afternoon down here, Habibi from cell B18 had an epileptic seizure on the exercise yard. I received the emergency call from the boys out there. Called in the medical team. It took a while before they came. All the detainees standing around, gaping at the man, what a circus! Then we received two new entries,” Gershon continued his narrative which of itself became the usual formal information transfer at shift handover. “And two inmates returned from court-hearings and were returned to their cells. At 21:00 hours Martinez in cell A 04 passed out. According to the medical service diabetes was the cause. And, o shit, I have to mail them about the medication of Omar in B 24. He is getting a too low dose of Oxazepam. He’s okay for now but if they don’t correct it, he will be jumping up and down his cell all night during your shifts the coming days.
“It’s a fucking mess here, the bread crates are still standing in the central post with old bread still in them. Why is the five o’clock headcount not registered on the operations sheet? I don’t accept this change of guard.” Now that Remon finally spoke, it was with a high pitched, somewhat shaky voice as both hands stroked back his gel stiffened hair in a gesture of defiance. Gershon looked up with a bewildered look. What has gotten into him, he thought. That little punk of no more than twenty years old. In the day-shifts he knew Remon as a guy who didn’t care much about discipline or order. The night shifts where mostly spend eating, watching movies and hanging out with his friends on other floors. Gerhon walked towards the left side of the operational desk and saw that the headcount of 17:00 hours was indeed missing. The wardens of the afternoon had somehow forgotten it when they had left. He had heard the ward coordinator call it out and had assumed that it would have been registered by his assistant. Removing the bread crates to the storage room was Carla’s task, but Gershon felt responsible for its omission.
“I know the headcount by heard, at five o’clock we had ninety-eight men in the house. Since then two new arrivals have come in and two detainees have returned from transport, look, that’s exactly what you have just entered. He wrote the numbers of five o’clock on the operational sheet above the headcount Remon had written in it.
“And how am I supposed to know that this is accurate?” Remon spat out the words. “The signature of the afternoon shift is missing”, he added, a mix of triumph and disdain in his voice.
“Well, that is why I am signing it myself”, Gershon answered. “I am, after all, the head warden over both shifts, and in case you don’t trust it, you will find exactly the same counts in the daily report on the computer. What is the matter with you, Remon? You should have seen the head count when the victims of the airport fire arrived. The first couple of days we didn’t even know exactly who we had on wards E and F…”
“I don’t give a fuck about how you guys count on your department! What you do up there is for you to explain to your department head. I just want the numbers to be correct on my wards A and B, understood?”
Gershon looked at Carla who had come in unnoticed and stood there, leaning against the command post doorpost. She folded her arms across her chest and looked away, in the direction of Remon, who reiterated: “Again Weening, I don’t accept the change of guard. I want you to do a recount of all the cells.”
Where did he get the nerve, and that self-assurance, Gershon wondered, to confront him like that? Victory shone out of his eyes as Remon shared glances with Carla. Gershon knew that the wise thing to do was to swallow his pride and do the recount. Remon’s language was that of a written report to their superiors. But he couldn’t set himself to it.
“Well, then you don’t accept the count. I signed for it. Do whatever you think you can achieve with it. I worked like a madman this evening. Knock yourself out. I’m going home!”
Gershon packed his belongings in his duffel bag and left the department without looking back. He passed through the various check posts, exited building 5 and walked towards the main entrance building where he deposited his keys and PSU in one of the many small lockers in the wall behind the entrance lobby. He took in the fresh air with deep breaths as he walked across the brightly lit parking place towards his car. He entered the vehicle and drove in the direction of the main entrance gate where for the last time he held his badge against a reader to open the barrier. The guards in the entrance unit didn’t bother to come out to acknowledge his departure and as the barrier pole rose slowly Gershon hit the gas pedal and sped his ragged Golf GTI into the free world.
Driving over the A28 motorway towards the city of Utrecht, he finally felt the tension fade somewhat. The music coming out of the car radio came through with lots of static and frequent short interruptions, as was to be expected when playing AM frequencies. It was what he had accepted in order to receive his favorite station Arrow Jazz.
“Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend,
Any minor world that breaks apart falls together again.
When the demon is at your door,
In the morning it won’t be there no more
Any major dude will tell you.”
Donald Fagan’s sweet mouthed voice in Steely Dan’s perfectly preformed Jazz-rock ballad had a calming effect on his mind. It allowed Gershon to reflect on the incident with some measure of detachment. Why had he been put off balance so easily? Pacifying cracked up inmates was his specialty! But he couldn’t parry a direct attack by a fellow worker. Remon and he were clearly not compatible fellows. The boy belonged to the pack of wardens around his fellow head warden Koen. Fitness, liquor, soft drugs and chicks, that was what they shared and talked about. Compared to that Gershon was a boring old man from another age. But that didn’t explain Remon’s attack. Maybe it had just been a bout of elation motivated by the competition between the departments in this penitentiary institution? That boy surely had something to boast about to his colleagues.
Meanwhile Gershon had passed the motorway junction at Eemnes and took the exit Huizen. That is where he had lived since the completion of his studies. A nice little town to live in. It boasted two marina’s and several recreational beaches along the Gooi lake. Stretches of heather fields and sand plains towards the picturesque villages of Blaricum, Laren and Bussum stretched out to the south. And woodlands carrying the imaginative name Wolfschamber lay to the west. Huizen is more than the collective of its houses was a slogan he had once coined. He drove down the scarcely lit double thoroughfare called Merk, now empty in contrast to the bustling traffic during the day. Nodding friendly to all the traffic lights that where kind enough to give him green all the way as he passed on into the heart of the newly constructed districts of this former old fishing village. At the Oostermeent shopping center he turned right and lowered his speed as he entered the residential area where his street was located. It still gave him a surge of joy to return to his house behind the Gooi lake dyke. It could have been in Harlingen, Enkhuysen or Zwartsluis, all these coastal towns where the Dutch had withstood the threat of the powerful sea behind thin artificial dirt ridges covered with green grass. Far away from the grey concrete and scissor sharp concertina barbwire behind which Gershon spent his working days. The car came to a standstill right in front of his house.
Through the lace curtains he saw Mirjam in the softly lit living-room, sitting on the couch, reading. The TV was on. He was glad she was still awake. The next morning she would have to be up early again, to go to work at the secondary school where she taught French. Would he tell her about this evenings events at Camp Zeist? Maybe it would all blow over. Maybe not. Tomorrow he would think of a way to resolve it. What he would not allow was for the hatred and envy in that Justice hotel to invade this oasis of rest and uproot it.
Once inside he was surrounded by warmth and the waning smells of a warm meal he had missed. Like a contently purring cat Mirjam sat with her legs tucked under her thighs, newspaper pages sprawled all over and around her like a blanket. She looked up absentmindedly, as if she had only now noticed his arrival.
“Hello dear, how was your day?” She lifted up her face to receive his kiss. A glance of disapproval passed over her face as she stroked the stubble on his cheek.
“O, an epileptic seizure on the recreational yard, an attempt at arson in another cell complex and a fainted inmate in a cell on my ward”, Gerson dryly summarized.
“Well, at least you have some excitement in your work. I am stuck with children that don’t give a hoot about the language I have to teach them.”
“It’s just an insane little world that I work in. It seems that everybody is only intend on bringing others down.” He pulled of his clip-tie, threw it over the armrest of a chair and dropped down in the easy chair that stood at angles with the couch. He kicked of his boots and stretched out his legs on the couch until his toes made contact with her thigh. She retracted her leg somewhat but did not severe the contact.
“Justice seems to be bent on maintaining a culture where it’s officers not only keep an eye on the detainees but also on each other and encourages them to tell on each other”, he said, “it all starts with the competition between the departments.”
“Let them destroy each other if they wish. Stay out of it Gershon”, she answered, without looking up from the newspaper.
“It’s not that simple. I have been in the midst of this for more than three years now. Looks like I am an easy target for young ambitious snotnoses bent on getting higher up.” Against his earlier intention he told Mirjam about the conflict with Remon.
“You have to stand above them Gersh. It is just a game. Abide by the rules, then nobody can harm you.”
Gershon heard how logical it sounded and how far at the same time from the reality in a penitentiary institution. Some time ago he had been part of a project group that had consisted mainly of department heads. The purpose had been to compile a manual for detention center wardens that would serve as a national standard. All the prison managers had done on the committee meetings was brag about what they had achieved in their former prisons despite the rules and the financial restrictions set out by the bureaucrats in The Hague. At the same time they so totally destroyed their colleagues and superiors that Gershon had counted himself lucky not to have been their colleague. Furthermore they could not agree with each other on hardly any of the procedures they had to streamline. Which was why eventually the facility director had charged him with the task of putting together the manual out of all their conflicting suggestions and memo’s.
“Hello, where are you now, here or at Camp Zeist?” Mirjam interrupted his train of thought. Now, if you would massage my back, maybe then I can help you take your mind off your head breakers? Que dites-vous?”
‘Deal!’ Gershon said.