The Tennessee private prison where I’ve been incarcerated since 2016 has long maintained that the supply of contraband drugs here is mainly brought in by visitors. But for most of the past two years, all visitors have been barred from entering the facility, yet the flow of drugs didn’t stop. It increased, and so did the frequency of overdoses. The only people coming in and out were staff.
They come and go so quickly these days. Hustle as hard as they can, then quit.
Over the course of my 25 years of incarceration, it’s always been the case that staff brought in most of the drugs. Usually corrections officers (COs), who maintain the most direct contact with prisoners. They come and go so quickly these days. Hustle as hard as they can, then quit.
Low pay makes contraband an attractive business for COs. Understaffing allows them to easily bring in just about anything without being caught. And a ban on visitors means any competition they did face has been eliminated, giving them total control of a lucrative market.
Contraband slips in tucked under hair, between breasts, under a belly, up a body cavity, even taped to the inside of their glasses. Staff can smuggle in just about any form of substance—pills, powder, soaked paper.
All prices are at least double what they were two years ago. A thimble of heroin, or at least what’s supposed to be heroin, goes for $320. For methamphetamine, $100. Even a postage stamp-sized paper of K2 is usually around $20. Cigarettes were $2 each before the pandemic. Now, they’re $5.
By my count, four prisoners have died of overdose in the past year.
Overdose had already been increasing for years, but now you see medical staff using Narcan on a prisoner two or three times a week. COs and other staff are supposed to be trained to use it too, though I haven’t personally seen them do so. By my count, four prisoners have died of overdose in the past year.
Staff overdose has increased, too. There’s at least one such incident every couple of months. I’ve witnessed three staff—two COs and a counselor—overdose while on the clock. Medical staff hit them with Narcan and they get carted off, not to return again. The story you hear is that some prisoner must have laced their drink or food. “It had to be an inmate responsible.”
The tragic irony is that in the midst of all these overdoses, the prison is swimming in Suboxone. It’s probably the easiest banned substance of all for staff to smuggle in; paper-thin, flexible. An eighth of a strip—1 mg—is $10.
Prisoners snort or inject it. If no needles can be acquired from diabetic prisoners, who are paid to hustle them back after they’re done using them for insulin, homemade ones are fashioned out of pens. The state of Tennessee does not provide prisoners who have opioid use disorder with medication, but it certainly can’t be said that Department of Corrections doesn’t provide prisoners with Suboxone.
I’m sure the administration has known for years that the biggest drug dealers in prisons like mine aren’t the people locked up for it. But acknowledging that their employees are responsible for the drugs—and by extension, the overdoses—would cause a public relations nightmare and further loss of staff, neither of which they can afford. Two Corrections employees have been arrested on contraband charges in March 2022 alone.
Since around the beginning of this year, a limited number of visitors have been able to make appointments for half-day visits. The visitor ban hadn’t applied just to families and friends. It had also banned the volunteers who led religious programs, AA or NA groups, and important reintegration classes.
A unit of 128 guys with no visitors, no outside air, no activities, is just waiting for overdose and death.
The idea that visitors brought in most of the drug supply came from prison officials, of course.
Many of my neighbors will instruct each other on how to notify their loved ones should something happen; we don’t trust prison officials to do it appropriately. I’ve watched someone’s body be covered and taken away, and then had to call his mother.
The idea that visitors brought in most of the drug supply came from prison officials, of course. Even before COVID, it resulted in tighter restrictions and unnecessary hardships being placed on prisoners and our loved ones.
When our visitor wants to eat with us, we can’t even go with them to the vending machines or microwave, for fear that food is seen as just a pretext to transfer drugs. The visitor must run back and forth from the prisoner to the machine and the microwave while the prisoner sits alone at the table. This takes up valuable minutes that could be spent together.
All our mail arrives with the stamps ripped off, and often some of the letter itself ripped off with it. It costs us letters splashed with perfume from our partners, or crayon drawings from our kids. When they visit, no long hugs or kisses.
Photograph via Pennsylvania Department of Corrections