Prison Recovery: How I Got Sober Inside
Violence, hatred, hopelessness, and racism breed rampantly in prison, positivity does not. Fighting an addiction in the real world can be hard, but in prison recovery can be an unnavigable minefield.
Behind the walls of the penitentiary lies every form of negativity imaginable to man. Violence, hatred, hopelessness, and racism are only a few of the many conditions that breed rampantly in the cesspool of mass incarceration, where the positives are always outweighed by the negatives in a futile existence. For most prisoners the future is almost certain to end up in failure. And when drugs and addiction come into the equation, a convict’s odds of living as a productive member of society decrease proportionately. Fighting an addiction in the real world can be hard, but in prison, recovery can be an unnavigable minefield, where any misstep can lead to disaster.
“Having an addiction in prison is a fucking nightmare,” a prisoner we’ll call Judge, who’s serving a 17-year sentence for a bank robbery committed to feed his addiction. “To already be living in a nightmare, and then having that monkey on your back while you’re doing it. When I first came into the system in 2002, as a 23-year-old heroin addict, I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t see a future. All I saw in the mirror was a scared kid facing almost as much time as I’d been alive on this earth. I fell into the same trap as 99% of those coming into the system do. I made sure that anything and everything that would numb my senses and make the day go by faster, be it heroin, alcohol, pills, weed, hell, even Sudafed and nasal spray, stayed in my body.”
Every day is the same in prison. Prisoners wake up to keys hitting the lock on their cell and go to sleep the same way. Monotony can become a prisoner’s biggest enemy in the fight to save their sanity. Eating the same meals, on the same days, with the same people becomes routine. The only thing that changes is the calendar, as a prisoner’s soul slowly leaves their body, replaced by a hollowness where their heart used to be. The process of dehumanization is complete. Being an addict in prison is much different than being an addict out in the world. Getting a fix can be the least of it.
“Waking up dope sick and knowing that you have to chase the dope man down is way different in prison than on the street,” Judge says. “You can hustle up 10 bucks on the street to feed your habit and stave that sickness off for a bit. But in prison you need at least 50 bucks and then most of the time even that isn’t going to do you right. You’ve already hit the lowest of the low in your life by being in prison, but then you’re pretty much crawling under the street and living in the gutter at that point. Having a habit in here is absolutely the lowest point that you’ll hit in your addiction.”
Judge, who is currently clean and sober, has relapsed several times in prison since getting clean in late Y2K. If something took him out of prison for just a second, he wanted it. In between hellacious binges, he would find himself back in solitary confinement for some transgression or another. During these trips to the hole, Judge would dry out and see that the path he was taking was going to be a long and brutal one. And even though his mind understood this, he would inevitably get out of the hole and go right back to the only way he knew how to cope, which was drugs and alcohol.
“My brother dying is what caused me to relapse,” Judge says. “I was actually doing really good for the first few years when I got locked up. It also helped that dope only hit the yard a few times when I was in medium security, but once I got transferred to the high security, where it was flooded with pretty much everything drug wise, it made it more difficult. I was on the hot list for a weed bust and it kept me on the right path knowing I was getting piss tested regularly. But once my brother died of a heroin and cocaine overdose, I went on a tear for a year. I went and got that needle and headed on down the black muddy river with heroin and homemade moonshine. It’s how I knew to cope and it’s what I jumped on.”
But a year after Judge’s brother died, he got clean. He set his mind to doing it and did it, despite the adverse circumstances he found himself in. It seemed like the right time to bury that life and move forward with what he was doing. Whether in prison or in paradise, once Judge decided to get clean, he knew he could do it. Before entering sobriety he never really cared about living or dying. All he cared about was making enough money to keep from getting sick throughout the day. Death, to Judge, was a welcome option to the life of misery he found himself living in the throes of his addiction.
Being in prison, Judge didn’t have the option of AA or NA. No sponsor, no meetings, no twelve steps or positive mental attitude. And he definitely didn’t have a higher power. Judge felt that God wasn’t going to get the vicious monkey off his back anyway. God couldn’t make the cold sweats stop long enough during the night to allow for just a few precious hours of needed sleep. He was in a hell of his own making—buried in his addiction and the mess he’d made of his life, due to his drug consumption.
“I’m a realist, as far as I was concerned the only thing that was going to work for me was heroin,” Judge tells The Fix. “Which of course is what led me to prison and to various stints in the hole. Back when I was using, it was all heroin and weed. Nowadays in prison it’s all K2 and Suboxone. All cheap drugs that don’t show up in your piss. Nobody even brings in dope anymore because you’ll get stuck with it. Dudes have to kick the Suboxones to get high on the dope. And there’s no way someone is going to be sick for three days to spend $100 to get high, when with the Suboxone they only have to pay 10 bucks and they’re high all day.”
Being the “clean” guy in prison is tantamount to being the outcast. When everyone else is getting together to party or go on the hunt for their next high, the “clean” guy is sitting around reading a book. Which is all well and good, but when the “clean” guy’s cellie is one of the party goers, it gets old really fast. It’s hard to escape drugs and alcohol in prison. It finds its way into a prisoner’s life one way or another. If you’re an addict like Judge, drug use creeps its way into your cell by way of some dirtbag the prison has decided to lock you in a closet with for 12 hours a day.
“You can’t cry in prison,” Judge says. “It doesn’t matter that you just lost your best friend and blood, the kid you shared a bedroom with for 18 years. You sit in your cell and you push all those feelings down, and the best way to do that is with heavy narcotics. I didn’t cope or grieve through the loss of my brother. This may seriously be the reason why at any moment I might have to fight back tears. I dealt with it the only way prison will allow, through numbing the pain. Getting drunk and smoking weed a handful of times a year is damn near considered choir boy status in the pen. So for prison standards, and really my own, I felt pretty damn great about myself. Going from injecting anything, to the occasional drink, seemed like a win in my book.”
But eventually Judge gave it all up and has stayed sober in prison, despite the readily available presence of mind-altering drugs. Every day, prisoners are smoking weed or K2—rolling it in Bible paper—and snorting or shooting up Suboxone.
“Most of these dudes shoot it,” Judge says. “They say you don’t even get a rush, so I’m not sure why the fuck they feel like passing a needle with every disease known to man on it, but dudes get strung out on that needle. An addict will always find an excuse. One cellie after another, I’d find the excuse to drink with them every couple of months to bond. When the tension would get really thick and all I wanted to do was run a piece of steel through their neck for getting up to piss at 3 AM, I’d get some wine and we’d drink the tension away.”
Judge feels that if he didn’t come to prison, he would most likely be dead. At the height of his addiction, he was shooting over five hundred dollars’ worth of heroin and cocaine a day. Combine that with the Xanax bars he’d chew up, and it’s a miracle that his heart is still beating. But with six months left to go, and over a decade in the most violent penitentiaries the United States has to offer, Judge is through with the junkie and convict life. Crime, addiction and drugs are a thing of the past for him, but he will always remember the truth.
“I was and am a vicious, vicious junkie, and that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Judge says. “The difference is that I know I’m going to make it. And for that, I’m forever grateful. I’ve been talking to inmates in here that struggle with their own addictions. I try to show them that there’s another road they can choose. I know that I’ve chosen the right road and when they see that, and where I’ve been, maybe that can help them. Although most will continue to struggle with their habits, if I can help change the outlook of others, it will only reinforce everything I am doing to sustain my recovery and stay sober.”
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