Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
My name is Jim Hutchison. Most people call me Hutch, even in my professional life. My family-owned business is as a concrete contractor, and we perform work for a variety of private and federal clients. One such client is the Texas State Department of Corrections. It was work at one of their detention centers that got me interested in volunteering at a facility.
About five years back, we were installing a parking lot at the Montford Adult Correctional Institute in Lubbock. It is also known by its more appropriate name, the Montford Psychiatric Unit, as all of the inmates have been diagnosed with some type of mental disorder or other. As my men were doing the preparation, concrete placement, and finishing over a number of weeks, I used to watch people walking in and out of the front doors of the facility. It was depressing.
Always the same scene. There would be inmates in orange and white striped jumpsuits – trustees – outside the doors sweeping the front steps and picking up trash: cigarette butts, gum wrappers, etc. But mostly sweeping, always sweeping. All day long. Must have been the cleanest set of stairs in all of Texas. I supposed that it was a treat for them, though. After exhibiting good behavior for a while, they were actually allowed outside the unit. I have seen the conditions inside, and boy, I would not want to be locked up in there for too long.
Still, the looks on their faces. Blank stares, slack jaws, sweating in the one hundred degree sun. As I said, very depressing.
I had a lot of experience with mental disorders, being diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder, and being a recovering alcoholic. I had found help and comfort through proper medical care and support groups, and I wished that there were some way I could pass that on to these poor men. Then, one day, I discovered how I could.
The guards at the front desk came to know me and some of my supervisory crew. They didn’t mind if we occasionally came inside the lobby to get out of the summer sun and use the rest rooms or buy soda from one of the machines in the waiting room. I was sitting in a chair one day, holding a cold bottle of Big Red to my forehead, when I overheard two women talking nearby. They were well dressed and obviously not there as visitors. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but the few words I heard caught my attention. Apparently, they were volunteers at the prison, “bringing the Word of the Lord” to the inmates confined inside. I told them how much I admired their work, and how I had a desire to help in a similar way. And so, they suggested that I apply for a position as a pastoral counselor in the unit.
Long story short, I did just that. I had to go through some training – what I could and could not bring into the facility, what I could and could not say to the inmates (never share personal information or build friendships), and how to act when inside general population walking and talking amongst the convicts. It was all pretty much common sense.
For the first eight weeks or so, I had to be escorted in and out of the unit proper. I would arrive, place my boots, keys, wallet, and such on a conveyor belt, turn over my briefcase for inspection, and walk through a metal detector. Then one of the guards at the entrance to general population would call up to the counselors’ office and someone would come down to get me. During the eight weeks, I was fingerprinted, interviewed, and a federal background check was run on me. Eventually, I was given a badge of my own and no longer needed an escort.
I learned many things in my first few months of volunteering. Bibles were like currency to the inmates (reading material to overcome boredom). Pencils were not allowed in the cellblocks, so the men loved meeting with me to write journals. They spent most of their time doodling ideas for tattoos. The really sick ones – the “mentals,” as the guards cruelly referred to them – were not allowed into general pop and looked forward to my visits. Most of all, I learned how easy it was to get in and out of the prison. Not that I would ever have done it but I marveled at the fact that, given the right inclination, a body could make a mint smuggling in cigarettes or booze stuffed into their socks.
I followed the same ritual every evening that I visited. I would park in the lot, walk past the trustees who swept the front steps (wow, did they ever stink), and enter the facility. The guards got to know me and grew comfortable with my visits. They began by waving me through the detector without having to remove my boots or open my briefcase, and eventually started letting me avoid the security check altogether.
Next, I was allowed to bypass the desk and go directly behind to a filing cabinet, where I could retrieve my badge – I wasn’t permitted to take it outside the prison. Then I’d get buzzed through an unremarkable metal door and walk down a long, unadorned hallway. At the end of the hall was where the genuine security measures began.
The hallway terminated at another door, this one made of double layers of thick, cloudy bulletproof glass supported within a frame of four-inch by four-inch square steel tubes. I would approach and stand under a camera mounted above the door, lifting both my face and the badge toward the camera in order for the guards inside to verify my identity. Once done, the door would slide open, allowing me to step inside an “airlock,” of sorts. Then the door would slide shut behind me.
The compartment was a triangular room with three doors, all similar, and a window set into the side. The guards in control of the doors sat behind the window, and would control the doors, opening only one at a time. I came to call them “doors number one, two, and three,” sort of like the game show “Let’s Make a Deal.” I always entered through door number one, and then was allowed to pass through door number two into the prison’s general population. From the start, I would always gaze at door number three and wonder what was behind it, as it was the only door with darkened glass. Since no more than one door was ever open at a time, I never got a peek inside. During my orientation, I was told that the prison’s infirmary was back there.
When door number two opened, the stench was overpowering. No matter how many times you would enter the block, you never did get used to it. Mostly, it was the reek of urine, but was accompanied by an underlying sweet citrus smell, as the result of the cleaning fluid that they ineffectively used to mop down the halls. Inmates ambled up and down the halls, always giving you the once-over with their eyes. Occasionally, they would lock eyes with you and try to stare you down. During orientation, we were told never to look away – to stare them down as you would a stray dog. Looking away would be a sign of weakness.
It may seem cruel, but you had to keep them beat down. You had to constantly remind them that you were in charge, that they were nothing. Anything less could lead to unrest and rebellion, and you couldn’t have that.
The “mentals” were up on the ninth floor. The elevators, like the doorways, were controlled by the guards and monitored by cameras. I would press the single wall button, and eventually the doors would open. I’d step inside, look at the camera, and speak my destination into the camera microphone. Sometimes, there would be an inmate or two in the elevator. I never stood with my back to them. I would always stand facing them, my back to the door, staring them down, and for the most part, they would lower their eyes to the floor and try not to look at me. I was instructed never to enter an elevator if it was occupied by an inmate that intimidated me, but I never backed down. At first, I acted brave because I was unsettled but didn’t want to show it. After a while, I felt sympathy for the men more so than fear of them.
The ninth floor was divided up into five “pods,” each containing five double-occupancy cells. My habit was to rotate which pod I would visit on a daily basis, taking the weekends off. Even though I was educated not to make friends with the prisoners, I have to admit that I looked forward to the visits as much as they did. Sometimes heavily medicated, and by far the calmest group of men in the facility, they were (save for a few odd ducks) among the nicest people I’d ever met.
So it was day after day, week after week, month after month that I would follow the same routine. There were occasional variances, on some days due to fights or unrest among the inmates in general population, but one thing never changed. Every day as I entered the block, I would look over at door number three and wonder what lay behind it. I asked a few times, and was always told “the infirmary,” and after a while stopped asking for fear that someone might become suspicious about why I cared so much. Truth was, I’m just a curious person. Once, I even asked another volunteer if there was a chance that I could get a tour of the infirmary – perhaps visit the men back there – but was told (with great firmness) that my request would be impossible to fulfill, and that I should let the issue drop. I could almost hear the implied “or else.” That just piqued my curiosity even more.
My interest grew and grew until I one day decided that I was going to visit the “infirmary” one way or another. Although my decision was made on a Tuesday, I didn’t act immediately. I became more attentive to which guards were working on each day and at each time. Certain ones were more lax, or friendlier. It took two weeks of studying them, and building my confidence, until I decided that it was time to act.
Exactly two weeks and one day from the Tuesday that I made my decision, I finally got up the courage to say, “I’m visiting the infirmary today.” In my mind, I thought, let’s see what’s behind door number three, Monty!
The guard never even batted an eye. “Alright Hutch. Have fun,” he said, twinkling his fingers as his eyes dropped back to the video screens in front of him.
That easily, the door slid open. Boy, if the stench in general pop was bad, the odor wafting through door number three must have been quite literally a hundred times worse. In the hot Texas sun, and with all of the turkey vultures, road kill never lasted very long in Lubbock. Every once and a while, though, you’d come across a “fresh” one. That’s the closest thing I could think of to describe the smell behind door number three. It was as if you picked up a day-old dead armadillo, buried your nose in its crushed belly, and took a deep breath. Well, what I imagine it would smell like. I had never actually done that. Definitely the smell of rotting meat and gangrene, though.
The doors slid shut and another long hall was revealed. Dimly lit, with flickering fluorescents, it was like something straight out of a horror movie. I soon found out that was an extremely appropriate description. Another door at the end of the hall hung loosely from its frame, allowing light to leak out around it. I could hear alternating moaning, crying, and the worst – screaming coming from behind the door. I could have… should have turned around and headed back for the exit, but I had gotten too far. The only way to go was forward. Forward and through that door.
Although I knew it would seem suspicious, I opened the door slowly and stuck my head around the corner. The best way to seem as if you belong somewhere is to stride right in with confidence, but I couldn’t. I was afraid of what might be behind the door. Heck, I thought, it most likely was just a prison hospital. Moaning, crying, screaming – all normal noises for men in pain.
It was most definitely not a normal hospital ward.
There were at least a dozen men strapped to steel tables. Some naked, some in orange prison jumpsuits, and some wearing the striped suits like the trustees that I passed every day outside on the stairs. All of them had IV’s inserted into their arms, the drip bags containing a fluid that looked like antifreeze. Vitals signs monitors (VSMs) were attached to most of them, and I could see by the displays that two of the men were clearly dead.
There were two men and a woman, all wearing lab coats, standing amongst the tables. One of the male doctors (?) looked up in surprise, and then beckoned over “Come in, come in.” They must have noticed the look of confusion, quickly turning to panic, in my eyes. The female doctor began explaining in a soothing voice.
“Don’t worry. You’re not the first outsider to stumble his way into our infirmary, and I’m certain that you won’t be the last. As you’ve probably already guessed, what we have here is more of a lab than a hospital. We’ve just become so used to calling it the infirmary that it’s simpler that way.” She drew a breath and was about to continue when another of the doctors shouted, “It’s happening!”
Everyone, myself included, turned toward one of the tables that held a dead man. Well, previously held a dead man, to be exact. His VSM had jumped to life, and seemingly so had he. He began twitching, and then thrashing, then he began to scream. I had seen a man being burned alive once, when a barrel of hot tar accidently spilled on him, and the screaming was the same. It was gut wrenching and made my skin crawl. You could hear the pain and sorrow in it.
The female doctor scrambled to inject a syringe of some milky liquid into the man’s IV port and after what seemed like an eternity (although it was probably mere seconds) he calmed, and his breathing steadied itself.
Here’s the thing: They had not been performing CPR on the man when I walked in. There was no defibrillator to be seen. The man was unmistakably dead when I arrived and during the few minutes we had been talking. Yet, here he was alive once again, as if he had spontaneously resurrected. Disturbingly, though, his eyes were still clouded over as if he had cataracts. An uneasy and sick feeling crept its way into my belly. The doctors had not told me anything yet, but on some level, I already knew what was happening – or at least part of it.
I was incredulous. “Wha- what’s going on?”
So, while two of the doctors tended to the resurrected man, the third explained the experiment to me.
“You see, we were tasked to find out whether or not so called ‘evil’ men have souls or not,” he began. “Of course, I personally do not think that there is any such thing as true evil, but I do wonder if these malcontents have the same sort of spiritual makeup as normal people. After all, why do they do what they do?
“In 1907, a Haverhill, Massachusetts, doctor by the name of Duncan MacDougall managed, apparently overcoming any ethical reservations over human experimentation, to put six dying people on a bed equipped with sensitive springs, and claimed to have observed a sudden loss of weight – about three quarters of an ounce – at the exact moment of their death. Having reasoned that such loss could not be explained by bowel movements or evaporation, he concluded he must have measured the weight of the soul. A follow-up experiment also showed that dogs didn’t seem to suffer the same sort of loss, therefore they didn’t have souls.
“I’m not implying that these inmates are on the equivalent of dogs, but one must wonder exactly how they compare to normal, healthy human beings. We obviously do not have much control data, but we have recycled these men as much as possible for our research.”
It was there that I stopped him. “Recycled?”
“Oh yes,” he brightened. “We don’t just throw them away. You see, as a pleasing consequence of our intended experiment, we found that we were able to revive our test subjects.”
“Yes. Revive, resurrect, bring them back… whatever you wish to call it. This way, we are able to take measurements and observe through a variety of different conditions. It’s quite ingenious.”
I really did not know what to say at that point. To question who authorized the experiment, what the ramifications were, how it worked. So I asked the first question that popped into my head.
“So, do they have souls?”
He removed a pencil from his breast pocket and tapped the side of his head, as if thinking it over. “You know, I’m quite certain that they do. As I said, we lack enough data to use as a control. However, it seems that each time we bring them back, they lose a little until – it seems – it’s all gone. After a certain point, we can no longer observe any differences.”
“And how long does that take?”
“Usually four or five cycles.”
I cocked my head, still in disbelief over the casual way he was talking about the atrocities they were committing. “And what happens then?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t follow you.”
“After you’re done with them. What happens to them then?”
“Whoo,” he blew air through pursed lips. “Yes, that’s the problem, isn’t it? That’s currently the little ‘snag’ we’ve run into. You see, eventually they just stop dying.”
He must have seen the look on my face.
“I mean, it’s not as if we haven’t tried. We usually put them down in a most humane way. Sedation, paralysis, and eventually with an injection of enough potassium to stop their hearts. Then we revive them and do it again. And again. And again. Each time, it gets a little more difficult to put them down, until… well, until we just can’t do it anymore.”
“What?” I was just about screaming.
“In simpler terms, they are basically incapable of dying. Quite a problem. And they really start to stink,” he said, as if that were the chief problem.
“Can’t you burn them, cremate the bodies?”
It was his turn to look at me in disgust. “Oh, now that would be cruel.”
I held my head in my hands and began to hyperventilate. “So where are they?”
“Well,” he said, “Outside. Sweeping the steps.”
With that, I began to feel lightheaded. What caused me to faint, though, was his next question.
“Mister, um…” he looked at my badge, then into my eyes, “Hutchison, would you consider yourself to be a good person? Do you believe that you have a soul?”
Credit: Kenneth Kohl