Six years ago, I came to prison addicted to opioids, ready to serve time for a crime I committed to support my addiction. I had hit rock bottom and wanted to get clean.
In an effort to seek help, I signed up for a state-funded drug class called Modality. Within the first few weeks, I found out the civilian facilitators were selling synthetic marijuana and Suboxone to the incarcerated people. I immediately signed out.
Then I tried to attend a knockoff Alcoholics Anonymous meeting held in the chapel every other week, but I stopped going because it felt like a gang meet-up. Most of the attendees were affiliated and just used the chapel to talk with their clique.
Three years ago, I transferred to the prison where I’m currently incarcerated. Here, a private company called GEO Group began a new addiction class, but when I asked to enroll, I was told that I must have a drug possession or drug trafficking charge to be accepted. Even though I’m an admitted drug addict and actively seeking help, I was turned away.
Florida, where I’m incarcerated, has the third-largest prison population in the U.S.; 16 percent of those behind bars here are incarcerated for drug-related offenses that involve lengthy or minimum-mandatory sentences. While imprisoned in overcrowded institutions, people with addictions are not provided adequate drug and alcohol classes because programs cost money. Correctional institutions are primarily concerned with security, not treatment — ironically, most drug contraband enters into prison from the officers who make cash from exchanges — and there is typically no rehabilitation offered.
The punitive way we treat people addicted to drugs has shaped my life. After being introduced to pain pills while working as a bartender pulling long shifts, I became hooked on and off over the five years prior to my arrest. In the beginning, opioids made me feel like I was wrapped in a warm blanket, without a worry in the world. But in time, after daily use, my body built up tolerance to the pills, and one wasn’t enough. Soon I needed two to feel the high, and eventually three. I would buy whatever was available.
When I ran out of pills, the withdrawal was certain and unbearable. I had restless leg syndrome, chills, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, sweating, cramps, vomiting, diarrhea and fever, all for several days or longer. I would do anything to avoid getting dopesick, even returning to the drugs. To wean myself, I tried using synthetic narcotics like methadone and Suboxone, which provided some relief, but they’re highly addictive substitutes. What’s more, many of the clinics that sell these alternatives only take cash and charge hundreds of dollars for a five-minute appointment. The prices were so high that I couldn’t always afford to get clean.
An appointment to get Suboxone was $300, and the medication cost me $14.00 per pill — while street pills cost me $5.00 each. It was easier and cheaper for me to buy black market pain pills than to get treatment. When I was arrested for selling stolen goods at pawn shops, I was getting high every day and at rock bottom.
After being taken to the county jail, I was thrown into a “cold cell” to detoxify with no medical assistance. Although I was taking a daily cocktail of Xanax and 30-milligram morphine pills, the nurses refused to provide me help, instead ignoring me during three days of unbearable opiate and benzodiazepine withdrawal. I was then inventoried into the criminal legal system as a repeat offender with no option of drug court or any alternative treatment.
Even though I’d committed my crimes to support my habit, rehabilitation was never part of the conversation — serving time in prison was my only chance at redemption. And once I began my 10-year sentence, I was presented with an even steeper challenge: stay clean inside a stressful environment where drugs are easy to access and there’s no real rehabilitative support.
You might think that prison at least keeps out the drugs that brought many of us inside, but drug addiction is still rampant. Many families send money to their loved ones only to have it spent on getting high. Violent fights, thefts and extortion are common, and it seems impossible for some people inside to climb out of the pit of addiction and hopelessness — especially when there are so many things to escape from by using: reality, depression, regret.
Most people just leave prison burdened with the same drug problems that got them arrested in the first place, and then return to society with those same issues — a cycle of failure repeating itself over and over.
I was determined not to repeat that cycle and I’m succeeding as a recovering addict behind bars. Using my family as motivation, I’ve been sober for over six years, even though I can get my drug of choice anytime I want to. Suboxone, Molly, weed and fentanyl are readily available to me, yet I choose to stay clean.
I meditate, exercise daily, communicate with my large family weekly and — crucially — remind myself that if I’d never abused drugs then I’d never have come to prison. I’ve reached a point in my life where nothing is going to be a higher priority than my kids. My future. I think of my cousin, who was buried in 2020 after he died of a heroin overdose while sitting in his drug dealer’s car. I think of how deeply drug addiction has impacted my family.
I’ve changed for the better over the past few years, but I’ve done it without any help from a corrupt system that locks people up rather than treats them. It’s an injustice not to provide any opportunity for meaningful change. If we as a society would promote healing instead of judgment, rehabilitation instead of punishment, the entire country would be better off for it.
Dedicated to Shawn McKenna; died 2020 from overdose.