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Safety and the possessed parrot
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 05/12/2008

Joe Bouchard is a librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for “The Corrections Professional” and an instructor of Corrections and Psychology for Gogebic Community College.

Things are not always as they seem. This was proven to me last week.

The classroom that I needed to use was locked. It was easy enough to locate someone with a key. I found the custodian in a room talking to someone who was not visible to my eyes. Further investigation revealed that she was conversing with a large, blue-green parrot in a cage.

Initially, the custodian was startled by my appearance, as she was absorbed by what she was doing. But then she produced a playful smirk and said, “Watch this!”

She presented a peanut between the bars to the bird and asked, “Polly want a peanut?”

The parrot answered verbatim, “Polly want a peanut.”

However, I was horrified by the tone. The parrot barked out its response in a deep, gravely voice. It was as though Satan spoke through this winged mimic to unnerve me.

The tone of the otherworldly voice slammed me into astonishment. Despite all of my training and my naturally imperturbable nature, I nearly jumped out of my skin in terror.

Once the hair on the back of my neck resumed a relaxed position, I said something completely inane like, “What the…?!?”

Horror stories do not send me to trembling. I do not believe that malevolent forces can control the mind and voice of a parrot to frighten others. To my credit, I was taken aback by the wicked voice of hell’s parrot because I was expecting sweet, lilting bird sounds. Still, it remains that I was knocked off my square by a three pound caged bird with an unusual voice.

Ornithology aside, the lesson is that things are not what they seem. Seasoned corrections staff know this lesson. We should always expect the unexpected. It behooves us to consider this from time to time.

There main problem that comes with surprise is that it compromises the appearance of safety. We do not appear to be in control when the unusual stops us in our tracks. And when others notice our shock, our potential weaknesses might be revealed.

Unusual events could serve as a ruse or diversion. While we address these, something sinister may be quietly unfolding in near proximity. A common example can be found when two normally placid prisoners start arguing loudly. It may be out of character and needs immediate attention. However, the loud verbal exchange could also be unexpected camouflage designed to conceal a quiet transaction or delivery of instruction.

There is also the danger in underestimation. Often, we believe that all is clear when it is not. For example, when we make a cursory sweep of our area of control, our experience tells us that it is unlikely to find a prisoner avoiding count. Therefore, we may not look as hard as we otherwise might. However, if we discover an offender while not prepared to find one, we could be at a tactical disadvantage.

Can we always expect the unexpected? That is impossible. However, there are ways that we can make this more probable.

“War stories” are important. Staff, regardless of seniority level or classification, should contribute to a worksite forum designed to relate surprising events. Tales of what has happened become food for thought for the goal of safety.

Training modules are also effective ways to present this food for thought. Demonstrations of innocuous materials made into formidable weapons effectively open the eyes of students.

There are lessons to be found in that which has previously fooled us. Once a hiding place for prison-made alcohol is discovered, that becomes another place to search. New tricks of concealment laid bare become part of the modified search strategy.

Thinking in the hypothetical is also useful, as long as it does not paralyze the imagination with fear. Visualizing possible events allows us to react in a more productive and safe manner.

Professional literature made available to staff is also helpful to bring minds out of rote thinking patterns. Stories from other jurisdictions point out that the unusual still occurs. This also reminds us that other work sites solve problems in a variety of ways.

The benefits are clear. When we pull ourselves out of the mindset of business as usual, we are better prepared to report and respond to danger. We are poised to nip smaller, potentially dangerous operations in the bud. We demonstrate that we can continue to maintain a safe atmosphere for staff, prisoners, and the public outside the walls.

Looking back, I am strangely glad that “Edgar Allen Poe’s” parrot shocked me with its sinister-sounding articulation. It rocked me out of my complacency and gave me a reason to consider that things are not always what they seem. That realization can mean the difference between circumstances that slowly unravel out of control and the comfort of safety.

Joe Bouchard can be reached at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321. These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, and not of the MIDOC or Corrections.com.

Other articles by Bouchard

Enjoy the Apocalypse, 4/21/08

Fear factory: Contemplating trepidation in corrections, 3/17/08


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