ALPENA — A hand slides a tray through a slot in the door.
Under a blanket, a man in orange-striped trousers fidgets, then sits groggy, his hair disheveled.
He doesn’t want it, he mutters.
The correctional officer leaves breakfast anyway.
Inside the Alpena County Jail, where those charged with drug trafficking, beatings, sexual assaults and other serious crimes pass the time playing cards and watching television, the days pass to the rhythm of meal trays and door locks and the occasional outburst of violence.
For months, prison officials have struggled to find workers willing to work 12-hour shifts dodging threats and the occasional fist bump from people who don’t want to be there.
Remedial work also has advantages. Sometimes they can say their work helps people, COs say.
“Do the benefits outweigh the actual work? No,” prison administrator Christina Bednarski said. “But we do it anyway. Because someone has to.
In glass-encased pods lining the outside of a horseshoe-shaped hallway, inmates stretch and pull on shirts, staring at their breakfast trays.
A gondola contains the women. From single cells on two levels, they crawl in socks or barefoot into the living room with its high ceiling, skylights and bolted tables.
At night, the doors of their cells will close, with them inside.
In two other pods, men mill, still asleep, moving slowly.
Another common room is empty. Inmates here are only out for an hour a day, the result of a fight or some other violation of the rules.
Deputy Michael Lash, retired from highway patrol and filling a commanding role while the prison was looking for hires, chats through a cell door window with an inmate in custody.
The man smiles cordially, tells Lash to keep a smile on his face, wishes him a happy Easter.
“He’s got a lot of demons,” Lash later says.
Still delivering breakfasts, Lash rips the spout off a carton of nutrition drink, displaying the sharp plastic teeth on the underside.
“Wouldn’t be too good pressed against your face,” he said, pouring the drink into a mug.
Impromptu weapons, shanks, booze, handmade tattoo guns, phones smuggled inside body cavities – the COs saw – and confiscated – all of it.
The drugs pass. An inmate asks if the nurse could prescribe something to help him sleep.
In a prison where the vast majority of inmates are there because of a drug-related crime, some spend their days dreaming of getting out so they can get their next shot, Lash says.
Others leave determined to stay sober, he says.
Some of them succeed.
COs pick up two detainees, one at a time, and prepare them for transport to court.
Inmates rarely fight the shackles they wear outside the building, as the shackles signify the next stage of their trial.
“I will drive very slowly,” Lash promises as he escorts the inmates to his car for their trip to court and a few minutes to the building.
Freed from his basket, a man transforms from his orange suit into street clothes and collects his personal items.
He won’t come back, he promises the commanders, who escort him to a door. On the other side, a family member is waiting to take him to a rehab facility.
“Am I leaving? he asks hesitantly, his feet still.
Kerry Volant, a female commander and shorter than most inmates, stands in the doorway of a pod, moving inmates through the hallway to the prison gymnasium so a worker can fix a hole that men dug into a wall.
One of the men complains. It violates his constitutional rights, he says. She raises her voice, barks at them, ordering the men to speed up.
She can’t be gentle, can’t do favors, even if she wants to, she says. Once you get some leeway, they will all require special handling.
She remembers a former prisoner, released and clean for two years, who gave her a hug of thanks.
“Call me crazy, but I love my job,” Volant says. “Yes, they did something wrong. It’s not for me to judge them. It’s for justice to decide.”
A metallic bang echoed down a hallway. The inmate in a high security cell knocks on the door again.
The other inmates yell at him to be quiet.
The inmate’s speech is wild and fanciful, interwoven with conspiracy theories. According to the police, he attacked a woman and tried to kill her.
“Get down,” Lash finally shouts outside the man’s door.
Three commanders escort the man down a hallway to freshen up in the combat hold, a square room empty except for a video camera, mounted high up.
Days earlier, another inmate had smeared the walls and ceiling of the room with blood after ripping bandages from his hand in a fit of rage.
Such incidents occur at least every two weeks, sometimes weekly, Bednarski says.
Sometimes the stuff smeared on the walls – or thrown at the COs – is much worse.
“Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’re like, ‘What?'” Bednarski says.
Each commander has received death threats directed at himself, his children, his dogs, she says.
CO candidates don’t sit around when they hear what they might encounter on the job.
A new hire years ago only lasted three hours.
Several tall men hover near a door to the social room. Lash, performing a check on the pods, orders them to return.
When he walks in, the men make raucous jokes with foul, edgy, agitated language.
As Lash leaves, one of them sticks his head out the door towards an intern in the hallway.
“Fresh meat,” he sings, then laughs. “No just kidding.”
Inside the capsule, a man peeks through a window, staring down the hallway, eyes hard.
In another group, the men perch on tables or stand idly by. Lash walks around the room, shoulder against the wall.
Commanders do not walk in the middle of a module, even when it is calm.
“That’s 16 guys,” he said. “I can try to manage, but 16 is a lot.”
In dim light in the control room, senior control operator Bud Shaw checks every door lock in the prison.
It unlocks with caution. An inmate might be standing on the other side of the door, ready to rush the officer.
Nothing would make transferred inmates happier than walking into jail with a braggart, bragging about sending a commander to the ER, Shaw says.
He watches his screens for fights or for inmates making nooses.
The detainees are desperate, especially during the holidays or when they receive bad news from the court. Some had their sheets removed as a precaution.
The women take turns in the common room. One is lying on her back outside the upper cells, watching television.
The men rhythm, alone and in pairs. Some hop around the living room like frogs, exercising. We spend hours working on a puzzle.
Some wash windows or mop.
The prison recently had to replace a pod window after an inmate used a mop handle as a javelin, Lash says.
In the dim light of the hallway, the windows along the hallway are reflected like mirrors, the images of the imprisoned overlapping with those of their jailers.
For some inmates, prison provides the only stability they’ve ever known, Lash says.
Prison may be the only place where someone wakes them up on a schedule, feeds them, holds them accountable.
Dinner will eventually arrive. Before that, maybe sleeping, maybe kicking a door, maybe thrashing and screaming and needing a restraint chair.
Maybe circle rides and endless television.
After three weeks on the job, former accountant and CO intern Terri Haken hasn’t quit.
Having no experience in law enforcement before answering an ad, she thought this job would give her a chance to help people live a better life.
“I thought I could do it,” she says. “I’m a badass.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.