Higher and Higher

by Daniel A. Rosen

I was on the phone with my wife as usual on a Saturday evening last month when the PA system crackled and a stressed voice announced: “The boulevard and all rec yards are closed; offenders will report back to their dorms immediately.” Something serious was clearly afoot, and everyone rushed to the front windows to get a better view. People spoke in hushed voices – not the usual clowning – speculating about what might have happened.

It turns out, eight people had overdosed on ‘spice’ at once; they passed out on the rec yard, laid out side by side on the concrete while nurses and guards ran around with stretchers and wheelchairs trying to keep control and render medical assistance, in that order. One of them is dead, one comatose in the hospital at last check, six have recovered and were immediately transferred to higher-level compounds. The one who died only had about 30 days left on his sentence. You can bet on two things following from that sort of train wreck. One, the addicts in here will continue snorting and smoking anything they can find. And two, the rest of us will pay for the mess they’re making.

I guess I was a little naive when I first came to prison, thinking it must be hard to find drugs and get high in here. I was surprised at how common it actually was, and how widespread. I’m probably in the minority because I don’t use – it’s that pervasive. Suboxone, spice, weed, neurontin, seroquil, orange peels – people get high on whatever they can find, everywhere I’ve been locked up, and no matter what security measures are in place to prevent it.

And while I went to school with casual weed smokers and worked with weekend coke snorters, I was unprepared for what I’ve seen here in the penitentiary. These are mostly desperate addicts with little else to organize their days around besides the next fix. Getting high is their whole bid. The money they hustle up or their family sends them, every hard-earned dime of it, is spent on drugs. And it’s small amounts of low-quality stuff, because that’s mostly what you can find in here, but you’ll take it. Because even at the ridiculously high prices it sells for, that crummy, overpriced little piece will keep the shakes away for another day.

To give you some idea, several weeks ago when supply was scarce, a sixteenth of a strip of Suboxone was selling for fifteen dollars here. Go Google what a Suboxone strip looks like, imagine that cut in fourths, and then fourths again. It’s miniscule. And then remember that those fifteen dollars could have bought that addict forty-eight ramen soups to eat from the commissary. Even at the normal price of five dollars for a sixteenth, it’s a terrible waste. Five dollars is a lot of money, in prison.

In my time in the jails and prisons in Virginia and D.C., I’ve been astonished by just how many people are locked up for drug crimes or drug-related ones. Black, White, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter – unscientifically, I’d say that over a third I’ve met got caught buying, selling, or using drugs. And another third were somehow a result of addiction: thefts, assaults, car accidents, a panoply of often petty crimes related to drug abuse. With over two million people behind bars in this country and around ten million arrests every year, that’s a mind-boggling number locked up because of their addiction, either directly or indirectly. And our response to this problem is to put them in prison, where they’ll get little to no help and all the time in the world to sit around scheming about getting high. Is it any wonder that two thirds of them will end up right back here?

The statistics are appalling and the big picture is a silent national disgrace, but it’s the little picture that I have to live with every day. It’s the little picture that profoundly saddens me and angers me, and breaks my heart every day. It’s the personal stories, and the individual human beings who have been failed by the system and by society. And the often-already-poor families devastated even further by loved ones caught up in the cruelties of a vast money-making enterprise, at their expense.

And so: eight inmates overdosed on bad spice, laced with something toxic. And we will all pay the price for that in the form of a harsh crackdown on our already-limited liberties and privileges. But every day around here, too many people are still caught in the grip of addictions that put them in here in the first place. High, even while they attend useless drug and alcohol treatment programs or “Skills for Successful Living” classes. They hustle to get it, the spice or the pills or the Suboxone – they steal from the kitchen and sell the food, they gamble on sports or cards, they iron shirts or wash dishes, whatever it takes. Sometimes they’re even coerced into sexual submission for the price of a high or to cover their drug debt.

Or, their families, or girlfriends, or buddies back home are sending money, thinking it’s going toward keeping their loved ones well-fed or well-clothed. It’s likely money that was hard to come by, because most people in here are decidedly not wealthy. Rich drug abusers go to treatment, not prison. Plenty of people here have prison jobs, but those pay on average about fifty dollars a month – and you can’t get high too often when you make a couple bucks a day, unless you hustle or have money coming in from outside. Of the ten or so guys that bunk right around me, six get high regularly and one sells the stuff. Nothing is a secret in here; we live in very close quarters.

My last bunkie was pitiful – a lying, scheming, thieving addict who ended up having two fistfights on the same day over his drug debts and the stealing he was doing to support his habit. I’d started composing a country song titled, “My Bunkie is a Junkie,” well before the fights that led to his removal from the dorm. I found not much rhymes with Suboxone though. Now he’s in another housing unit, pulling the same stunts, and it’ll end badly for him over there too. But I can’t hate him for stealing some food out of my locker to support his habit; it’s just too depressing.

The guy two bunks over works in the kitchen and steals massive quantities of food to buy Suboxone strips. He’ll take anything that’s not locked up: lunchmeat, eggs, sacks of rice or oatmeal, cookies, pop tarts, whole pies, aprons full of peanut butter, onions, tomatoes, fruit, seasoning, and more. He can make ten to twenty dollars a day selling that food most days, which is plenty to get high on. Sometimes they catch him and suspend him from work for a week or two, and then he begs and borrows enough drugs to get him through until he can go back to work and steal again.

When I was in the jail in Washington, D.C., people openly smoked ‘K2’ gathered in cell doorways. COs would walk by and pretend not to notice it; they don’t pay them enough to care. You smelled that stuff more often than weed or cigarettes, though those were common too. Some inmates bothered to try and conceal it by blowing the smoke down the toilet, but most didn’t. There were two COs, and a hundred and forty of us – what were they going to do? People knew which COs would write them up, and that was an awfully short list. Just like here in the penitentiary, the jail couldn’t really stop it.

Drugs only come in here three ways, really: mail, visits, and corrupt COs. They can take steps to reduce the flow through the mail and the visits, of course. But until they pay COs a decent wage, there’ll always be a few who will take the risk of bringing in small quantities of low-level drugs to sell, given the enormous paydays at stake. And, again: have you ever seen a Suboxone strip? It’s like it was made to be smuggled, it’s ideal for this environment.

So, they can do random drug tests here, and run drug-sniffing dogs through the dorms now and then. And at visitation, they can strip search us and harass our visitors about feminine hygiene products, and make us wear embarrassing jumpsuits that zip up the back (the CO has to do it). Mitigating smuggling through the mail is easy – they’ll only give you a photocopy of your letters now, you can’t receive the original any more. And they can lock us all down, and shake down our lockers when people OD, and take away our recreation time. They do all these things already, and it doesn’t change anything.

At the end of the day, they can’t stop the stuff coming in. People want to get high, and they’ll find a way to do it. There’s not much help here for the few that want to get clean anyway. And I doubt we’ll see any White House summits about this, or that Kim Kardashian or Jared Kushner care too much, because they won’t find any heartwarming tales or easy photo ops here. You can have all the First Step and Second Step Acts you want, but until we stop treating drug addiction as a criminal problem and locking up everyone who’s an addict, it isn’t going to matter how many steps we legislate.

I don’t have some smart solution for all this. Just like on the street, little works for people who don’t want to quit using. But I know that most of these addicts don’t belong in here. Trying to incarcerate our way out of the problem is not helping them, and it’s not making society any safer. Because these people will all be out on the street again in a few years – buying, selling, and using, and robbing people and each other. All they learned here was how to hustle more creatively to get high.

This article was originally published by The Marshall Project.

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