“They scream at midnight.”
We stood on the north tower catwalk that overlooked the yard. This was my first time pulling the night shift.
“We used to leave on lights to quiet them. That stopped working so, we shined spotlights at them two or three times, and they would stop. But, that stopped working too.”
The screaming sounded horrible. It was more like shrieking the way it echoed out into the yard. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, and I stepped closer to my co-worker which brought little comfort. But, little was better than none.
“What do we do now? Does nothing work?” I asked, needing to keep the conversation going. The melancholy he’d fallen into was unnerving, and I feared I may soon begin screaming as well.
“We have new methods. They’re extreme, so we don’t employ them often.” He looked me over, likely seeing fear in my eyes. “You’re safe on the tower.”
I believed this was an attempt to be reassuring. It failed. He pointed to the door set in the stone wall of the main building.
“That’s half-inch steel. It’s the same as the door on this tower. Even if they escaped their cells, they’d have to breach those doors.”
Thinking of our gun storage locker inside the tower brought me a modicum of comfort and helped me regain a bit of confidence.
“What do you mean ‘extreme’?”
“You should know we understand they’re sick, all here because they are insane and can’t control the way they are. We aren’t cruel people.” He spoke slowly, hoping I felt the weight his burden.
“You seem nice enough.”
He shrugged and went inside the tower. I was relieved to go into the light and warmth of the small office and absolutely delighted when he closed the door, muffling the chilling sounds outside. I took a seat while he poured two cups of coffee. He handed one to me and sat in the only other chair.
Taking a sip of his coffee and a deep breath, he told me of other methods used inside to quiet our charges. These included the fire hose, straitjackets, and solitary confinement. At times, tempers flared, and attendants got physical, which only further agitated the inmates.
While he told these stories, it dawned on me; he hadn’t explained ‘extreme’. My stomach turned sour. I was sorry I had asked, as he had yet to get to what worked.
“We take turns working out here, those of us that work nights. If we didn’t get these breaks, we’d end up on the other side of those doors. The screaming side.”
He paused while he stared at his coffee, swirling it. I held my own cup firmly with both hands, seeing what in his face? Fear? Regret? I just wanted to finish out this night and sleep with the nightmares I knew would come in the morning. Yet, I remained silent with a morbid curiosity I couldn’t shake, willing him to tell his secrets.
“One night, they were in full swing. A symphony of wails that would’ve made Lucifer himself, stand up and testify. One of the guards, drug an inmate out of their cell to the middle of the floor. He put him on his knees and pressed a box cutter to his throat. They continued to scream, becoming even louder until he… Let’s just say, that inmate went silent, and so did the rest.” Staring into his coffee, he seemed to watch the events of that night play out in the bottom of that cup.
“Everyone was quiet after that. Silence in the halls and the yard. After one month passed, the screaming started back.” He sipped his coffee. “We tried all the old tricks again and again before we realized what worked. So, we…. repeated the action of that night. It worked. But, only for one month.”
“You don’t do it every month though. They’re screaming tonight.” I cocked my head towards the asylum.
“Tomorrow night, we will make it quiet again.”
“I work tomorrow night. On the inside.”
“Yes, you do. On the screaming side.”